Outdoor Anxiety

August 9, 2017
hello world!

It never fails. I put Zeke's harness on, leash him up, get out the front door, and boom. There's one of my neighbors walking his dog at the EXACT. SAME. TIME. It honestly doesn't matter what time I walk him. Sometimes I fall asleep on the couch until late and Zeke doesn't get his last walk until 1am. I think, what are the odds that anyone else will be walking their dog at this time of night?

Sure enough, Zeke and I step out the front door, and there's my next door neighbor with his Cavalier King Charles. At 1am? Really???

So why does it matter if anyone else is walking their dog at the same time? Because Zeke is incredibly anxious and reactive when he sees (or even hears) other dogs outside. The moment he sees another dog when we're on a walk, or even just hears the jingle of an ID tag on a collar, he goes ballistic, barking, lunging, whining, and doing just about everything else one wishes their dog wouldn't do in public.

If this sounds at all familiar to you, read on.

Dogs are reactive outdoors for two main reasons: fear (or anxiety), and frustration. According to the trainers at Your Dog's Friend, an award-winning training facility in Maryland, dogs can bark and lunge at other dogs because they are scared and attempting to keep other dogs away from themselves (and from you) by acting aggressively. To a dog trapped on a leash, barking and lunging is the only available defense. Alternatively, they may want to play, and the barking may be a sign of frustration due to being hindered by the leash.

Whatever the reason, to paraphrase Mr. Miyagi, "Daniel-san, best defense, no be there." The best, if not easiest, way to avoid the problem, is to walk your dog in places where you are less likely to encounter other dogs. If you are frequently walking your dog in a high traffic area, try taking them to a less used hiking trail, or try a different path through your neighborhood. Alternatively, if that isn't an option, you can use the terrain to your advantage. If you see another dog coming, walk your dog behind a parked car, or go the other direction (I actually use both of these techniques all the time to great effect).

How you react is just as important as how your dog reacts. If you become anxious and yell at your dog, and yank on the leash, you're only making things worse. You are increasing your dog's anxiety level. The best solution is positive reinforcement (more information on positive training below). Bring treats with you on your walk. Whenever you and your dog see another dog approaching in the distance, stop and give your dog a treat. Continue to give your dog treats until the other dog is no longer in the picture (you may be giving your dog a lot of treats, so break them up in to very small pieces!). This will teach your dog that good things happen when other dogs are around. If your dog is highly reactive, you can even start giving treats earlier in the walk, before he or she spots another dog. This will help your dog keep his or her attention on you before the other dog even enters the picture.

Another option, one with scientific studies to back it up, is the ThunderShirt. The ThunderShirt is a velcro vest that applies constant, gentle pressure to your dog's chest, a sensation which most dogs find comforting and reassuring.

Most importantly, remember to have fun on your walks. This is a special time for your dog. You are together, exploring new territory, getting out of the house, enjoying the fresh air. Make the most of it. Approach walks with a positive attitude, and your dog will pick up on it.

These tips and way more helpful information are available at the Your Dog's Friend website. Your Dog's Friend is a positive dog training organization that uses proven, evidence-based and humane training methods. Positive dog training, as opposed to punishment-based training, is the concept of rewarding your dog for his or her good behavior, rather than punishing (or "correcting") them for their bad behavior. The idea, above, of giving your dog treats when they encounter another dog to associate other dogs with positive rewards, is an example of positive training. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior endorses positive dog training as the most effective method of training your dog. Your Dog's Friend's website is a gold mine of positive training information.

Additional information:

The Dumb Friends League has tips on how to reduce anxiety in dogs.

The Animal Humane Society has information on minimizing barkingleash aggression, and socializing your dog.

Hopefully you find this information as helpful as I did. I'm on my way home to walk Zeke and try some of these suggestions right now. It's a beautiful evening out there! Get out there and enjoy it with your four-legged family members!

Written by Sergio Di Martino, RVT at Hill's Veterinary Hospital