Why is my dog anxious and defensive on walks?

Petplan behaviourist Nick Jones explains why your dog may get nervous and react badly to other pets when you’re out and about – and explains how you can step in to ease their anxiety.

Our dogs don’t always behave perfectly around other pets and people, including when we’re out on what should be enjoyable walks. So what’s the difference between a normal response in our dogs, and an overly anxious one? And at what point should owners be concerned?

A dog that is at ease with the humans and other dogs in its environment will be calm-tempered, affectionate and playful. The odd growl here and there in the light-hearted rough and tumble of play is nothing to worry about. But owners can usually tell without too much difficulty if their dog is excessively anxious around other people or pets, as they’re likely to witness a tell-tale combination of what we call ‘reactive’ behaviours.

These may include defensive responses such as barking, snarling, lunging or nipping; or other, more internalised, reactions such as shaking and extreme avoidance. If your dog is exhibiting any of these behaviours – especially if a previously relaxed pet starts behaving anxiously all of a sudden – it’s a good idea to consult your vet. They will be able to investigate any underlying health issues that could be causing the problem. If it’s a behavioural issue, a dog trainer or behaviourist will be able to provide professional help.

Why does my dog not like other dogs, people or passing bicycles?

Socially anxious dogs typically suffer from a shortfall in social exposure during their early development. A pooch that hasn’t been around many other dogs while growing up and learning about the world may feel defensive around excitable members of its own species that are coming up for a playful nuzzle.

The same is true for dogs that haven’t had much exposure to people. To our pets, the movements and gestures of unfamiliar human beings can come across as erratic and hard to read – and that goes double for lively children! Even at the best of times, some dogs don’t like new people stroking them on top of their heads – they find the gesture intimidating, as they can’t tell what that stranger’s hand is going to do next. Throw in the sudden whooshes of moving bikes and, again, you can see how nervous dogs might find such puzzling events a challenge.

As it’s been difficult to allow young ‘pandemic pups’ to enjoy normal levels of social interaction during lockdown, these dogs may have missed out opportunities for socialisation. And bear in mind that young dogs that are still maturing will find any unfamiliar experience stressful, which could trigger anxious reactions. But it’s never too late to help your dog acquire better park manners – read on to find out how to help them.

What to do if your dog shows signs of reactive behaviour

As a pet owner, it’s important for you to manage any emerging signs of reactive behaviour – follow these tips:

  • Calmly but assertively put yourself between your dog and the other animal, person or stimulus that has triggered their anxiety.
  • Turn your attention fully to your dog, with lots of eye contact. This should create a bit of space that will interrupt their behaviour and enable it to subside.
  • Remove them from the fear-creating situation as soon as possible, to a place where they feel safe.
  • Never shout at them for displaying anxiety – this will only increase their stress. Instead, reward your dog when they show signs of being more relaxed.

If your dog’s anxiety is relatively minor, you could try practising for these situations and increasing their confidence by slowly introducing them to a friend’s quiet and calm dog:

  • Walk both animals at a distance at first until your dog becomes more comfortable, and keep them on a long leash so they don’t feel trapped.
  • Stay calm and upbeat yourself – fussing over an anxious dog can convince them there’s something to worry about. Instead, distract them from the other dog with a favourite toy or game. And ensure their recall training is up to date, so they give you their attention when you ask for it.
  • Don’t push them into interacting, but gradually bring the dogs closer together over several sessions, and reward your dog as they develop in confidence.

How to stop a dog being defensive and nervous

If your dog is still relatively young, you could put in place a social exposure plan that will gradually help them become more settled around other pets and new people. With the right approach, and enough time and effort, dogs can learn to adjust their responses. Working with a dog behaviourist will help ensure that the plan is appropriate for your dog and yourself, and that you both have the ongoing support you need.

Dogs can grow into these defensive behaviours, so seek help at the earliest opportunity if you’re concerned. Some owners elect to do nothing, in the hope their pet will grow out of its social anxiety over time – but that is by no means guaranteed. If you can’t control your dog in public and you’re worried about their reactivity, keep them on the lead or exercise them at home until you can get professional help.

Tips for helping a socially anxious dog

There are also many other things you can do at home to help a nervous dog feel more confident:

  • One way to get them used to unfamiliar ‘strangers’ is to put on different types of clothing at different times – especially bright colours. This will help to acclimatise them to different appearances.
  • Encourage them to investigate a variety of household objects to prepare them for new sights.
  • Take them on walks on the lead (young puppies can be carried) to see and hear other dogs from a reasonable distance.
  • If your dog behaves positively and calmly during these new experiences, always reward them with a treat or toy.

Encourage the positive behaviour, and seek help with their anxiety, and you’ll be doing your bit to raise a relaxed, happy and socially confident pet.

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