Spooked. Suddenly Scared. On Constant High Alert

The dear little Lhasa Apso Jack Russell mix seems to have a near perfect life. Why is she so easily scared and spooked? They have had her since she was a puppy and she has always been nervous. It must surely be genetic.

Celeste is ‘living on the edge’.

The dear little five-year-old is very aware and alert. She’s ready to react at any little sound. Even animated voices at home or people moving calmly about can send her running for cover.

She gets easily spookedEvery day she is having to face ordeals that continually top up her stress levels. Things like traffic, particularly large or noisy vehicles, post coming through the door and even the smallest of bangs.

She may be walking along happily and then, with no warning, suddenly go into a panic – freeze or run. Nobody else can hear anything, but Celeste obviously has.

She will have heard something that their inferior human ears can’t hear.

Easily spooked by almost anything.

She needs a calmer general base level, I feel – to be less spooked in general. We looked at all aspects of her life, including her diet, to see ways in which we can encourage her to be a bit more relaxed. This will be like a jigsaw – every small bit that is put in should contribute to a calmer overall picture.

Celeste is currently walked on collar and lead. She may try to run when she is spooked. The tightening lead will without doubt cause her little neck discomfort. Because we want to associate things she is scared of with positive things that she likes, this will be doing the very opposite. They will now walk her on a harness.

Walks will be mostly near home for now, letting her do a lot of sniffing and allowing her to come straight back home if she is spooked.

Ignore what ‘people’ say!

If they want to go further, they can carry her. Why not? If she feels safe and comfortable being carried, then they should carry her. When all is quiet and she is relaxed, they can see if she would like to walk – being ready to rescue her instantly she is spooked.

If whilst carrying her, from her sanctuary in their arms she sees something that usually scares her, they can offer her food. The scary thing will now begin to trigger something she likes. If she’s not interested, they should first increase distance away from it.

Celeste will never change personality and be the most confident little dog, but I would predict, in time, that the length of time she’s happy walking on the ground will increase and she will become less easily spooked in general.


NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle with maybe a bit of poetic licence. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approaches I have worked out for Celeste. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good as the case needs to be assessed correctly. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important, particularly where fear of any kind is involved. Everything depends upon context. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies tailored to your own dog (see my Help page).

Feels Unsafe. She Runs for Home.

Eight weeks ago Holly came from a pound in Cyprus to live with my lady client. Holly is a Beagle mix, three years of age.

Holly feels unsafe with sudden soundsAlthough initially spending a lot of time in her bolthole under the kitchen table, she didn’t start off particularly spooked by sudden sounds. This is may have been because, trying to adjust, she was simply shut down.

Whilst becoming more confident at home, over the time she has become increasingly spooked outside.

With hindsight things should have been taken a lot more gradually, one new thing at a time, but she seemed to be coping. I believe things have been stacking up to a level where she’s lost her resilience.

It was, and still is, a world of new and unpredictable things. There will have been the cage for the aircraft, the flight, the car journey and then arriving to a house. Had she ever lived in a house before?

She was then taken out for walks. On lead, she was very scared of traffic, particularly lorries. She is scared of all wheels.

To start with the lady would let her off lead in the nearby park and she ran free. She was in her element.

Holly was waiting at the front door.

Then, after just a few weeks, she had run out of sight. The lady, in a panic, called and called, but Holly didn’t reappear.

With much more sensitive ears, Holly must have heard something the lady didn’t hear. It sent her running in panic.

She had run across roads and was waiting at the front door. There were scratch marks on it as she tried desperately to get in to where it felt safe.

It soon became apparent that she was becoming increasingly scared of sudden sounds.

As Holly adapts to her lovely new, but very different, life, increasingly she feels unsafe. Having run for home a second time she now has to remain on lead. A dog that feels unsafe will feel even more so trapped on a lead. It’s most likely, whatever her history, that she will have spent some of her life either as a stray or on the streets. No leash.

Now she is resisting going out on walks. The lady had been carrying her to the car and trying to find new places, not associated with previous fears. She’s now wriggling to escape from her arms.

When I arrived she quietly took herself off out of sight, to one of her sanctuary places.

She did appear eventually and was actually very friendly. ‘Holly-Come’ brought her running for food. People aren’t the problem. ‘Sudden’ things are, noises in particular – and they don’t have to be loud or nearby to spook her.

Poor Holly feels unsafe most of the time when out of the house.

We sat out in the garden, some distance away from the open back door. Holly joined us.

All was well for a minute or two and then there was a noise from a neighbour. It sounded a bit like a metal ladder being moved. It wasn’t loud. Holly turned and slinked across the garden and indoors.

She came back out. This is a brave little dog.

She was aware of other, softer noises and I immediately rained food around her. Fortunately she is very food motivated. If I heard something that she didn’t actually react to, it still produced food.

A little later I tried tapping my hand softly on the metal table, ready to throw food. It wasn’t softly enough and sent her running indoors again. It demonstrated clearly to both of us how, to work on this, we have to begin at an extremely low level.

