Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author of the online dog training course "Brain Training for Dogs."
Understanding Your Dog's Fear on Walks
Sometimes owners aren't aware that their dog's leash pulling is triggered by fear. The owners may simply think they have an exuberant dog with too much energy; yet, to a behavior expert, the dog is instead sending stress signals left and right
I call these dogs "emotional pullers." These dogs do not need training to learn good leash manners; instead, they need behavior modification first, and after that, once the fear subsides, they can be trained to walk nicely on the leash.
Truth is, a dog who is fearful on walks is likely in a flight and fight state of mind. In this state of mind, there's little space for learning as the dog has more important things to focus on.
What happens to his body exactly? A variety of chemical changes occur. Hormones and neurotransmitters are released causing a variety of physiological changes. Let's see some of them:
- Increased heart rate, increased breathing and increased blood pressure
- Increased blood flow to muscles and muscle tension (so the dog can sprint into action)
- Increased blood sugar levels so to supply the body with more energy
- Appetite suppression (this happens so the blood can flow from the intestines to the muscles for action)
- Pupil dilation (so to see with more clarity)
- Inability to concentrate
After the scary event is over, dogs go through a recovery phase, where the body resumes a state of normality. You'll literally see the dog "shake off" the stress allowing those tight muscles to relax once again, normal breathing to resume and the heart rate to slow down. While the occasional startle may not do much damage, the effects of prolonged stress in dogs may over time undermine the dog's immune system. It can also lead to a phenomenon known as trigger stacking. Trigger stacking in dogs is when stressful events unfold one after the other, causing dogs to reach a breaking point.
What Are Signs of Fear While on a Walk?
There are several signs, some are quite evident, others not so much. Following are some signs you are walking a fearful dog:
- Walking in a zig-zag, disorderly manner
- Barking/lunging at triggers
- Frequently turning around to check things out
- Inability to take treats
- Inability to focus on the owner
- Pulling ahead on leash
- Evident startle response to noises
- Pulling to go back home
- Attempts to escape from the collar
- Reluctance to move forward (the dog puts on his brakes)
- Excessively scanning the area (looking side to side)
- Slowing down/freezing
What causes these dogs to overreact on walks? There are several possibilities: poor socialization and lack of exposure to novelty during puppyhood, past negative experiences, and medical conditions are just a few.
10 Tips for Helping Dogs Become Less Fearful on Walks
Walking a fearful dog can be frustrating, mainly because it's hard to control the environment. Right when your dog is walking with confidence, a car backfires or your neighbor decides to move the trash can. Following are several tips for walking fearful dogs.
1. Time Your Walks
Try to walk your dog when there are fewer triggers around. If your dog is terrified of the trash truck, avoid the hours when they collect trash. If traffic noises terrify him, walk when there is less traffic.
2. Stick Close to Home
Walk on the same route each day to get your dog used to it before walking on new roads. Start with walks close to the home before venturing farther out. If your dog struggles to go on a walk and is eager to walk back home, you can try to take your dog on a car ride nearby and then walk him back home.
3. Avoid the Treat Trap
Treats shouldn't be used to lure the dog closer to something the dog is afraid of. The dog may get closer to the trigger and then startle, and even learn that a treat predicts that something scary is about to happen.
4. Use the Jolly Routine
When your dog feels fear of something, take away the drama by saying something like, "Oh, it's just a garbage can, you silly girl!" Talk in a happy tone of voice. Use Campbell's Jolly Routine method.
5. Create Positive Associations
Determine what triggers your dog's fear and work on desensitization and counterconditioning. The "look at that" game can be applied to anything your dog fears. Use high-value treats to create positive associations.
6. Work on Attention Heeling
Train your dog to make eye contact by making a kissy sound. To encourage your dog to look into your eyes, keep the treat at eye level before delivering it. Practice this in quiet areas, then in areas with distractions.
7. Praise Confidence
Always praise your dog when she decides to investigate something she is scared of. Dogs are sensitive to our feedback, so if we praise them they can feed off our emotions.
The same goes for if you see an upcoming trigger. Stay calm and don't tighten the leash as this will become a cue that will alert your dog that a fearful event will take place. Instead, casually cue your dog to turn around. For more on this learn about: dog emergency U-turns."
8. Pick Confident Partners
Dogs are also easily influenced by other dogs. Walk your dog with calm, confident dogs your dog knows well and doesn't react to. These dogs may help your dog calm down.
9. Try Calming Aids
You can try to use a Dog Appeasing Pheromone collar. Such collars are infused with the synthetic version of calming pheromones emitted by nursing dogs to calm their puppies.
There are also calming sprays or calming dog supplements containing l-theanine which stimulates brain alpha waves to aid in comfort and relaxation. Ask your vet before trying these.
10. Recognize Signs of Stress
Learn to recognize the signs of stress in dogs so to ensure your dog is under threshold and is not exposed to stimuli or situations that are too overwhelming. If you recognize these signs early, you can avoid full-intensity exposures and prevent your dog from rehearsing fearful behaviors that are reinforcing and become habit-forming over time.
More Reads for Owners of Fearful Dogs
- Help, My Dog Pulls to go Home!
Does your dog pull to go back home? Many shelter dogs seem to feel very insecure outside and will pull with all their might to go back home. Here are some tips to help these stressed dogs.
- Can you Reinforce Your Dog's Fear?
We are always told not to pet, cuddle or comfort a fearful dog because this may reinforce fear. But can you really reinforce fear in your dog? Learn what the experts say about this.
- Why is My Dog Scared of Going Outside?
Why is my dog scared of going outside? There may be several reasons. Following are several exercises to hopefully help your dog enjoy the yard again.
- Understanding Fear Periods in Dogs
What are fear periods in dogs and when do they take place? Learn how to cope with them and help your dog overcome them.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2014 Adrienne Farricelli
Ed Palumbo from Tualatin, OR on July 24, 2014:
I appreciate this information. We'd gotten our dog (a rat terrier mix) from a refuge, and she's very good to me, very trusting, but she walks like we're on a patrol in enemy territory. I stop frequently, I kneel and play to let her relax, but she's been with us a year and reacts to every visitor by barking at them, to every approaching male as a threat, so we step off the sidewalk or greenway until they pass. I got her when she was almost three, and I don't know what she encountered before we brought her home. She's gentle and caring with out other dog, an 11 year old dachshund, but anything/anyone outside the home is a potential threat. After more than a year, I don't know what it'll take to make her feel more secure.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 01, 2014:
So many dogs love to walk, that it may seem odd to find that occasionally one who dreads them. It's very sad.
Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on May 01, 2014:
Very informative. You would think dogs love to walk, but now I realize for timid dogs, it can be a scary experience.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 30, 2014:
Walking a fearful dog is indeed no fun. You need to scan the environment continuously to determine the presence or absence of triggers. Not the relaxing typical walk.
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on April 29, 2014:
Interesting and so helpful for dog owners. Walking dogs can be fun but also with other dogs along the way it can be problematic and fear is not a good sign in dogs.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 28, 2014:
Poor Skippy! We can't blame these dogs for having such a hard time overcoming abusive situations. Sounds like the short route is reassuring and he likes the routine. Thanks for the votes up!
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 28, 2014:
Skippy, the dog we have now who was my mother's dog prior to her death was abused as a puppy. He has never outgrown his fear of strangers. Now at his age with his developing cataracts, we simply let him walk his preferred short route and let him come home again prior to our taking a longer walk without him. Interesting post! Voted that as well as up and useful.