Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Over-Arousal and Fear Anxiety

Hubby Mike and I took a couple of days off and went on a short road trip to explore a part of Nova Scotia, the Eastern Shore, we haven't been yet. Of course Will and Davie came along.
As seasoned travelers, both dipped their paws in the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean and left pee-mail in each and every province except Newfoundland/Labrador, they were perfect. I think their highlights were when we shared our smoked eel we bought at Krauch's in Tangier - it was the best smoked eel I had in some 20 years or so - and the couple of hours we spent hiking in Taylor Head Provincial Park - one of the nicest parks and beaches we found yet.

Whenever we travel, we print a list of dog friendly accommodations that are along our route. And typically we discover a place where we really want to stay - and it's usually not on our list. That never stops us from asking anyway if we can get a room with our two dogs, and more often than not the answer is yes, especially at the end of the season. We stayed at a nice place in Quebec, a wonderful Bed and Breakfast in Lunenburg, and were lucky again this time. Mike and I fell head over heels in love with Sherbrook and were able to book a room at the St. Mary Lodge, located just a couple of blocks from the Historic Village, which is a dog friendly museum, by the way. That was our highlight of the trip.

Unfortunately, Davie wasn't as thrilled. In fact, she was downright panicked and all she wanted to do was to leave the room as soon as we entered it. She hyperventilated and broke her down-stay a couple of times to stand in front of the closed door, staring at it.

Many of my clients dog's problem behaviors are rooted in stress due to fear and/or over- arousal. Dogs that freak out are not responding to known commands, lose owner attention, won't take treats and appear inconsolable. The dog is "out-of-her-mind" and the logical solution is to guide her back into it. And the only way to do that is to calm her. Not the calm-submissive state Cesar Millan talks about; the artificial one he coerces with correction and intimidation, but an authentic state of offered and worry-free, tranquil relaxation. My way to guide a dog into it is to have her lie down, and then sit beside her, having a hand on her body, or softly stroke, or touch her in a way she finds familiar and relaxing. Anything else, in my opinion, increases the arousal or anxiety and is thereby counterproductive.
I can only guess why Davie was so unnerved. But she was able to lie on request. Instead of commanding a stay and walking away again, I followed my own advice and she relaxed quickly and feel asleep, and was able to manage the room after that.

Davie's panic was momentary, but many of the dogs I meet are in a chronic state of hyper-arousal. One of the reasons is too much daily activity and not enough rest. Again, I am not suggesting a dog always has to be calm-submissive. There is nothing wrong with excited, goofy and exuberant happiness at times, but it is harmful to be permanently stressed.

Milan Kundera writes: "To sit with a dog on a hillside... is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring - it was peace."
We humans always have to do something; be active and productive and we drag our dogs into the same lifestyle - with the same results that they are restless and fidgety and unable to relax on a hillside, commute with nature and calmly observe in a naturally relaxed state of mind.
When the dog is too charged up, owners either try to redirect into calm behaviors by practicing tricks or structured sniffing, or they correct into submission.
I find both methods not very effective. With the former the dog is still stimulated - even low key stimulation is stimulation; the latter does not lead to authentic relaxation. Anything forced is never real and healthy.

The stressed dog, regardless if it is temporarily and chronically, due to too much exercise and activities or too much exposure to environmental triggers, has to be given plenty opportunities to rest and do nothing. In some cases, that has to be guided by the owner in the beginning, in the same way I guided Davie back into feeling safe.
Intersperse walking, training and activities with sitting on the hillside with your dog, or on the beach, or on the carpet in your home, and do nothing but enjoy each other's company. If your dog is too antsy to do that, so much more the reason to practice it. Make it a daily training exercise and use yummy rewards (at first) when your dog settles beside you and relaxes. Reward the emotion, not the action.


  1. Hi Silvia,

    I've also come across the advice to act 'normally' when a dog is nervous, to not reward the dog's nervousness with attention. I've even heard that we can take a slightly mocking tone with the dog - saying something like, 'what are you worried about, you silly pooch?' The rationale, as I understand it, is that soothing the dog just reinforces the dog's fear - tells him that there is something to be afraid of. What do you think about this? Is there a place for this kind of strategy with nervous dogs?

  2. Yes, absolutely, Zofia. I will explain the issue about ignoring fear in detail in a future blog, but in essence, a dog who is fearful has a certain emotion and that will not disappear just because she is ignored. All what happens then is that the dog feels without help from the owner/group and is forced to take matters into her own paws - generally lunging and barking. In addition, if the dog communicated calmly, for example with eye-contact and connected to the owner when the fear trigger appears, and is ignored, she also unlearns to connect to the owner.
    Hope that makes sense.
    Assuring a dog that things are safe and her feeling are acknowledged is not the same as feeling sorry and fawning over a dog. That I do not recommend.

  3. Yes, this makes sense, Silvia. I think I can see the difference between calmly assuring a nervous pooch that he is safe, vs. making him even more concerned with over-the-top reassurances. I look forward to learning more about this in your future posts :)