What are some strategies on how to calm an anxious dog?
Original Question: Brennan was a rescue from Pickering Animal Services in May 2018. He was full of joy, curious, brave and cheeky. He did display an acute fear of motorcycles, and lawnmowers, but we were able to move past that so they weren't an issue. However, one morning at 7am we were walking on a main street with no other vehicles on the road except for one that was coming toward us going northbound. Just as the vehicle reached us it lost control, crossed over into the oncoming lane jumped the curb and slammed into the restaurant window and flipped upside down. The noise was absolutely tremendous and terrifying. I had no cell phone so I was shouting someone to please call 911. Police, fire and ambulance services arrived, and since I had witnessed the incident I was told to stay on scene. This prolonged Brennan's exposure to the traumatic event. Since that day, his behaviour has changed dramatically and has worsened exponentially, daily. Now absolutely anything and everything is perceived as a threat. We had a dangerous incident the other night where Brennan panicked when we neared an empty blue bin. I attempted to assure him that there was no threat, which had the opposite effect. He leapt over the blue bin into the street, which dragged and slammed me headfirst into the blue bin. This created an even greater panic, which resulted in him going into full flight mode, and pulled me and the blue bin into the next blue bin. I sustained a torn rotator cuff, bruised sternum, knee, wrist and elbow, and as this happened, he broke free and fled home with the retractor leash slamming and banging on the sidewalk - yet another terrifying thing he was unable to flee. Since that evening, any motion toward the gate is terrifying, and he is now in hyper vigilant mode, paces, acutely sensitive to any noise, movement, item, person, absolutely everything. My fear for him is personal injury and death should this recur, and it has the potential because he is now constantly anticipating threat everywhere and overreacts. Trainers have advised a prong collar, anti-anxiety meds, and of course modified training. - Domino
Thanks for your question.
The first thing that I would say is that I’m not a dog trainer, but I absolutely advise against a prong collar, a choker chain, a shock collar, or any other form of training that’s involved in negative feedback or punishment. This applies to any dog let alone a one with severe anxiety and high-stress levels. Just imagine what punishment is going to do to that dog. There’s a potential for them to develop a phobia and fear of you or they’re just going to become even more anxious.
Now with problems as severe as you’re describing, to give you the best chance of a successful outcome you really need to be thinking about working with a certified veterinary animal behaviourist if that’s at all possible in the area that you are in. Seeing a certified veterinary animal behaviourist is definitely the best option for them coming up with a treatment plan that’s suitable for your dog and your home situation.
I would suggest not walking him by yourself if you’re not strong enough to control him, especially when he’s panicking. You really need to be strong as well and some of these really large breeds, if they want to go, they will go no matter how strong you are. So really think twice about walking him by yourself and if possible walk your dog with a friend so that way both of you have a hold of the lead and you’re more able to control him. Also, use a harness and a short lead as retractable leads are seldom a good idea. The mechanism might fail or you suddenly try and stop your dog when they’re running out and they’ll just pull it out of your hand. Harnesses allow for better control rather than just a collar around the neck and then I would use a short study lead with a really sturdy clip to make sure that nothing breaks.
You also want to avoid anything that acts as a trigger. When we’ve got a phobia or anxiety, for every negative experience, it makes that behaviour more ingrained so we want to try and avoid that if at all possible. Lastly, talk to your vet as soon as possible, especially if there’s going to be any delay in seeing a veterinary behaviourist to see what suitable medications are available for your dog in the short term. Unfortunately, with behavioural problems, there’s seldom a quick fix but if you get onto it sooner, then it’s going to be easier to control and to potentially reverse.
I hope this helps.
Dr. Alex Avery
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