Managing Your Overwhelmed Dog

As the modern dog’s role continues to evolve from that of working dog to companion animal, there is more pressure on all dogs to cope and behave well in an increasingly busy human world. Dogs assume many roles in our lives ranging from service animal to valued family companion, and while this variance has its positive side, many dogs find themselves overwhelmed by novel situations and environments.  Common signs of stress include lip licking, yawning, whining, excessive barking, destructive chewing, drooling, ‘dry’ panting, restlessness, loss of appetite, sleep disturbance, nervousness, impulsiveness, reactivity and aggressive behavior.  Whether your dog is already overwhelmed by new places or unpredictable situations or you are looking for ways to encourage his confidence, the training and management solutions are very similar.

Set your dog up for success by avoiding situations and environments that overwhelm him. Even the most confident dogs can sometimes have difficulty during family celebrations or holiday events. If your dog does not enjoy these social situations, create a safe zone for him such as a gated off room which will help prevent stress and any behavioral problems that might be exacerbated by your dog’s inability to cope. Think twice about taking your dog to places like county fairs, expos, dog shows or holiday celebrations. While these events might be fun for you, it can be a very different experience for your dog and he or she will be much happier curled up on the couch at home while you go out and celebrate. 

Most people would love their dogs to be social butterflies and not have to worry about who they bring into their homes, but a dog that lacks social confidence still has to cope with novelty in the home every day. The delivery man, a visiting friend, children on a playdate or a house cleaning service might make perfect sense to you, but strange people wandering around the home can be confusing and frightening for your dog.  If you notice that your dog is stressed, make her feel safer by putting her in a safe zone or introduce her to new situations slowly, ensuring that she is kept under her stress threshold.  Start with having one friend over and allow her to interact in whatever way she feels comfortable inside the home and in your back garden.  If your dog is nervous around people, take the pressure off her by instructing your guests to ignore her and stay out of her space until she makes the choice to interact with them. You can also arm your guests with your dog’s favorite toys and food so she builds a positive association with their presence. Have them gently throw these treats or toys towards your dog as they enter and again instruct them to keep away from her space unless she makes the decision to interact. If you have any reservations about how your dog might respond to new people in the home, keep everyone safe by putting your dog in her safe zone while your guests or home workers are there.

When you think it appropriate, take your dog to a park or less busy street and motivate him to discover his environment with things that make him feel good such as your touch, praise, food, or toys.  One of the best ways to do this is to encourage his seeking skills by playing games that utilize his sense of smell. A simple game such as “go find it” is easy to play just about anywhere. Start in an area where your dog feels confident and use food if he is food motivated and toys if he is motivated by toys. Throw small treats/toys on the ground and as he searches for them, tell him to go find. As he learns and becomes confident with the game, move to areas that might be more challenging for him, always ensuring that he remains comfortable. 

One of the best ways to encourage confidence in different environments can come from watching what confident dogs do in these environments. If your dog has a canine friend that he likes to interact with, take that friend with you on walks. Social walking in not only good for people, but there is strength in numbers and merely following and watching what a more confident dog does in a particular situation, can help yours. Small play groups give dogs a chance to interact and play, but sometimes just a daily, consistent walking schedule can help.

Dogs that are overwhelmed do best when things are predictable. Domesticated animals are amazingly adaptive, but every dog is different and while some might breeze through life being happy and confident, others find novelty hard to cope with. The more predictable the day can be, the safer your dog will feel. Feeding and walking schedules are a good way to start as well as limiting visitors to only those your dog feels comfortable with. Once your dog is able to cope better, schedules can be varied and new things or people can be introduced slowly.  

Probably the most important way to help your overwhelmed dog cope better is to give her more autonomy and choice over what she does and doesn’t want to do. Dogs that are punitively trained have very little control over their lives, but even dogs that are taught in a humane way can find their lives completely micromanaged by their human caregivers and are unable to make even the simplest of choices. But choice is valuable and when you have control over what happens to you, you feel more confident. So become a good observer. Make a list of what your dog likes and what decisions she makes in different situations. If you go on a walk for example, allow certain times in the walk when it is safe for your dog to go where she wants while you follow. Keep the lead relaxed and be quiet for a while, allowing your dog the freedom to take you where she wants to go.

If your dog finds himself in a situation he doesn’t want to be in and tries to practice avoidance, allow him to leave. If he chooses to go to his bed when you have guests around, give him the space to settle quietly and allow him some alone time. Think of all the ways you can give your dog choice and you are sure to see a change in him as choice is a potent confidence booster.

Be aware that confidence is not going to emerge overnight. Depending on how overwhelmed your dog is he might never become a social butterfly or enjoy being in a crowded place, but positive social experiences can happen without him having to touch anyone or be exposed to busy environments. If you are sensitive to your dog’s social barometer and his ability to adapt to novel situations, you will not put your dog under needless stress. This in itself will go a long way to creating a more confident canine.


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Positively Expert: Victoria Stilwell

Victoria Stilwell is a world-renowned dog trainer best known as the star of the internationally acclaimed TV series, It’s Me or the Dog. A bestselling author, Stilwell frequently appears in the media as a pet expert and is widely recognized and respected as a leader in the field of animal behavior.

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