Feeling or looking anxious is one of the many things that people with reactive dogs or aggressive dogs are shamed for.
“Your dog is anxious because you are.” “Relax. The tension makes them worse. Just relax.” “I can see how worried you are – no wonder your dog is barking at that jogger.”
They are told. Or.
“This is your fault. This problem would be fixed if you had more confidence.” “Walk with confidence and your dog will follow.”
I'm sure there are loads of others. Maybe you've had your own experiences with this sort of shaming.
Anyway – I know a thing or two about anxiety. Like some dogs I seem to have been born anxious. The carefree years that most people have when they are young and don't believe anything bad can happen have never been part of my experience. As a toddler I sat down on pavement edges to reach the road rather than stepping off the kerb and risk falling over.
At three, left in front of the TV while Mum cared for my younger brother, I watched a news bulletin about an old satellite with a deteriorating orbit, due to fall to the earth at some point the following week. Poor Mum subsequently had to coax and cajole me to leave the house for days afterward, convinced, as I was, that we would be squashed under mounds of metal falling from the sky. I would also scream so loudly every time Mum tried to go into the local wool shop that she was forced to leave me outside, and it wasn’t until I was old enough to talk that I explained that my fear centered around the shop’s decapitated head dummies modelling knitted hats and scarves, and resting on shelves rather than shoulders.
As a teenager, I lay awake for hours every night, muscles rigid with fear, sipping in air; too afraid to take normal breaths in case the sound of my breathing prevented me hearing the monster I was sure was creeping through the house. It is safe to say that anxiety has always been a part of my life.
I routinely have to talk myself into making journeys because I am utterly convinced that whatever mode of transport I am using will be involved in a horrible crash and that I'll be badly injured or killed.
Nothing happened to cause this. I have a lovely family and had a brilliant upbringing. I've never been abused or attacked or anything really. It really does seem to be just the way I was born.
I've spent years living with and learning about my anxiety – and my opinion on it is that anxiety when you live with a reactive dog is a good thing. It is something of a super power that you can use to enormous good. It only causes problems if the feeling has nowhere to go and just becomes overwhelming.
If you learn how to use anxiety, it can be incredibly useful. Anxiety will make you pay attention to your surroundings in a way that most people just don't. It will remind you to hold your lead properly, to look around you before you get your dog out of the car and to check your equipment for damage or signs of needing to be replaced.
It will make you able to be aware of changes in your dog's breathing and gait that may mean they are aware of a trigger for barking before you are.
You will quickly be able to learn where all the spots are that you can duck away and move quickly away from trouble on your regular spots. You will learn easily where are good sorts of places to take your dogs for walks. You will have a strong ability to judge distance and to spot situations where you can start to help your dog to change their perception of whatever it is they are reactive to.
If you can start to teach your dog simple things like moving with you away from trouble or sniffing on the ground for treats as dogs pass by, it gives the anxiety a purpose. So too does learning yourself about how to use food as a counter conditioning tool to help your dog feel happier around the things they bark at.
You can even teach your dog that the sharp intake of breathe that you may do when you see that thing that your dog barks at is a cue to look to you for a treat and then to move with you to safety.
You can – and should - keep on doing the checking for trouble, seeing all the possible things that could go wrong and planning walks carefully – all of that is enormously useful if you are walking with a reactive dog. Keep doing it. This gives you huge advantages in helping your dog.
Many years ago when I was walking with my beloved dog Calgacus in the early days after he had become aggressive toward other dogs, people would sometimes tell me I should relax to avoid him picking up on my tension. I always thought it was odd advice – and I always ignored it. He wasn't aggressive because I was tense. He was that way because of an ill advised progesterone injection. He was enormous and had attacked and very badly injured another dog. The last thing in the world that I should have been doing when out walking him was to relax.
I didn't relax until he'd been playful and non-aggressive with other dogs for years. There is no doubt in my mind that my anxious worrying about walks, picking thing over in my mind and being super careful are all big factors in why Calgacus was able to make such a brilliant recovery.
If there is something you are trying to train your dog to do and you are worried about being bitten by them – and that is the source of your anxiety – don't beat yourself up for the anxiety. It will help you enormously. You will break training down into tiny steps. You won't push forward too quickly. Your dog will love you for it.
My last words on how useful anxiety is are about keeping yourself safe and well. To care for a reactive dog can be tiring and stressful. Anxiety can help. I find that if I am feeling stressed, I get anxious about everything. I'll start checking that I've locked the door multiple times before I go out. I'll worry more than usual about bad things happening on walks. That's when I know I need a break. I need to do very little for a day or two. I need to talk to my friends. It is an unbelievably useful safety valve and one that has kept me healthy for many years.
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Hi - I'm Tracey
I am the author of Canine aggression: Rehabilitating an aggressive dog with kindess and compassion and founder of Best Dog Learning and Stuff Ltd. I specialise in helping people with dogs who have a high prey drive. I have an honours degree in Canine behaviour and training, am a Tellington TTouch practitioner, and an ACE Advanced Tutor. I am currently studying for an MSc in Applied Animal Behaviour and Training.
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