It can feel like the dog world is polarized between people who "get" anxious and reactive dogs and people who don't. Worse, the people who don't get it can be dismissive and unkind, not to mention making it difficult for you to navigate the world with your dog by not respecting personal space.
Lately, however, people are coming to realize that completely calm, bomb-proof dogs are closer to an exception than a rule. Many dogs have something they're not good with, whether it's alone time, storms, cats or children. This increase in awareness means there are now more and easier ways to help an anxious dog than just walking them at 5am. Here are eight ways you can make life with your anxious or reactive dog better for both of you.
1. Better training. In recent years, modern trainers have learnt that an overwhelming majority of dogs who lunge at, bark at and fight other dogs and humans aren't doing so because they're "dominant" or because they want to be "pack leader," they're doing it because they're scared. A frightened dog, especially one who feels like he can't escape, will turn to aggression to "get him before he gets me." Now we know aggression is rooted in fear, we know to avoid trainers that "rehabilitate" aggressive dogs by dominating them; hurting the dog more just makes him shut down, it doesn't stop him being scared. Change the emotion, on the other hand, and you'll change the behavior. A dog who isn't scared of other dogs will have no need to bark or fight. Find a good trainer, ideally one certified by CCPDT, and you can work wonders together.
2. Make him visible. This might sound like the last thing you want to do with an anxious dog -- I've spent my share of time hiding behind corners and not opening my door until I've checked the coast is clear -- but drawing attention to your dog's anxiety can be a good way to tell other people not to approach. Put a yellow ribbon on your dog's leash, or buy a bandanna or harness that says "nervous" or "no dogs" and you can give people a head's up without needing to yell at them.
3. Muzzle Up! If your dog is reactive and big enough that you could lose control if he lunges, consider buying a good quality muzzle. A muzzled dog is still seen by most people as a dangerous dog, which can lead to some unpleasantness for the owner, but thankfully the Muzzle Up! project is trying to get rid of that prejudice and spread the word that a muzzle is a sign of a responsible owner and a safe dog. Muzzles can make owners of aggressive dogs feel much safer, and therefore enjoy being outside with their dog more.
4. Consider changing your vet. Some vets are great with nervous and aggressive dogs, but others are still very old-school, not listening to owners and using invasive and rough handling. There are new techniques out there for vets dealing with anxious dogs. Dr. Sophia Yin has developed a program for vets that focuses on low-stress handling, which can make a huge difference in your dog's anxiety levels. Dogs In Need of Space (DINOS) even have a list of vets in the United States that go the extra mile for anxious dogs; if you do want to change your vet, it's a great place to start.
5. Learn your dog's body language. Your dog is communicating how he's feeling all the time, and the more you know about what he's saying, the easier it can be to avoid stressful situations. Something that was fine for Rex last week might be too much to cope with today due to a phenomenon called "trigger stacking," so keeping an eye on how your dog's feeling is vital. There are lots of resources for learning the basics -- Lili Chin has made some lovely posters, and there's even an iPhone app, so you needn't run out and buy a textbook. Just remember that every dog is an individual so you might not see all the signs of stress all the time. My dog only pants when she's hot, for example.
6. Try some medication. When I tell people, "My dog's on Prozac," most of them laugh; they think it's a funny way of talking about her anxiety. It's not: she really is on Prozac! Many of the same antidepressant medications millions of humans use have been proven to help dogs with anxiety have the confidence to try new behaviors. A conversation with your vet is the first step in going down this route, but there is a lot of specialist information out there too. Fearfuldogs' Debbie Jacobs has just published "Does My Dog Need Prozac," which spells out the risks and benefits in great detail.
There are also a lot of over-the-counter pills and products marketed at helping anxious dogs, but be careful if you choose to experiment with them. Most "calming supplements" haven't been tested at all, and evidence for the ones that have been is sketchy at best. Ultimately it's a personal choice, but do remember that there is a kind of placebo effect in treating dogs, too.
7. Find a shared interest. It's okay to be disappointed that your dog doesn't want to go to the dog park, agility trials or pavement cafés, but try focusing on what you guys can do together instead. Setting up indoor obstacle courses, going on quiet wilderness hikes, nosework classes or just chilling at home -- there are lots of things anxious dogs can excel at. Don't try to force the dog you have to be the dog you wanted, in the end you're likely to make his problems worse and make your relationship strained.
8. Know your limits. If you're really out of your depth, or the dog represents a serious danger to you or your children, it's okay to consider rehoming or, in some cases, euthanasia as a last resort. Training and medications are expensive and anxious dogs often require a lifetime commitment. In some cases it's safer for you and better for the dog to find a new home if you don't have the resources. You're not a bad person or a failure if you know you're taking the wisest, kindest choice in the circumstances.
With these options, life with an anxious dog doesn't have to be lonely!