When is your anxious dog calm?

On our last night of our reactivity class, our trainer Deven asked me: “Is Pyrrha able to be calm and relaxed?”

I said that she was, but as I was thinking about it, I sadly realized that her ability to be truly happy and calm is limited to very specific environments. Deven was asking to determine if Pyrrha may need more serious behavioral intervention (such as medication). I’m not sure we’re at that place yet, but the conversation did make me think about the particular spaces and times in which Pyrrha seems to let her guard down and let that worried face and anxious body fall away.

Portrait of a lady. #pyrrhagram
Portrait of a (shy) lady.

Pyrrha is calm and happy when:

  • I’m at home with her.
  • she’s playing with another dog.
  • she’s on a walk (with no other dogs in sight).
  • she’s riding in the car.
  • she’s in her crate.
  • we’re eating or cooking at home.

I say “calm” even though many people wouldn’t look at Pyrrha and see an anxious dog. Her fearfulness rarely displays itself in any kind of frenzied energy or reactivity (with the exception of seeing other dogs on leash). But over the year and a half since we’ve had her, I’ve become a mini-expert in her moods (as many of you are with your own dogs, I imagine). It’s helpful that her big shepherd ears are like signals for how she’s feeling. “Oh, she’s got her ‘scared ears’ on,” my husband will say, once Pyrrha spots a trigger. I, of course, want to do everything in my power to have her wearing her “happy ears” as much as possible.

Food is a HUGE help for us in this. We’re lucky that we have a dog who is such a deep, committed beggar that she will lovingly place her head in the lap of “scary” people (e.g., men) just for a crumb. Food, somewhat amazingly, seems to overshadow many of her triggers, so this has been a great advantage to us in training. Deven said that she’s OK with begging if Pyrrha is begging from her fear trigger (e.g., my husband). Reinforce bravery and confidence when you can, even if it’s not exactly “polite.”

Now that we’re in a foster-less phase for the next few months, until we get our housing situation settled, I have time to really focus on Pyrrha. And I am realizing that she does continue to need our help and guidance. We have days of frustration and backsliding (forgetting to reinforce her for seeing dogs on walks, neglecting her mental state), and we have days of progress and encouragement (like last night, when she got on the couch next to Guion and put her head in his lap without any bribery). One step forward, one step back.

If you have a fearful dog, when or where is (s)he truly happy and calm? What do you do to maximize these moments?


10 thoughts on “When is your anxious dog calm?

  1. Lucas is happiest running in the yard with one of his dog friends. He LOVES going for walks (except, of course, when we encounter other dogs). He relishes sleeping on the sofa, and he is at his absolute calmest when I give him a back/ears/hips massage at night. When he’s in those happy moments, we’ve gotten in the habit of saying, “he’s a big yellow dog,” as kind of our inside/joke way of acknowledging those dog-ish moments versus our frequent, “he’s a scared, reactive dog,” which we say to deter oncoming strangers/dogs. I love those big yellow dog moments, and I try to soak them up and appreciate those individual, fleeting moments – which is one of the many things I’ve learned from loving a reactive dog!

    1. Sweet Lucas! I like that phrase that you use, too. It’s always good to try to find the encouraging elements of raising reactive/shy dogs.

  2. Oh, I feel you. I wish you were close enough to sit down with a good cup of coffee and chat anxious dog for an hour or two. These decisions are just so much less black and white than you want them to be. I posted about something similar yesterday–I realized that Silas is calm during the day, but the least little thing out of the ordinary in the neighborhood just destroys him. I already knew that he was never calm anywhere else–even at Mom’s house, which he adores. Sigh.

    1. YES. That would be wonderful. 🙂 I don’t have many anxious dog friends here, either. It’s a hard thing. I wish I didn’t worry about her so much, but her issues are so palpable to me.

  3. I don’t believe we have fearful dogs, but our dogs do have fears and what makes them happier is consistency. Rodrigo is afraid of loud noises, thunder, fireworks, brooms, baby gates (the last two fell close to him when he was a puppy) – I just remain patient with him and cheer him on when he overcomes a fear (and walks past a broom).

    Sydney isn’t a fan of some dogs, but I’m not a fan of some people, so I keep her close to me and congratulate her when she does introduce herself to a dog.

    Blue, surprisingly, isn’t afraid of anything. He was homeless, suffered abuse, and came to us at 4 or 5 months old. He’s happy all the time.

    1. Agreed! Consistency is so important. That’s great that you have generally happy dogs, even though you’re right: almost every dog has something he/she doesn’t like.

  4. Thanks for your post on this as I have been thinking a lot about this with Tala too. As you mentioned it is so different having a sensitive dog which also clearly shows its emotions through body language (so many dogs are just like the far side joke about the red setter….). Again with Tala ears down and tail down (unless it is in a happy greeting of us) generally means she is uncomfortable or the complete opposite with ears up and hackles up when reacting to other dogs on leashes particularly near our building. Luckily, the majority of the time she is very calm and relaxed in many situations which I am sure would irk other dogs such as crossing busy motorcycle filled roads and sharing the lift with a screaming baby. But as soon as unknown dogs are involved or Vietnamese men are directing attention towards her she gets very nervous and stressed. Out on walks she can clearly tell when we pass an area where a dog lives even though I can’t see it as her tail immediately drops and she starts shuffling along with pace. In the park all the dogs (except for her) are off leash usually and she will play if it is one she has met before but if there are a lot and they are being boistrous she will just stoically stand there and start drooling (I think a sign of stress and fear?). If it makes you feel any better we have had her since she was two months old so while the dog issues have probably built up while we have been with her (due to running from packs on street dogs in Sudan and being attacked by a pitt bull type here) the issues with unknown men seem completely baseless as she has never been abused. She remains completely un food motivated though when stressed or reactive – did your trainer have any suggestions for dogs which are not food motivated?

    1. Hi, Jura; thanks for your comment! As I’ve learned, some dogs are just naturally shy, and not even the most rigorous socialization schedule can snap them out of it. It’s not something I realized right away. Pyrrha has a mix of both background-induced shyness (not socialized at all for a year before we got her; lived in a tiny cage in a man’s backyard) AND, I suspect, genetic shyness (she came from a backyard breeding operation, and I’ve met some of her relatives, and they all are like her). So it’s something she’ll always deal with.

      As far as not taking food when reactive: If she’s not taking food, this probably means that she’s “over threshold” and too involved in her fear that the fight/flight mode of the brain has kicked in & the behavioral/decision element has turned off (the part of the brain that enables her to make rational decisions). Pyrrha also can’t take food when she’s reactive, so our best strategy is to prevent her from reaching that point of her threshold. E.g., if we see a dog coming on a walk, we treat her immediately–as soon as she perceives the dog–and then turn around, avoid the dog, etc., which keeps her under threshold. It’s a long road and a lot of work, but it seems to be helping her.

      My post about our trainer’s recommendations on reactive dogs may also be helpful to you: https://thedoggerel.wordpress.com/2013/09/12/the-trigger-becomes-the-bell-week-1-reactivity-class/

      Good luck, and thanks, as always, for your thoughtful comments!

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