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?