Dogs. They love the great outdoors even more than we do. Walk any day into a park, and there are dogs joyously waiting for balls to be thrown, running around with family members, and just living in the moment.
But do all dogs enjoy going out? Many people would be surprised to learn that there are dogs that feel so vulnerable about being outside that they would happily avoid it.
This situation can take many months to surface, or in the case of rescue dogs, it can be triggered by a small incident in the initial days after rehoming. The same can happen to young dogs and puppies due to overstimulation and meeting boisterous dogs that lack social skills.
Our expectations and the needs of our dogs are often at odds. Communication is very powerful, but only if humans are paying attention. This hard wiring in our brains can stop us from observing what our dogs are trying to tell us. The exclamation “Oh, but my dog loves this” is often widely heard, but if this is examined, we might realise that dogs do not always share this sentiment.
We owners often witness incidents without thinking about their impact on our dogs. If we are sidetracked by phones or other walkers, confrontations are often missed, and the result is that our dogs can start to lose confidence and trust in us. We have to be "in the moment" to make sure that our dogs are enjoying the experience of being outside.
Anxiety is not something that “just happens”; it can be a slow burner. Pain is also another major contributory factor.
It is effortless to stick labels onto certain behaviours. If a dog we know well has become very reluctant on walks or has “suddenly” become defensive around other dogs, the conclusion may not always be the right one. Many owners immediately react to their dog if he begins to bark, growl or refuses to move when out walking, whether that be confusion, irritation or frustration.
Dogs never do anything without reason. It is not in their nature to suddenly become lazy, disobedient or aggressive, but if things become very difficult to deal with, they can and will exhibit extreme behaviours. Fear and worry will have an effect both physically and mentally.
The brain is complex, and we are now beginning to understand the implications of changes to brain chemistry. The limbic system profoundly affects behaviour and emotions, and fear can cause an area of the brain called the amygdala to enlarge, which means the brain's more “rational areas” are bypassed.
The daily grind of being presented with threatening situations can be incredibly powerful and immediate to a worried dog. As each day passes, this can become compounded because of continual practice and rehearsal. Practice indeed makes perfect. This applies equally to bad things as it does to good things.
It is not uncommon for an owner of a dog now repeating "unwanted behaviours" to comment on the fact that their dog is progressively worsening. Once exhibited, any behaviour is likely to escalate because the dog is unable to change his reaction unless the owner understands the consequences and offers the correct help to diffuse it.
We must begin by observing odd behaviours because they are a valuable indication of how our dogs feel. Dogs communicate continuously, but we are failing them unless we become skilled at reading body language, including the set of the tail, any tightening around the mouth, or the tension in the body.
In my opinion, one of the most critical calming signals is often overlooked. Freezing is never insignificant, and in actuality, it is the prelude to fight or flight. If a dog is on a lead while walking and feels compromised, he has very few choices.
Freezing can be an incremental pause or a very prolonged statue-like state. Either of these can signal uncertainty and hesitation; sometimes, the dog will move on almost immediately after realising that he is not in danger, or it might signal that a dog is close to panic.
It is normally a reaction to something novel or new, and while it can occur with any dog, it is common in recently rehomed rescue dogs. In this instance, it is essential that reassurance is provided and the dog is allowed to stand and process whatever has sparked the uncertainty. Hurrying a dog out of a freeze is a negative thing, and it is easy to stifle curiosity and arouse fear. If the worst happens and the dog takes flight and escapes, it can be many days before he is found. If the fear pathways to the brain are be activated it is challenging to reverse the process.
Every owner needs to be tuned into their dogs’ antennae, allowing them to look at and process the world around them.
Not all dogs have the same triggers. It is not unusual for fireworks to figure very prominently in many dogs’ minds, and phobias of loud noises can develop quickly, creating severe negative associations. For example, owners are often slow to link their dog's dislike of walking in the dark with the fear of fireworks. This may extend to extreme weather conditions such as thunder, humid weather, or wind and rain.
Fear is an innate thing in all of us; it doesn't always make sense, but without the ability to feel fear, life would be very dangerous, but our dogs are often powerless to make their own decisions and instead rely on us to make the right choices. Any dog clearly unhappy about walking out of the door will become steadily worse unless we take it seriously and consider the continual demands of being forced into uncomfortable scenarios.
Worry and anxiety activate stress chemicals that put the body into sympathetic mode. While we have established that they can be life savers, they can also have a destructive effect on the body if they stay switched on indefinitely.
During acute stress, our brains are unable to learn anything new. Using aversives and punitive methods will always fail, resulting in more distress, can lead to learnt helplessness, and never provide long-term solutions. Under no circumstances should these problems be tackled with aversives.
Anyone who advocates anti-bark collars, forcing “sits” in scary situations, or repeating the word no has never thought about the realities of being afraid. Negatives do not make positives.
The longer the history, the more significant its impact on the dog.
It is possible to start making the dog's world safe again. What is needed is the feeling of security; home is a vital part of rehabilitation. It begins with very small steps and allows the dog to choose whether he wants to venture outside and for how long.
Space, peace, comfort, and activities that lower stress levels are also integral to recovery. Instead of being constantly challenged to go on a walk; treat searches in the garden or around the house should be offered as alternative activities, as should a selection of places to rest and sleep, because an anxious dog is a restless dog. Sleep deprivation is a serious problem when dealing with anxiety issues.
Another thing that can be added to a dog's day to help lower stress levels is chewing, which is an important activity for all of our dogs, but not all chews are suitable. Rawhide and artificially flavour-enhanced bone-shaped nylon chews should not be used; healthy options are essential and include pizzles, beef scalp or moon bones. The amount of sugar in a dog's diet should also be reviewed and kept to acceptable and appropriate levels. Training also needs to take a back seat as expectations can elevate stress.
Our fast-moving world has victims, and our dogs are fast becoming statistics. This is scary because so many owners are led to believe that extreme behaviour is bad behaviour and needs to be addressed with various punitive techniques-this is quite obviously wrong.
Resisting the lure of the outside world is not natural or healthy, so on realising that something is very wrong in our dog’s world, the best we can do for our dogs is to watch over them and to make sure we treat them with the kind of compassion that helps restore confidence and joy. This must be part of our lives with our dogs.
Promoting security and safety and stepping in when needed is part of our role, with the prime objective being to never put them in a situation that initiates extreme discomfort or fear.