Walking a fearful or reactive dog…101

By: CHERYL VANVOORHIES M.ED

Anyone who has owned a fearful, anxious or reactive dog, knows how stressful it can be to take a walk regardless of whether your dog reacts to people, children, skateboards, bicycles, objects, or other dogs. I speak from experience because I have a fearful and reactive dog.  At times, depending on where I’m walking my dog, I too can become slightly anxious.

From a young age, my German Shepherd, Z was very fearful. When she was afraid, she would bark ferociously, while lunging toward whatever was freaking her out. It was almost impossible for me to walk her.  People were afraid of her, and I was embarrassed by her behavior. I knew that I didn’t have the tools to help my dog be successful on walks. I didn’t enjoy walking my dog, and at times would come home frustrated, stressed, or upset.  It was so stressful I stopped walking Z entirely. Anyone who has been in this situation knows exactly what I mean. 

I elicited the help of Dr. Radosta, a board certified veterinary behaviorist, by enrolling in a Reactive Dog Class which she taught. This class gave me the tools to assist me in walking my dog.   I also watched videos about dog body language, so I learned how to read my dog for signs that she was getting stressed. This allowed me to start using the  tools that I had been taught before she could bark or lunge. This kept her from getting stressed or at least kept the stress level down for both of us. 

Here’s the thing, you can have all the tools you want, but if you never practice them, they won’t do you any good.  So, my first plan of action was to walk Z in areas where I could predict what we would encounter.  I would drive to a park, sit inside my car and check out the area before took my dog out. If I wanted to work around other dogs, I would work with her outside dog parks, walking around the perimeter.  I would use the tools I was taught in Reactive Dog Class in less stressful areas first, and then progress from there.  This allowed me to gain confidence using the tools I was taught, as well as create a bond between myself and my dog which was built on trust. She  knew that I would not let her go over her threshold and react.   The more confident I became using the tools, the better our walks became. Once this confidence was established between myself and my dog, I started bringing her to more challenging areas.  This practice has helped  Z and me tremendously. We quickly became an awesome team.

Then life became hectic and I didn’t take Z out quite as often. I sometimes think back and wonder if it just became easier to leave her home when I went to unknown areas. I would still take her to familiar places with me, places where she was used to going and it was less stressful for both of us. Here’s where the story gets really interesting.

A friend of mine called me one afternoon and asked if I wanted to meet her at a busy shopping area and bring Z. She was going to bring her dog and we could get something to eat. I said sure and hung up the phone. I started to prepare for the outing by chopping up boneless skinless chicken and pasta, Z’s favorite high-value treats. I then got her leash, Easy Walk harness, and head collar. Once I got everything together and put Z in the car, I realized my stress level was slightly elevated. The closer we drove into the shopping area, the more that I felt stressed. 

Once I took Z out of the car, she started scanning the area and lip licking. All signs that indicated that her stress level was up.  As I started walking with her, I found myself scanning the area and thought to myself if I was a dog, I might start to lip lick too! I got my treats ready and entered a very busy shopping area. There were fountains with water, children, people, and dogs. I immediately started using my tools to keep Z  from reacting. 

The longer we stayed and worked together as a team, the more confident I became. This confidence transferred to my dog. For the first time EVER, I sat and had a meal in an outdoor café, with my dog, with people, children, and dogs walking by. Anything and everything that my dog was afraid of was presented to her that night.t. She even walked right up to the edge of the fountains and looked at the fish swimming around. Because I had taken time to understand her body language, obtain the tools to make us successful, and practice the tools, we had become this amazing team. . It took us 3 years to get there, but we did it. Since that time, she has soared behaviorally, going to work with me, meeting new dogs and people, making trips to the veterinarian’s office and more dinner outings. We are even entered in our first rally competition!

I have confidence that anybody, anybody, can walk their fearfully aggressive or anxious dog anywhere if you learn the tools, and practice them. I am a proud mama!