“Desensitization consists of exposing a subject to the thing they fear in graded exposures, starting with a form that is dilute and non threatening, and working up to full exposure to the scary thing. Counter-conditioning consists of changing an emotional response (usually from fear to neutrality or to a positive response), by pairing the trigger of the undesirable response with something that evokes a desirable emotional response. Combining these two methods creates a non-threatening but very effective way to alter phobic fear responses.” Eileen Anderson

There will be two kinds of sudden sounds, those that the lady generates herself and those uncontrolled sudden sounds that occur in the environment.

Sudden sounds generated by the lady. 

She can control both intensity and the timing. I suggested she sits near the open kitchen door if in the garden. Holly’s feeling safe depends upon an escape route.

She can tap on the table. The tap has to be even softer than mine was. Simultaneously with the tap, she can gently say ‘Yes’ and drop some food. Saying ‘Yes’ with every sound is helpful because it’s not always possible to be sufficiently immediate with food alone.

The lady can gradually increase the heaviness of the tap to gentle bang. She will watch very carefully not to send Holly over her threshold. If she does so, then they go back to a level Holly that happily tolerates before ending the session.

Over the days and weeks this can be expanded to someone else making sounds in another room. They can download or buy sound effects and use it in the same manner – in another room and very softly indeed initially.

Sudden sounds that she has no control over.

Like the neighbour moving the ladder, sounds that ‘just happen’ are a lot more tricky.

If poor Holly feels unsafe in her own garden when there is a fairly gentle noise over the fence and an open kitchen door, imagine how she must feel when out on a walk and something like a bird scarer goes off or a motorbike roars past.

As soon as there is any sudden sound, however soft and even if Holly seems fine, the lady should say ‘Yes’ and drop food. It will undoubtedly take her some practice to perfect her timing and to be consistent.

She will hold back from walks for a while. A walk is useless when the dog feels unsafe. It does more harm than good.

Because of the ladder incident Holly now may be a bit scared of the garden.

Sprinkles! Unseen by Holly, the lady will sprinkle food all over the grass and then let her out, leaving the door open so she always has an escape route. The environment, not the lady, will be delivering the food.

Holly feels unsafe on walks.

It will be like starting all over again, gradually building up Holly’s confidence. Several very short sessions a day will work best, not going beyond the garden. If she is spooked, the lady should stop straight away.

She will begin by walking Holly around the house – being encouraging – and using rewards.

Next they will go around the garden. The door should be open and if there is any sign of fear the lady should say ‘Yes’, drop food and drop the lead.

When it’s going well, she can open the back gate. They can step through it and come back in again, many times, making a bit of a game of it…and so it goes on.

All the time the lady will keep counter-conditioning bangs and anything sudden with chicken raining around Holly!

This is just the start of the plan. How long will it take before she can walk to the park? When getting a rescue dog from a completely different life, people don’t dream of challenges like this. Realistic expectations are vital. It could take a long time to build up Honey’s confidence. There is no quick fix.

Three months later: ‘Honey has regained her love of the garden and she reached right round the side of the front garden and towards the centre of the front of the house yesterday.’ It’s great how she has turned a corner. I have found time and again that if people can be patient enough and follow our plan exactly, the dog gains confidence more quickly in the end.
NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle with maybe a bit of poetic licence. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approaches I have worked out for Holly. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good as the case needs to be assessed correctly. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important, particularly where fear is concerned. Everything depends upon context. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies tailored to your own dog (see my Help page).

Jumpy and Nervy Staffie

Staffie Mikey is easily worried or scaredMikey is a Staffordshire Bull Terrier mixed with something else – it looks very much like Pit Bull.  He had an uncertain start in life with several different homes in the first six months. He now lives with a young couple who have overcome a lot of difficulties as he was very hard to handle initially, and he is now settled, affectionate and obedient with them.

Unfortunately he is easily spooked by things, like someone suddenly appearing when they are out, and certain people that make him feel uneasy. He may bark or even lunge and grab with his mouth. Fortunately he hasn’t so far broken skin, but his young owners are naturally very worried.

Mikey is also getting increasingly unpredictable when approached by certain other dogs. He chased off a young dog recently in an aggressive manner. He also is obsessed with the balls they take on walks, and had quite a major fight with a dog he knows well – over a ball.

Mikey is jumpy and nervous. He does a lot of pacing, some tail chasing and lots of chewing bones and toys. He is restless. I gently put my finger on his back as he lay in front of me, and he sprang to his feet. He runs away from carrier bags and is worried by new things in new places.

Looking as he does, it’s important he has a good reputation. It is vital they never get complaints about him and that he never gets the opportunity to bite anyone. At present he goes with them outside their flat off lead which I think is a mistake. His young male owner teases him and plays games like so many young men do, that not only wind him up but also encourage use of his mouth and teeth which I also believe is a mistake. Many walks consist of constant ball play which may exhaust him physically but do nothing to relax him mentally. Balls have become an obsession. Running around after balls on a walk isn’t what a dog would do if left to his own devises. What is a dog walk, after all?

Mikey needs to be surrounded by calm. He needs his young owners to act like confident leaders when they are out and make the decisions that are wise in Mikey’s eyes. We have been working on exactly how to achieve this. He should then be less jumpy, more stable, and less reactive to dogs and people. It will take time.

I can help you, too, with these problems or any other that you may be having with your dog.