body language, dog behavior, fear & anxiety, walking your fearful dog

Is your dog afraid of walks? You’re going too far & too long.

All dogs love walks: true or false? Long walks–more miles and minutes–are better than short ones: true or false? To most humans and some dogs, both are 100% true. But if your dog is afraid of walks, stay closer to home. Their comfort zone may end at your front door, or not far from it.

Some dogs enjoy long walks. Fearful dogs are afraid of walks.

After a long walk, a confident dog feels tuckered out and ready for a nap. Their appetite for stimulation is satiated; their physical and mental needs have been met. A fearful dog comes home from the same long walk as if returning from battle, wired and shell shocked, dreading the next one. 

For a dog afraid of walks, danger lurks around ever corner, crouches behind every bush. Walks are a minefield of triggers and jump scares. Cars, trucks, bikes! Skateboards, scooters, strollers! Other dogs! People of every size, shape and hue! Noises of every pitch and decibel! All of it coming at them without warning or predictable patterns. Triggers stack up, and each one erodes your dog’s capacity for coping. Something that caused your mild disturbance early in the walk might incite panic by the end. 

It’s definitely possible–but not the way you might expect. People often try to “teach” their dog to enjoy longer walks simply by walking them longer and longer, hoping that over time the dog will habituate to all the stressors along the way. They set quantitative benchmarks: “We got all the way to the playground a mile from my house!” or “We lasted 15 minutes but then he planted himself and refused to budge, so we had to go home.”

But pushing your anxious dog’s limits won’t truly extend their limits. You want them to feel less fear, not tolerate more fear.

Let’s set more qualitative measures for what makes a walk a success. Instead of counting miles and minutes, asses enjoyment vs. stress. Optimize walks for joy, not length. Cover less ground but give your dog more chances to sniff and explore. Read your dog’s body language. Recognize what makes them happy and relaxed and give them more of it. Avoid–or minimize–whatever makes them tense and overwhelmed.

There’s comfort in ritual and repetition, so stay close to home and tour the same spots over and over, letting your dog lead the way. As they gain a sense of mastery over a certain space, their courage will grow and their horizons expand.

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