Curing Dog Anxiety



Disclaimer: I am by no means a professional dog trainer. I am a dog behaviour enthusiast and have done a lot of research, trying and testing into what works best for my dog’s particular case. I would recommend doing your own research to supplement the advice given here, and pay particular attention to your dog’s individual needs, as causation and appropriate action can vary greatly.

The Background
9 years ago, I fell in love. I was 14 years old, and after a year of searching for the right dog for our family, I finally met my Cocker Spaniel, Peppa.

When we first met, Peppa was 6 months old and not for sale. My mother had taken me to see a breeder so we could investigate whether a cocker spaniel would be the right fit for our family, and Peppa (then called Sally) was one of the dogs that was meant to continue the breeding line. The problem was, she was mental, and in 6 months the breeder hadn’t even been able to teach her basic manners, let alone commands. I didn’t know this when I first met her. All I knew was that she had a great big smile on her face and a spirit that shone from her body like sunshine. We bonded immediately, and in 20 minutes I had stopped her obsessive jumping, taught her to sit and how to (politely) play fetch without needing to chase her around the garden to get the ball back.

In all honesty I think I was attracted to her wild and excitable nature in the first place, and a fear of crushing that spirit is why I unknowingly allowed her behaviour to degenerate into insecurity driven aggression towards strange dogs, but more on that later.


The Problem(s)
At that young time in my life, the only other dog experience I had had was with our Jack Russel, JR, who is a calm, confident and incredibly loyal little dog. When we were kids, he used to come to the park with my sisters and I to play with all the other kids in the street. All except for one, that is. This one little boy was a bully, he would walk up to us with a threatening demeanour, and JR knew instantly that he was trouble. He would snarl and try and nip at the boy’s ankles if he came too close. As a young child, I will admit that I liked the feeling of being protected by my dog from this bully, but I didn’t realise at the time just how unhealthy a dynamic I was creating, and the knock on effect it would eventually have on Peppa.

Fast forward a few years to when Peppa joined our family, and the “pack” dynamic quickly settled to be:

  • J.R. – The top dog. Calm, confident & loyal, JR felt the need to protect his family (three young girls) when our parents weren’t around
  • Me – The owner. Allowed JR to play the protector role (and thereby become the pack leader) as it made me feel safer. My insecurity fed this protective nature, and caused Peppa to have a lack of trust that I could take care of her if anything were ever to happen
  • Peppa – The Follower. Submissive to both JR and myself, but viewed JR as the top dog. Her lack of confidence in me caused her to be insecure, and react out of fear towards other dogs.

This resulted in the following being a standard interaction when a strange dog approached:

  1. JR and Peppa would walk in front of me, pulling on the lead
  2. When another dog approached, Peppa became nervous
  3. Peppa’s lack of confidence sparked JR’s protective instincts
  4. JR’s protective aggression sparked Peppa’s fear based aggression
  5. Choas insued

And this all unfolded in less than 3 seconds. Sound familiar?

The Mistakes
After doing a great deal of research into how to help my dogs, I came to realise some harsh truths. If you are reading this as the owner of a dog with poor social skills, you will most likely need to realise these truths aswell. The number one thing I came to learn in my research was that in 99.9% of cases, the problem is with how you interact with your dog, not with the dog itself. I.e. my dogs problems were my fault, not theirs.

Some of the main mistakes I came to realise I had been making, included:

  1. Letting my dogs lead (e.g. walking infront of me on the leash, going through doors before me, jumping out of the car before I say so)
  2. Letting Peppa in particular run wild off leash and pull on leash, because I didn’t want to crush her spirit and enjoyment by forcing her to walk calmly
  3. I became nervous and tense when another dog approached, which was communicated through the tension on the lead
  4. I got angry and frustrated when we had an altercation with another dog, adding to their stress and negative experience
  5. I used verbal expression to try and communicate with my dogs that what they were doing was wrong (um, hello? Dogs don’t communicate with words…)
  6. I encouraged hyperactivity by revving up the dogs before going on walks (e.g “shall we go for a walk?! Walkies Pep! Come on then!”)
  7. and many, many more

The Solutions (yes, plural)

