I regularly get asked how to treat anxiety in dogs. Dealing with nervous hounds requires a thorough understanding of their history, current situation, and medical status. Therefore, each case should be approached as unique and the solutions customised to suit the situation. However, here is one example of helping an anxious dog.
Case Study: A program of walking to calm an anxious dog
In this case study, I helped treat a dog with anxiety through a program of dog walking, desensitization, and counter-conditioning. You should be able to use and adapt the same techniques to calm your dog.
Bella* is a ten-year-old border collie x golden retriever who is adored by her owners. Her parents came to me because Bella had a nervous disposition and reactive behaviour in many situations. These traits had escalated over the years and in addition, Bella was afraid of strangers.
They had booked an overseas holiday and under the circumstances, didn’t want to send her to boarding kennels. Staying at a pet resort would only escalate her anxiety and dog minding in her own home was the preferred model of care. Thus Bella would need to get used to me so that I could mind her while her parents were away.
More about Bella
Bella is a rescue dog. Even at a young age, she was anxious and demonstrated anti-social behaviour towards people, dogs, and even other animals. The reasons for this initial behaviour were unknown as no history was available. Unfortunately, this behaviour had then become worse after she was attacked by two small dogs who were off their leashes. And further to this, compounded by an altercation with another pup at puppy school.
By the same token, Bella lives with an eleven-year-old Shih Tzu Maxie*. They enjoy a relatively harmonious relationship. So obviously an indication that her fear of other dogs can be managed.
Reducing anxiety in dogs
Her owners had looked at how to treat and reduce anxiety in dogs. They invested significant time and financial resources to achieve results. Here are some of the many positive actions they took to relieve Bella’s angst:
- Puppy school
- Regular Vet visits
- Dog training at home
- Dog behaviour expert
- Slowly introducing family, friends and visitors
- Walking with Bella
Despite all these measures to reduce the level of anxiety in their dog, the results were less than ideal.
All the above actions delivered mixed results. Bella would make some progress and then, unfortunately, she would relapse. When I first met Bella she demonstrated the following behaviour:
- Frantic barking at even the slightest real or imagined change in environment (e.g. cars, neighbour’s dogs, or people walking past the house)
- Barking and lunging at strangers, other dogs and even objects (like prams or skip bins) when out walking
- Also lunging and barking at friends and regular visitors to their home
- And of late, bouts of aggressive behaviour towards Maxie if a situation caused her angst
In fact, her nervous traits had become so embarrassing that one owner preferred not to walk her at all. Consequently, the owners then limited who they would invite into their home. Along with the now growing concern that Bella may bite family or strangers. When visitors did come over, the owners would constantly watch Bella, or else lock her away so that they could relax.
My initial focus was to understand Bella’s behaviour in the context of her history and experiences. Then to tease out the triggers that would increase her nervousness. Followed by implementing proven steps to relieve anxiety in dogs. Knowing that in the short term, I had to help her to accept me. And over time, hopefully, to develop a deeper connection with me.
To start with, Bella, myself and the owner for a walk. I observed her behaviour, both inside and outside the home. Eventually also testing her willingness to walk with me. She was anxious but allowed me to walk by her side while on the leash.
Regular dog walking program
We agreed on a regular dog walking program for Bella on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday every week. In addition to the leash attached to Bellas’ collar, I put her in a harness for walks. This provided a kinder and more secure means to manage her lunging behaviour.
We wanted to achieve the following with this dog walking program:
- Bella to become accustomed to me
- Increase her level of exercise to burn off her nervous energy and reduce cortisol
- Improve her fitness and the production of serotonin (the ‘Happy’ hormone)
- Slowly and gently expose Bella to people, animals, situations and, objects that caused anxiety (desensitization)
- And ultimately, to allow me to enter her home on my own.
Results of the regular dog walking program
Initially, Bella was not happy to see me for our dog walking dates and her owner had to put on her leash and harness. However, in stark contrast, once we left the house, Bella would be exceptionally obedient as we set off on our walk. Walking to heel on my command, stopping and sitting before we crossed roads and, waiting when requested to do so. Her training was very sound.
However, this training disappeared if we were approached by people walking or running, or if we came across dogs enclosed in their yard or out walking with their owners. Then Bella would lunge toward them, barking and straining at the harness and, churning around on the leash. She would not stop this reactive behaviour until the object of her anxiety had passed. It took all my strength to restrain her and get her moving forward on her walk again.
