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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Wonder why your dog is terrified? Hint: it's YOU.

I was in the small dog run at Washington Square Park today with one of my pup clients. He's a rambunctious terrier, capable of jumping 4 feet straight up in the air. Needless to say, when someone is holding their dog in their arms, he leaps up with all his might to try and get to said pooch. The dog in question was a long-haired chihuahua, very small and very cute. But my pup was pestering her owner(?)/dog walker(?) so the guy put the chihuahua down. Well, my pup became INCREDIBLY excited and chased the chihuahua around, trying to get a decent butt sniff. And what did the chihuahua do? Well she ran screaming, of course. This only caused my little man to chase more enthusiastically, because a fleeing butt is much more enticing than a stationary one. Here's where the giant mistake was made, and where the lesson must be learned. The owner/walker/noob didn't quietly stride over and calm his terrified charge. He RAN, yelling with fear, and joined my pup in the chase of the frightened chihuahua. When he caught up with her, he scooped her up and clutched her to his chest, "reassuring" her with panic still in his voice. And what did my pup do? Why, he jumped up to try and sniff the chihuahua again!

So what needs to be said about the events that transpired?

Well first of all, it should be common knowledge that picking up a dog in a dog run (or around any group of off-leash dogs) is HIGHLY inadvisable, because most dogs will jump up to see what the fuss is about, and the dog being held will feel EXTRA defensive ("Daddy must be holding me because he's scared, so I will protect him with my little teeth"). If you must pick up a dog to remove him from a tussle, do so quickly, and put him back down ASAP.

Secondly, dogs pick up on our emotions. If we panic, they panic. I'm sure this little chihuahua was scared for SOME reason that may or may not be legitimate. But she's a dog, not a defenseless infant. If she had said the right things to my pup in doggy language (a squeal or a snap of the teeth generally works well, with a little snarl thrown in for good measure), he would have backed off, or at least stopped chasing her long enough for her to be 'rescued'. Instead, her caretaker panicked, thus making her think she was completely justified in being scared. So she continued to run, and my pup continued to chase. In short, we only escalate our dogs' fear by losing our cool. If we want to help our pooches overcome their fears, we have to show them that we are confident, so they can be, too.

And finally, if your dog is scared of other dogs, maybe throwing her in with the sharks isn't the best way to help her deal with her fear. Start slowly, by doing leashed introductions one on one with calm dogs in familiar environments. When she can handle those without issue, let her sniff dogs through the fence of the run, and then finally ease her in. The key? KEEP CALM. If you don't give her a reason to be afraid, she'll take her cues from you and bravely march onward.


  1. Good post. I have a friend who is totally fearbased herself and I've watched her pass that on to two different dogs now. She swears it's not her that's making these dogs crazy, but it's so easy to see. At least from this side....

  2. thx Jodi! had a few clients like that myself. it's a tough one to fix... requires a lot of self-awareness that most people aren't willing to address.