  1. Understand the pack dynamic, and block negative communications. Your pack is your entire family, not just your dogs. Through experience training Peppa, I noticed that she was a lot more attentive and less reactive when JR was absent, as she was not able to react to his protective behaviour. This absence helped to block her from going into an anxious state of mind. I therefore began walking twice a day, once with Peppa on her own for training, and then again with JR once she was tired ( and consequentially less reactive). Training her to stay calm, mean JR did not get protective, etc. etc.
  2. Teaching respect on the leash. Your dog should never walk in front of you. Once they are in front, you loose power and are holding them back from what they want to get at, rather than walking together as a pack. Teaching them to walk to heal was key to building respect and Peppa’s confidence. Contrary to my previous ideas, the extra structure/discipline actually made her so much happier, as she finally understood what I wanted, and how to make me happy.
  3. Do not put on the lead, or leave the house, until all dogs are completely calm. Please note, calm does not mean sitting up straight, with an alert look on their face, waiting in anticipation. Just because your dog is stationary, that doesn’t mean they are calm. Wait until they are fully relaxed to put on the lead. This may add an extra 5 minutes, or even an extra 15 initially, to your pre-walk ritual, but as they learn what you want, it will soon become instantaneous. If you begin the walk calm, it will be easier to keep that state of mind, rather than trying to create it in a world of distractions.
  4. Expose your dog(s) to other dogs frequently, and intercept negative behaviour early. This bit is hard for people with unsocial dogs, especially when they are bigger, more powerful breeds. But I genuinely believe that exposure, and the creation of positive memories with other dogs is essential to them becoming more social. The number one thing which changed the game for Peppa’s behaviour was employing the techniques of Cesar Milan (i.e The Dog Whisperer, check him out), and giving a short sharp correction before her anxiety was able to escalate, either in the form of a yank sideways on the leash, or a “touch” to snap the brain out of its train of thought. This absolutely is not intended to hurt the dog, it merely creates a distraction and allows you to regain control over the dogs attention
  5. Practicing respect and trust through other activities. For example, teaching them to leave their food mid meal so I can take it away for a period of time, teaching the “back” command so that they give me space while preparing meals, walking throgh doors etc., practicing basic obedience training, and teaching a release command to allow them to run ahead on a long leash, and then return to “heal” when called.
  6. Take the dogs to an off-leash dog park, and let well adjusted dogs teach them manners. This may sound terrifying to some dog owners, and I would absolutely not recommend it unless you can read your dogs body language very well, and can go in with a confident, “I’m the boss” mentality. Your dog should be able to walk past another dog on the lead without issue before you introduce them to this type of environment, and you need to be educated in dog psychology so as not to cause panic over normal dog behaviour.  For example, on our first trip to the dog park, there was an young Labrador and older German Shepard. The Labrador was being far too boisterous and barking at everyone, so the German Shepard snarled and bit at the lab to correct it. This was not an act of aggression and it did not end in a dog fight. Watching their interactions it was clear that the GS was giving a correction to teach the young Lab how to behave around the pack. Something that is very difficult to see if you are a nervous owner, terrified of your surroundings, waiting in anticipation to tear your dog away at any sign of trouble.

 Things to remember

  • Do not get angry or frustrated, it’s ok if your dog makes mistakes, don’t punish them or you will create an even more negative experience surrounding strange dogs
  • Do not touch, speak to, or reassure your dog when they are showing signs of anxiety/fear. As much as you may want to reach out to your little fur-baby and make it all ok, you are actually making it worse by reinforcing the behaviour and creating a positive association with that anxious state of mind
  • Set your dog up for success – take little steps at a time and help them build their confidence with little wins
  • Bring in the help of friends, schedule doggy play dates for controlled socialisation
  • Use your body, rather than your voice, to communicate with the dog
  • Never let your dog walk in front of you, as this puts them in the position of pack leader
  • Be aware of the dynamic between your other dogs (if you have them) – is the anxious dog really the problem?
  • Dogs are not humans. They need to have a clear leader to put their faith in, they are hard wired to be this way, and you are not doing them any favours by letting them run wild
  • Do not leave the house in an excited or anxious state, wait until they are calm
  • If a strange dog approaches you out of nowhere, loosen your grip on the leash and try to be calm. This will communicate there is nothing to fear and stop your dogs from feeling trapped.

This is a long term process, which cannot be cured over night, but it is 100% possible. Keep at it, and your little pooch with thank you!

Here is a little video of Pep socialising on a community walk last year to prove it!  (Peppa is the Gold Cocker Spaniel greeting everyone)

I’d love to hear about your experiences, success/failure stories and personal tips in the comment section below – you never know who you may be helping!


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