It’s a funny time for everyone. It’s also a time of opportunity for those of us with reactive dogs and dogs who struggle with walks, an opportunity for social distancing where people actually comply.
So many times I see people walking a dog who is struggling, and that person doesn’t even know how badly their dog is suffering. They might wrap their dog’s face up in Halti’s and march their dog along. They may mistake fear, particularly the fight response as naughty behaviour, I saw someone the other day hitting her dog on the head with a food filled Greggs paper bag – blaming the dog for his fear; whilst simultaneously walking him through a busy town with cars passing within 50cm of him (pre-lockdown)
People often miss the signs that their dog isn’t coping. Symptoms such as dropped tail, ears pulled right back, dipped head and vigilant behaviour. Those are pretty subtle if you don’t know how dogs communicate. If the dog reacts overtly to their stressed state they might bark, lunge, and jump up grabbing the lead and hands. Let’s be crystal clear; a dog who does these things is stressed not misbehaving. This dog isn’t coping and because of their insistent human and the lead attached to them – they can’t leave the situation.
I would wager a bet that dogs are doing this up and down the land and being blamed for it. Many might be being punished. Taken into a place they can’t cope with then punished for their fear and the behavioural response it creates. That’s a bit mean isn’t it.
The most wonderful thing though is that the only thing a dog needs in this situation initially is space. The bigger the space around him, the lower his stress level becomes, the more he is able to respond with awareness and the calmer his behaviour becomes.
Some dogs might be so worried about walks that they launch into stress behaviours the moment they leave the house. They might start barking on the doorstep, their ears might pull back and they start to panic. An emotional and stress based response that will last the entire walk. These dogs need even more space until their stress abates. They might need to and benefit from staying at home for a week – two weeks or more. Not all dogs benefit from walks, particularly if those walks make them more aroused than they did in the house. These dogs might benefit from sniffing for treats in their own home, their own garden, their safe space three times a day. From problem solving at home to build their confidence. As soon as their body and mind stops seeing the outside world as inevitable, they start to really relax. They might benefit from doing this for a while then starting shorter, slower, quieter walks to relearn what happens outside the home.
So if your dog reacts to things outside the home and you are still walking them in lockdown, have a little think about whether you need to. And I don’t mean ignore them instead, I mean do something else. Use that time to teach your dog that they can do new things, that they can solve problems and that they are safe at home and build their self-belief. Build up their resilience at home then when the world gets back to how it was (or even before if they are ready) start to rebuild their habits outside too, and life will be better for all of you.