Help your reactive dog deal with their anxiety

This is about a journey I took – and I hope that this story plus the advice I'll give at the end will help with your reactive or aggressive dog.

I was travelling for work. I can't remember the subject of the meeting but our customers needed me to be there to share my technical expertise with them. The project manager, Dave, was attending the same meeting as I was.

We were travelling by plane to Heathrow and weren't sitting near each other on the flight. As the plane came down to land – the part of flights that I hate the most – it suddenly dropped in the air, hit the runway, causing many sharp intakes of breath and one or two screams and then took off again, climbing back up into the sky so that we were once again surrounded by clouds.

There was silence for a moment and lots of tense people. Then the captain started speaking to us.

“Sorry about that. Wind making things a bit difficult. Please everybody stay seated and keep your seatbelts on. We'll attempt another landing shortly and hopefully will get the plane on the ground.”

This announcement was followed immediately by a man behind me unsnapping his seatbelt and getting to his feet. An alarmed looking member of the flight crew also undid her seatbelt and went to the man.

“Are you okay, sir? Please put your seatbelt on and sit down again.”

“No I am not okay,” the man said, “I'm a very nervous traveller and I want to know what's happening.”

He sounded angry. He was shouting and his voice was shaking too. Aggression is a common response to fear and there was no doubt that this man was frightened. The person from the flight crew spoke to him in soothing tones until he sat down and put his seatbelt on. Sitting down with your seatbelt on is the only thing you can do really when a flight isn't going so well – getting up and moving around is almost always a bad idea.

I was absolutely terrified. Completely convinced we were all going to die imminently. We were now unexpectedly in the air above Heathrow when we were meant to be on the ground – I was sure another plane would hit us.

Obviously as I'm writing to you now I didn't die. The pilot landed the plane on the next attempt without any issues at all. Everything was fine. I was still terrified and not sure if I'd ever be able to get on a plane again – but I was on the ground. My immediate response to that fear was that I was going to avoid being in that situation again. I suspect that had anybody tried to tell me to get on another plane right then – I would have become as verbally aggressive as the man on the plane.

We got off the plane and were standing next to another man who said. “I was sitting next to the wing. I'm telling you, the engine nearly hit the ground there. We nearly all died.”

I turned to Dave and said. “I think I'm going to have to get a train home.”

Dave is an excellent project manager and he is skilled at dealing calmly with things not going to plan and with sudden changes. He said. “I think we should text Euan and ask him how bad it was.”

Our colleague, Euan used to be an air traffic controller so he has lots of knowledge about plane travel. We did that and Euan sent back a series of reassuring texts about how we hadn't really been in any danger. Although it had seemed alarming to us, they have good procedures in place to deal with these sorts of things and that really it was all fine.

I felt reassured enough that when it was time to come home the next day, I got on the flight we were booked on. I wasn't delighted but I could do it.

I'm writing about this because I know it can be difficult to deal with a person or a dog displaying anxiety. Anxious dogs often act out in the same way as the man sitting behind me. They become aggressive or they over react to the experience or they refuse to move. It's behaviour that makes life hard for the people who care for them.

Often they experience lots of unpleasant things being done to them to stop them doing the things that help them cope. Or sometimes they live terribly limited lives because their carers work hard to avoid anything that makes them anxious.

I think that there is another way. In my experience, my anxiety never really goes away. I don't feel okay about the many things that worry me. What helps me to feel that way and be able to not let it stop me doing things was demonstrated well by Dave.

Time to think and consider helps – which is why texting with Euan helped so much. We talked about it as well during the dinner we had with some of our customers. A bit of time helps for sure.

Knowing that there are options is a good thing too. That time, I felt reassured enough to get on the plane to come home. Another time I may not have done and I have no doubt that if I was still really scared about the plane that Dave would have been fine with me getting a train home.

Just feeling listened to is an enormous help. Nothing ramps anxiety up for me more than somebody telling me there is nothing to worry about. That Dave listened and we did something about it – we contacted Euan – really helped.

These are things we can do for our dogs as well.

Give them time to think and consider what's going on. Time is needed too if they have been successful in dealing with something stressful. Down time to rest and recover is really important when dealing with anxiety.

Understand that their capacity to cope will be different on different days and that sometimes they won't be able to do the thing they did easily the day before - and that it isn't a disaster when that happens.

Showing that they are listened to. Take some action if the dog wants to move away or shows signs of being worried. Move away if that is what they want or sit with the dog or give them a safe space to hide in.

I believe that you can't always remove anxiety – some things are just going to stay a bit worrying. What can be done, though, is to improve an individual's ability to deal with their anxiety so that it doesn't continue to overwhelm them.

If you enjoyed this and want to hear more from me.

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Tracey McLennan

Tracey is the author of Canine aggression: Rehabilitating an aggressive dog with kindess and compassion and founder of Best Dog Learning and Stuff Ltd. She has an honours degree in Canine behaviour and training, is a Tellington TTouch practitioner, and is an ACE Advanced Tutor.

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