The Underdog has two main objectives. The first is to educate people of the struggles anxious/reactive dog owners face. Ideally, this will result in a better understanding and consideration for the special needs of these dogs in the wider community. The second goal is to provide support for the owners of nervous and reactive dogs who are up against the same battles, through sharing
ideas, personal experiences and anecdotes.
These experiences can make us laugh, they can make us cry, or make us downright furious. I admit I often write for The Underdog when I am beside myself with frustration at the ignorance of some people! In fact, as I type now, only hours earlier I encountered an irresponsible owner and off-leash dog harassing Zoe, which resulted in a painful scratch down the back of my leg after my efforts to
calm her. So The Underdog is also a kind of therapy and outlet for me to vent my frustrations!
Some of you may relate to this. You are at that point of absolute desperation and helplessness. I can sympathise. Please don’t give up. The fact that you are reading this article shows that you are a caring, responsible and compassionate dog owner. You love your pooch and your baby loves you. They also need you. The better you can understand your dog’s boundaries, the more you can both enjoy public outings and reduce the likelihood of uncomfortable (and possibly dangerous) situations.
Now if you are not the owner of a highly anxious or reactive dog, you may not realise the severity of the meltdowns. These incidents need to be avoided at all costs. For Zoe, her behaviour often presents as aggressive. She is strong, and thrashes around on the lead. I am regularly left with scratches and bruises. She barks and whines excessively. It’s distressing for her, myself, and for
others who may witness it.
Many dog owners who have never lived with these types will judge. They see a bad dog. Such hostile behaviour is naughty and should be disciplined. I am perceived as cruel; I must mistreat my dog to make it vicious.
Why doesn’t this woman control that mongrel?
Or... I’m viewed as incredibly uptight to be so concerned about an animal’s
personal space. Please keep in mind that every dog has a background and some of these are not pleasant.
Zoe was rescued at six months of age. The time I have invested in her is extensive. The truth is, she won’t ever have the relaxed and easy-going temperament that my other pooch has been blessed with. It’s just who she is. A highly anxious little soul- but let me tell you this- a more loving, loyal and affectionate furry friend I have
never met. And I will do everything I can to make Zoe’s life more comfortable, through understanding, patience and love.
So here are some strategies that I use to manage Zoe’s anxiety. I do hope it can provide some level of assistance or even comfort to others.
1. Know the triggers
Zoe’s List of Completely Unacceptable Things is a long-winded one. Your pooch will obviously have other triggers, but here’s some of the things that will push my girl over the edge: (deep breath…) Another dog that gets too close; another dog across the road (but still bold enough to enter Zoe’s field of vision); bush turkeys (the WORST!); skateboarders; bike riders (how dare they!); kitesurfers; regular surfers; jetskis (if mum didn’t wade in after her, she’d swim out to get them); four wheelers; even an innocent photographer (his tripod was intolerable!)! A windy day can even be enough to push the crazy button.
Now we are very fortunate to live by the beach. You may be thinking, DON’T WALK THE DOG ON THE BEACH if she is such a nutter! But it’s not all meltdowns. Most days, we have a lovely time. I don’t want to deprive Zoe of the wonderland we have at our doorstep. She loves the water, fetching sticks, rolling in the sand... I just need
to be prepared and aware. So I frequently scan the environment for any sign of these triggers, and adapt accordingly when needed. This may sound hectic, but it has become second nature to me now, and I still cherish our walks together.
2. Avoid unnecessary distress
First and foremost, situations that may cause distress should be avoided. Aside from the safety factor, your dog’s health is also affected every time he or she tips over their threshold (or ability to cope). This stress reaction can have a negative impact on a dog’s wellbeing, affecting their immune and digestive systems. And I know personally that once Zoe has had a nervous reaction, she remains
on edge for the rest of the walk. Most people would not realise that once they have choofed off with their overbearing hound and their exasperatingly care-free “It’s ok, my dog is friendly” attitude, the anxious dog does not just return to normal. It takes a long time afterward to calm Zoe down. For this reason, if I spot one of Zoe’s triggers - for example a bush turkey ahead, I will take as wide a berth as possible. If an alternate route is available, I’ll take it. Narrow paths are the trickiest. Often if
I spot another dog approaching on the path, we will back out of the path and let them pass first. It’s just easier that way.
3. Distract- talk, reward and redirect
It’s simple really. If I can capture Zoe’s attention with something that is worth more to her, we can avoid a doggy tanty. Talk is so important. Keep your voice calm and soothing, or happy and excited. This can be difficult in situations when you are quietly panicking on the inside (e.g. a free-roaming dog is approaching, with
no owner in sight). I often say things like “Zoe, what’s this?!” in my most excited voice. If you do let the nerves creep into your voice, your dog will be the first to notice it, which will just exasperate the issue.
I always have a pocket of treats, so holding a treat by her nose and lots of praise when she bypasses a situation can be effective. Having a stick in hand (or ball, whatever their weakness) often helps as a distraction. I’ve even been desperate enough to pick up imaginary sticks from the ground. Yes, I’m afraid that my dignity at times will suffer with this special-needs child! Something else I have discovered certainly wouldn’t work for all reactive dogs. Covering Zoe’s eyes. Because the trigger can no longer be seen, this can have a significant calming effect. When I’m
holding Zoe close, she will allow me to hold my hand over her eyes. This led me to develop a kind of tube-like blindfold which can get us out of some very tricky situations, particularly if I spot the trigger first.
For example: I see a turkey up ahead. I stop Zoe, praise her with a treat and put on the blindfold (on her, not me). She happily cooperates and allows us to walk past the trigger while being none the wiser and maintaining her cool. Blindfold comes off, crisis averted!
4. Natural Food and Supplements
Restricting the amount of preservatives and artificial foods your canine eats may prove beneficial. I feed Zoe a raw turkey mince blend that is recommended for anxious dogs. There is also a range of natural supplements in the form of chews/treats you can purchase from pet shops that contain the active ingredient tryptophan, to calm and promote healthy function of the nervous and immune
5. FDC Awareness Collars
The awareness dog collar initiative is one of the best ideas I have come across for managing reactive dogs. We don’t leave the house without Zoe’s yellow “nervous” collar and lead. It lets people know that Zoe needs her space and makes our daily life that little bit easier. The more we can spread the word about the fantastic
Friendly Dog Collar range, the greater the understanding of anxious dogs and their needs. I often have people comment on what a fantastic idea these are while we are out walking. Tessa (Zoe’s adopted sister) also wears the “friendly” green collar.
Comments will be approved before showing up.