He was terrified of new people and new situations. Where he should have just been curious or maybe a little wary, he would go into a full blown panic. He didn't trust anyone, not even me, and that's where the problems started.
Hippo's warning signs:
- agoraphobia (fear of open spaces)
- fear of the dark
- fear of noises
- fear of objects
- stranger danger
- increased reactivity (growling, lunging, barking) to dogs, objects, or people while on lead
- no eye contact
Hippo would bark at anyone or anything that surprised him. If he encountered a familiar person in a dark hallway, he would growl and lunge. He didn't trust strangers and he hated walks, espcially at night. If he heard a distant dog barking while we were on a walk, he would try to run home or he would displace and redirect his fear and lunge at the next person he saw. His behaviors were so extreme, I knew he needed help. I turned to the vet behaviorist Karen Overall and her relaxation protocol.
A reactive dog goes from 0-100 in seconds. They go into fight or flight mode in an instant. They may see new situations, objects, and people as threats to their safety or their people's safety. A socialized dog who has learned to trust people and other dogs doesn't worry as much. The goal with the relaxation protocol is to condition the dog that certain situations are managable. A dog can learn how to calm himself down and to reason through a scary situation by first learning to trust and defer to their pet parent. With a loving home, time, and a lot of patience, a dog can become less reactive over time.
I saw a significant change in Hippo after we started the relaxation protocol. He was generally calmer and was more tolerant of the things that used to make him react. He stopped barking or chuffing at every little noise that he heard inside the house. Within 6 months, he was able to go on walks without reacting at people or objects. Within 1 year, he was able to go on walks at night without reacting (most of the time).
Many of my clients come to me with dogs like Hippo. They are desperate for help and are often hoping that medication will fix the problem. While medication can help reduce anxiety, without a behavior modification program, the dog will not get better. The important thing to remember is that this type of training is teaching the dog new behaviors. It is resetting the brain and remodeling impulsive behaviors into more normal responses. It is not a quick fix, but its the foundation for all normal behavior which makes this type of work so worthwhile and beneficial to any dog who is suffering from severe fear and anxiety.
How to help your reactive dog:
- Avoid situations where your dog is likely to react until you've worked on conditioning your dog to not be afraid of that situation. Go in stages, baby steps with lots of rewards. For example, I had to stop walking Hippo in my neighborhood for 2 weeks while we worked on the protocol. It took months of feeding him outside at night and then walking him with string cheese for him to like walks at night.
- Crate train your dog and make it positive. A fearful dog needs a safe place to retreat to especially when strangers come over.
- Work with a compassionate trainer and veterinarian who understand dog behavior and reactivity. This article doesn't scratch the surface on the amount of training, counter conditioning, and behavior modification that may be needed to help a reactive dog.
Dog reactivity is very complex and every dog is different in terms of their degree of socialization and fear. Check out these links for more information and seek professional help. Having a reactive dog can be challenging and rewarding. Don't go it alone!