Belle was found with her siblings, at just a few weeks old, by the roadside. From the beginning,, in her loving home, the Whippet mix was a scared and nervous puppy – in total contrast to their two Labradors.
When someone comes into the house the scared dog will leap onto the lady’s lap for reassurance.
Belle is now three years old and the behaviours her fear generates are hard for her family to deal with. She is extremely jumpy and scared of many everyday household things.
It’s easy to get cross with too much barking when one seems powerless to stop it.
Emotions behind the behaviour
The main message for helping Belle is for them to consider the emotions that cause her behaviours and deal with them instead of trying to stop the actions themselves. It can help to translate it into human terms. For instance, they wouldn’t scold a child who was crying due to fear. They would address the fear itself.
Looking at a human analogy also helps when working out just what to do. Currently, on walks where the scared dog’s reactive behaviour has the most impact, they may hold her very tightly and carry on approaching the very thing she is scared of. The barking and lunging, sounding ferocious, is embarrassing.
Translating this into human terms of a child with a fear or phobia, no loving parent would ever ‘flood’ the child by repeatedly forcing him into it. My son had treatment for being scared of the dark. The therapist took it very slowly, the boy always in complete control of any door or light switch. To start with total darkness would be a distant goal.
Easily spooked, jumpy, scared dog
Belle is an extremely nervous, jumpy and scared dog. In order to help her when out, it’s vital they work on her stress and lack of confidence at home. Anything they do that simply tries to prevent the behaviour, like using a Pet Correct spray to stop the dog barking at sounds outside, can only make matters worse. Although in the moment it seems to work by adding yet another frightener, it can only make her fear of sudden sounds even greater.
In her over-sensitive state of mind, Belle is simply not equipped to cope a lot of things at home let alone the sounds, sights, people and other dogs out on walks.
Off lead she’s fine
There is one very good thing, however. Once they have endured the nightmare walk to somewhere open, Belle is fine with other dogs when freely running off-lead. This suggests that, eventually, if she can feel more freedom and less restraint on lead, she could change for the better.
Currently they can only handle her on a head halter around her nose. The scared dog runs and hides when they bring it out and then freezes once it’s on. Outside she tries to scrape it off.
The head halter (head collar, Halti) has to cause the scared dog acute discomfort as she leaps and twists her neck, trying to get to another dog. She is in such a state that reason goes out of the window. She may even then turn on one of their other dogs.
I don’t like head halters for physical reasons. I also don’t like what they are for – to force the dog to stay near or not to pull. (I accept that if a person was frail, the dog big and excitable, it might be the only option for safety reasons).
A harness with lead fastened at the chest should give them just as much control as the Halti should they need it without the discomfort. Belle should eventually walk on a loose lead because she is sufficiently relaxed to do so.
We’ll start at the very beginning…
As well as doing all they can to get her more calm and confident at home, they will ‘unpick’ walks and break them down into small stages.
Going out on walks is currently doing a lot more harm than good. Belle is progressively getting worse.
For now it will mean no walks at all (yes, no walks) while they work on things one at a time, starting with simply learning to accept the new harness and lead. This alone could take a couple of weeks.
They will start the walking itself in the house and garden. Then at the open gate. Next just outside on the drive – and so on. The lead will be long as long as is safe so she doesn’t feel trapped anymore. Walks will become something different.
As they go, whether in the garden or out the front, at any alarming noises they will drop food. If she’s too scared to eat, they may need to take her back indoors and try again later.
Gradually they will give her some control and choices on walks. She can choose where she goes, within reason, and be able to go back home any time she wants to.
At home they will now add different, calming and fulfilling enrichment activities to her life in place of walks. These will be things that use her brain and encourage her to be calm. She can work for her food.
Each family member is very much on board to help their scared dog become more confident.
They will build up the strongest foundations possible. I don’t expect them to be ready for encountering people or other dogs, even at a distance, for weeks. The worse thing they can do is push a scared dog ahead too fast.