Rehabilitating a Fearful Anxious Dog: Mora’s First Week

fearful anxious dog

Rehabilitating a Fearful Anxious Dog: Mora’s First Week

Mora is currently on day 23 of her rehabilitation. BUT, let me back up and tell you what we worked on, showed her, and accomplished in her first week! Know that this process will be very different for each dog. While most rehabilitation dogs will have the same goals, meeting those goals will require very different timelines and approaches to the problem. Especially when we’re working with fear and anxiety, patience is key. You can’t tell me not be afraid of spiders any more than you can tell a dog to not fear someone or something. Throw some anxiety into the mix and double the need for patience!

fearful anxious dog

Goals for Days 2-7

  1. Find the food, toy or praise/affection combo that she finds most rewarding.
  2. Start using the reward to build the foundation of a relationship.

You’ll see these look the same from Mora’s first day. They are. Mora and many other dogs need to spend a good deal of time working on these two goals before you can move forward. Without a relationship, none of the other goals we could set would get any traction. And, for me to build a very positive relationship with her, I have to find the magical thing that motivates her! The magical thing may be more than one thing – when she and I are alone in the quiet space some freeze dried meat treats like Vital Essentials or Purebites will do the trick. If another person (right now just my husband) is in the space with us, I haven’t found the food item she believes is valuable enough to ignore her fear of him and focus on me. I’ve also tried a variety of toys – tennis balls, stuffed toys, tug toys, you name it. Those aren’t motivating for her under circumstances where there’s any stressors (including me right now). Praise and affection are the other option for a valuable reward for a dog. Right now, we don’t have a relationship with solid enough footing for her to find my praise and affection valuable.

So, in our work toward goal 1 today we’ll see if hotdogs provide some extra incentive. After that, baked chicken breast if we need to! But, while I’m experimenting with goal 1, I’m making progress on goal 2. I’ll explain how. But first, how do you know what you’re seeing with your dog is fear and anxiety, not just a dog with a bad attitude or aggression issues? They can look pretty similar for the uninitiated!

What Do Fearful Anxious Dogs Look Like?

Most of the clients we see with aggressive dogs actually arrive to our facility with a dog that’s terrified and doesn’t think they have any other option but to appear aggressive so the things they’re afraid of go away. As you can imagine, this is probably a pretty effective tactic for a dog. If they’re afraid of strangers and bark, lunge, nip at them, the strangers DO go away. Most of the fearful anxious dogs I see fall into one or both of these categories:

Shoot First Ask Questions Later – a dog in this category will start getting loud and uncomfortable as soon as they see anything remotely scary. They don’t take time to assess if it’s friend or foe, if they should shoot or not – they just start shooting. Eventually, after a few seconds/minutes/hours, they’ll calm down enough to see that the thing they were shooting at wasn’t actually the enemy.

My Bucket is Already Full – a dog in this category is carrying around an imaginary 5-gallon bucket with them everywhere they go. Their bucket is so full of emotional baggage, stress, anxiety and anything else you can imagine that they can’t hold anything else in their bucket. As soon as you try to drop something in there, it overflows the other side. They’re basically at their maximum capacity already for stress, and any stress applied causes an equal reaction.

There are some more obvious signs of anxiety: frantic movements, inability to settle, pacing, excessive panting or drooling, fight or flight response to regular situations.

Some of the less obvious signs of anxiety are skin and coat issues, stomach issues, unable or unwilling to engage with you, unpredictable behavior.

Mora is both of these – she shoots first and asks questions later AND her bucket is already full. So, we have some work to do!

Building the Foundation of a Relationship with a Fearful Anxious Dog

First, my behavior for Mora needs to be predictable. I always speak calmly, move intentionally, and follow a similar pattern or routine when we’re working together. For example, I’ll crouch down outside the kennel for a few moments before I open it, then crouch down again with the leash in hand and wait for her to come to me. I’ll talk to her throughout, giving her cues as to what the plan is so she’ll start to recognize those words. She definitely already knows about “going outside”!

When we’re moving between spaces from the kennel to the outside fence, to the training room, I’ll stop and wait if she starts to get overwhelmed or uncomfortable.

Our exercise the last few days has been based on the idea of the start of clicker training, but because I’m horrible at remembering to have a clicker in hand, I make my own click. Here are the steps and the video demonstrating her progress on Day 4.

At first, if I make the clicking noise and Mora looks at me, she gets rewarded. As she learns the game, she’ll more consistently look at me when she hears the noise, even when she’s in the middle of a retreat to the other side of the room! Regardless of the game I’m trying to play with her, if she approaches me, she ALWAYS gets a treat. I want to be the most rewarding thing in the room by far!

I’ll start adding obedience to this game when she’s ready for it – stay tuned!

Decompress and Work Toward Our Goals

You can probably tell I’m not asking much of Mora in the first week. She needs some space to decompress and adjust to the new environment, which currently includes a rather loud kennel room for her. This is so far outside of what she was used to that if I rush her, we won’t have a good outcome. Patience is the name of the game in fearful anxious dog rehabilitation. Since Mora’s bucket is already full, she needs time to adapt and adjust before I add anything more to it.

Stay tuned for more updates as we go along!