- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
Trainer Annie Grossman of School for the Dogs, one of NYC’s most respected dog training centers, has plenty of wisdom to share with dog people. She covers common dog behavior questions and training tips in her weekly podcast. We’ll be sharing some of those responses right here in a regular feature.
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My dog Popchik, a 5-year-old lab mix, suffers from anxiety and is taking medication for it. While walking, she frequently gets anxious and tries to back up out of her collar in order to run to safety. Now, walking her causes me anxiety, as I’m afraid she will escape and run into traffic.
One trainer suggested I simply overpower her and pull her, but this has caused me both physical and mental pain; she’ll just lie down on the sidewalk and refuse to move. We now take very brief walks so she can attend to business, but I’d like to exercise her more without risking her life. What can I do?
Helping with Dog Walk Anxiety
I’m sorry to hear that Popchik is experiencing anxiety while walking. I have some recommendations, but first, let’s put dog anxiety into context. Here are some things to think about:
Humans also experience anxiety.
I mean, we can’t know exactly what anxiety feels like for a dog, but I think it’s a safe guess that it feels to them much like it feels to us. This can help us empathize with them, which is probably why you instinctively feel bad about trying to use force to overpower her when she’s anxious; can you imagine someone trying to physically manipulate you against your will when you’re in an anxious, fearful state?
Anxiety is triggered by different things for different people—and dogs.
Something that seems harmless to one person or dog may be extremely bothersome for another. For instance, I used to get anxious about writing papers in high school. Even though you and I both know that a bad grade on a school paper is inconsequential in the long run, that anxiety felt very real for me at the time.
Likewise, you and I both know that it’s unlikely anything on the street will harm Popchik, but for him, going for a walk feels truly perilous. When you have anxiety, it’s difficult for anyone to reason with you about it, or force you to overcome it, no matter how ridiculous the triggering factors are. In fact, ignoring or downplaying the triggers may exacerbate the anxiety.
We feel each other’s anxiety.
It’s interesting to me how anxiety can jump from one individual to another—even when the two individuals belong to different species. This is because stress is contagious and because—thanks to Pavlovian conditioning—you’ve learned to associate walking her with your own fears about her getting loose.
Now, let’s think about the next steps for helping Popchik. Here’s what I suggest.
Get an appointment with a veterinary behaviorist
It sounds like your regular vet has already prescribed Popchik some medication, but since the problem is persisting, I suggest seeing if you can get an appointment with a veterinary behaviorist. They’re basically the equivalent of psychopharmacologists for dogs—they’re vets who specialize in (among other things) figuring out the right medication for animals dealing with behavioral issues.
A good veterinary behaviorist can help confirm that Popchik’s on the best prescription to help her with this issue. There are only a handful of them in the country. You can do a search to find one near you.
Keep her walks very routine
Dogs, like humans, can be soothed by things being predictable. Stick to the same route every walk—ideally a route that is as quiet as possible. And be very liberal with giving her treats when you’re on walks.
When she’s in a state of fear, she might not be interested in eating, so try feeding her something she loves (e.g. bacon, turkey, cheese or xylitol-free peanut butter) before you even start the walk when her cortisol levels (her stress hormones) are at their lowest. Then see if you can get her to eat a little farther into your route.
Feeding something lickable like cream cheese or peanut butter in a tube can be good because licking is very soothing to dogs, and it’s a way to feed steadily throughout the walk without getting your hands and pockets full of crumbs. If she will eat, I’d go so far as to feed her an entire meal on walks whenever possible.
Sometimes, it can feel counterintuitive to be giving food rewards to your dog when she is behaving in a way you don’t like, but when you’re dealing with fear, you want to focus on changing her feelings before you focus on changing her behavior. If you can get her to feel better about going for walks by creating an association between being outside and eating delicious food, she’s less likely to be fearful.
Keep her walks short and sweet
In addition to keeping her walks as consistent as possible—sticking to the same routes, at the same times of day—I’d also continue making her walks short. Feel free to head back home as soon as she does her business.
I understand you want her to get exercise, but when it comes to her overall health, I think the negative effects of the stress she’s experiencing on the walks outweighs the health benefits of the cardiovascular activity.
With the right medication and some patience on your part, you’ll eventually be able to help Popchik manage her anxiety about walking.