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.

body language, fear & anxiety, Stranger danger, stress signals

Stranger danger? Your shy, fearful dog needs a bodyguard, and it’s YOU!

If your dog has stranger danger–fear of new people–it’s your job to shield them from unwanted attention whenever you’re out & about. The trouble is, your dog is so darn cute that everyone you pass on the street wants to pet them. Sometimes they even ask for your permission. But what if your dog says no?

First, what would “yes” look like? A dog who wants to meet a stranger will walk right up to them, eagerly, and without coaxing. And while they’re getting pets, their body language will look relaxed: open mouth, tongue hanging out, squinty eyes, tail wagging slowly, “asking” for more if the petting stops. They won’t duck, back away, lick their lips, tuck their tail, draw their ears back, clamp their jaw shut, yawn, or show other anxious signals. If you see any of these signs of stress, it means your dog said “NO.” But nobody heard them.

Shy dogs just don’t want to meet strangers. And they shouldn’t have to. But some people think all dogs wants to meet everyone. So before you’re even halfway through your long-winded apology (why are we sorry?) that your dog really IS friendly, but they’re scared of new people because […insert your theories on your dog’s backstory, what the rescue told you…], the stranger is already petting your dog!

Your dog doesn’t need you to apologize for their stranger danger, or justify their reticence. They just want to feel safe. What they really need is a bodyguard. That bodyguard is you. 

When an unfamiliar person wants to pet your dog, and you know your dog doesn’t want it, vote with your feet. Smile warmly but start moving away pronto. As you retreat, you can explain over your shoulder, if you feel the need. Keep it simple: “My dog is afraid.” Or be cryptic: “My dog is in training,” whatever that may mean. Or tell a tiny white lie: “My dog has ringworm and it’s SUPER contagious.” (At least the latter part is true.)

When it comes to meeting strangers, leave the choice to your dog. Read their body language and recognize fear signals. If your dog say no, respect that. Having you as a bodyguard will build their confidence and tame their stranger danger, until one day, maybe, their answer will be yes.