Understanding a fearful dog has its challenges. The more I understand what makes Louise scared, the better I able to help her manage her behavior. But even after 7 years, I don’t know all of Louise’s triggers. Just when I think that she is calm and able to handle a passing dog, she lunges and loses it. For example, we walked by a parked car yesterday and there was a lady sitting in it with her window down. The dogs and I didn’t see the lady. As we started to walk past, close to the driver’s side, the lady said out her open window “hello.” That startled Louise and she reared and growled and barked. It feels like 2 steps forward, 1 step back, much of the time.
Here is my list of Lulu’s fear behaviors:
- She growls and aggressively barks at people or animals that make her nervous. This includes running the fence line and when people enter the house.
- She cowers and does other submissive behaviors, like hiding behind me. This is mostly in the house. This is common when there are loud noises, like fireworks, or thunder.
- She pulls and lunging toward the person or animal that makes her scared. This is out of the house on leash behavior.
- The worst and most dangerous fear-based reaction she has is that she snaps and bites at people that scare her. It is usually unprovoked by the person.
My theory about why she is so fearful goes back to her possible lack of socialization during that critical sensitive period of puppyhood at 6 to 10 weeks of age (see my recent post on this topic). I think that she was probably left alone in a barn or a field, or under a rock, with maybe her mom and sister and had very little human interaction in her early weeks. Since there was a collar embedded in her neck when she was rescued, clearly someone put the collar on her and then ignored her as she grew bigger over the weeks. I rescued her at about 20 to 24 weeks, so the lack of socialization already imprinted her fear center by that time.
Today Louise is afraid of strange people and animals. I noticed that she is more fearful of men than women (which I understand is common). She definitely does not like people in hats, male or female. She has not been around children much so I don’t know if she is fearful of them, but she definitely is afraid of adults. I wonder about racial differences, but she appears to be afraid of everyone equally. She is fine with dogs that she does not know at the dog park when off leash, but can have a fear reaction to the same dogs when walking by on leash. She has specific dog friends in the neighborhood that she is fine with and then there are certain dogs that just make her see RED. I guess experts would classify her has clearly ‘leash aggressive.’
Managing the Fear
I am a big proponent of avoidance and distraction. When I see someone walking a dog toward us, I try if possible, to turn around and walk the other way. This way Louise never gets close enough to enter what I call her Red Zone. There is a certain distance at which she will start to show stress. She can manage to hold it together only for so long and then she enters the Red Zone from which there is no coming back. The weird thing is that it is not with all dogs or people, so I never know exactly when she is going to blow. She really hates big white dogs, but one of her best friends is a white Shepard mix. She doesn’t like the little yappy dogs around the neighborhood (Havanese, Lhasa Apso, etc.) but she doesn’t mind the old blind pug or the scrappy loose mop that lives down by the river. If she knows certain dogs she can be fine with them, but not all dogs. She is actually fine at the dog park off leash.
When walking Louise I try to be very aware of what is coming and going around us. I try to anticipate what is around the corner whenever possible. The more distance I can have between us and a stranger or strange animal, the better able I am to reduce her fear and stress. When frightened on a walk, Louise tries to make the scary thing, person or animal, go away by growling, barking, and/or lunging. My method is first to try and remove her from the situation. When unfamiliar dogs are coming towards us, I turn around, walk down another street, sometimes, if trapped, I will walk up someone’s driveway and keep Louise’s focus on me. I think it is weird but many dog people don’t understand that when I turn around and walk the other way (with 3 dogs in tow), I am trying to avoid them. Many times those people will follow right behind us or cut us off as I round the street (my neighborhood streets all loop around because we are a peninsula). When I can’t avoid a strange dog there are a few things I do. First, I make everyone sit and look at me until the dog/person passes. Louise is better if the stranger is in front of us (which makes sense so she can see them). Sometimes, I place my body in her line of sight to force focus on me. Then, once they pass, I can move along at a safe distance. When a runner or walker or even a car comes by, I always have the dogs sit and wait until they pass. For me, keeping everyone under control is critical for their safety, mine, and of course, the stranger/strange animal. Having all dogs ‘sit stay’ is my key, not that I trust that Louise won’t lunge if not watched.
A mistake that I used to make was to tighten up on her leash when walking past things that I knew scared her. This was so I could control the lunge if it happened. However, I think that my tension traveled down the leash to her and reinforced her negative behavior. Now I try to be more aware of just moving along and not reacting. I want to believe that the leash is not the control mechanism between me and my dog, but, sadly, when Louise sees red, no words seem to keep calm or control a fearful dog.
I can feel the dog tension when there is an outside cat, fox, or squirrel nearby. I just keep walking and try to have them ignore the critter. Squirrels can be very stupid (as we know) and I have even had foxes come directly in front of the pack without a care. This is not so easy to handle other than using my ‘ignore’ command. When they ‘ignore’ something like this, they get a treat. It really depends on how close the threat. Too close nothing works other than to get out of the zone as quickly as possible to regain equilibrium.
Finally, I practice what I call the ‘look at me’ technique. Giving her a treat when she focuses on me. When she looks in my eyes. Every chance I get, I try to reinforce her ‘looking at me’ for guidance and direction. My hope is that by her focusing on me, which is safe, she can calm down enough to move along.
Distance, avoidance, distraction, and focus. These are the tools in my Louise bag.
If your dog is leash aggressive and fearful you might want to consider a professional trainer to help you with getting control of the situation. If a walk is not fun for you, it surely no fun for your dog.