Building confidence in anxious dogs
To build Bella’s confidence in herself and in me as a walking partner I would:
- Walk past the source of anxiety at a great distance
- Or move over to the other side of the road. And if that wasn’t possible, walk down a driveway to wait until the source of angst had passed
- Maintain the walking pace, repeating her heel command in a calm, quiet but firm voice
- Stop only when Bella’s reactions and lunging were extreme
- Maintain a firm hold on the harness and repeating her heel command
- Begin to move forward again as soon as possible
- Moving my hand or leash in front of Bella’s line of vision. In order to momentarily break her eye contact with the source of anxiety
Our walks quickly became longer in duration and faster in pace. As a consequence, Bella also became more tired from all the exercise as the walking program progressed. She, therefore, had less energy to engage with sources of anxiety or lunge and bark at people and objects. This also meant she was calmer at home and for extended periods after her walks were completed. This prepared us to become bolder in our approach to situations that created anxiety for this canine.
Key to managing anxiety in dogs
Confident handling is a key element in managing anxiety in dogs. Bella soon understood that I was not afraid of the various situations that we encountered. And she would often look at an oncoming source of anxiety and then look up at me to see my reaction, or rather, lack thereof.
As we made more and more progress:
- I would assess Bella’s level of anxiety at the start of our walks
- When Bella was less anxious we would venture slightly closer to sources of anxiety
- Maintain the walking pace and repeat her heel command in a calm, quiet but firm voice
- Whenever possible I would talk in a calm and friendly voice to other dog owners or runners. While maintaining the walking momentum and ‘heel’ command
- The pace and distance of our walks has continued to increase over time. This means that Bella continues to be exposed to new situations and environments
The combination of a confident handler and carefully managing exposure to the situations that created anxiety in this dog were paying off. As a result, Bella was being desensitized to the things that had provoked angst and she was beginning to display the desired behaviour in these circumstances (counter-conditioning).
Each week of walking with Bella would bring about a change. Sometimes small, and then other weeks we would see more dramatic improvements. As a result, Bella soon became comfortable with me. Allowing me to make close physical contact, put on her harness and leash and even check her for paralysis ticks after the walk.
And where are we today?
So where are we today? Here is a summary of Bella’s current behaviour:
- Bella now walks calmly by my side
- Only on rare occasions will she react to passers-by or other dogs
- Her reaction is usually limited to a few anxious woofs
- Bella is now able to walk past homes with resident dogs barking, with barely more than a turn of her head
- She can walk down tight alleyways that join streets without becoming anxious about the dogs in the adjoining yards
- While she still reacts to visitors or strangers at her home, this is usually brief and she quickly settles down to sleep in their presence
Hear from Bella’s owners
You can hear what Bella’s owners have to say following her dog walking program.
“I am totally stunned how far Bella has progressed in confidence. We see it here at home as well. In the past, if we had friends or family over, we were always on guard with what Bella would do. She would look so innocent then snap at their faces. Last week Peter and l had a friend over who is quite loud This never sat well with Bella. She would never tolerate it and usually go on the attack. But this time she came over to him said her hellos and then sat in the sun.”
They also regularly comment on how much more relaxed Bella is at home. Less reactive to noises in the neighbourhood. As well as no longer pacing, checking doorways and general restlessness. Instead, now calm and settled and far less likely to react if she hears a noise.
Broader outcomes of treating anxiety in dogs
Effectively treating and reducing anxiety in this dog also had broader outcomes. In this case, not only did Bella’s behaviour at home and while out on walks improve. These improvements meant that her owners had resolved their concern over dog vacation care. They were able to head overseas having the peace of mind that both Bella and Maxie would be settled and content while I was minding them at home.
Further to this, the owners are now very comfortable about heading off for weekends away or staying overnight in Sydney to enjoy a show. This peace of mind also means they can have friends over more regularly and truly relax and enjoy their company. In a sense, they feel as if they have their life back because they aren’t constantly on high alert to manage the anxiety in their dog.
Regular walking with your pup is a great natural dog anxiety medication. Remember to check with your Vet first to make sure that your dog is suited for the walking program that you plan to implement. Your pooches breed, age and health status will all play a role in what they are capable of.
More information to help your dogs
I hope you have found some helpful points on how to treat anxiety in dogs in this case study. My passions include sharing information that will help you and your dogs, as well as your other pets. You can access more articles in the pet care advice section where I deal with topics like How to calm a dog during firework and Dog walking dangers: Paralysis ticks.
More free online resources are available to help you calm an anxious dog or get back on track when you get stuck. Here are some well-known trainers that share their methods:
After all the serious stuff you may like some light reading. Chronicles of Charming are quirky little dog walking short stories written for you to enjoy in less time than it takes to drink a cuppa!
*not Bella or Maxie’s real name.