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Helping Dogs who are Afraid on Walks

Updated on July 31, 2015
alexadry profile image

Adrienne is a former veterinary hospital assistant, certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

Dog fearful on walks
Dog fearful on walks | Source

Understanding Your Dog's Fear on Walks

Sometimes owners aren't aware that their dog's leash pulling is triggered by fear. The owners may simply think they have an exuberant dog with too much energy; yet, to a behavior expert, the dog is instead sending stress signals left and right.I call these dogs "emotional pullers." These dogs do not need training to learn good leash manners, they need behavior modification first, and after that, once the fear subsides, they can be trained to walk nicely on the leash.

Truth is, a dog who is fearful on walks is likely in a flight and fight state of mind. In this state of mind, there's little space for learning as the dog has more important things to focus on. What happens to his body exactly? A variety of chemical changes occur. Hormones and neurotranmitters are released causing a variety of physiological changes. Let's see some of them:

  • Increased heart rate, increased breathing and increased blood pressure
  • Increased blood flow to muscles and muscle tension (so the dog can sprint into action)
  • Increased blood sugar levels so to supply the body with more energy
  • Appetite suppression (this happens so the blood can flow from the intestines to the muscles for action)
  • Pupil dilation (so to see with more clarity)
  • Inability to concentrate

After the scary event is over, dogs go through a recovery phase, where the body resumes a state of normality. You'll literally see the dog "shake off" the stress allowing those tight muscles to relax once again,normal breathing resumes and the heart rate slows down. While the occasional startle may not do much damage, the effects ofprolonged stress may overtime undermine the dog's immune system.

What are signs of dogs fearful on walks? There are several signs, some are quite evident, other not so much. Following are some signs you are walking a fearful dog:

  • Walking in a zig-zag, disorderly manner
  • Barking/lunging at triggers
  • Frequently turning around to check things out
  • Inability to take treats
  • Inability to focus on the owner
  • Pulling ahead
  • Evident startle response to noises
  • Pulling to go back home
  • Attempts to escape from the collar
  • Reluctance to move forward (the dog puts on his brakes)
  • Excessively scanning the area (looking side to side)
  • Slowing down/freezing

What causes these dogs to overreact on walks? There are several possibilities. Poor socialization and lack of exposure to novelty during puppy hood, past negative experiences, and medical conditions are just a few.

Tips for Helping Dogs Fearful on Walks

Walking a fearful dog can be frustrating, mainly because it's hard to control the environment. Right when your dog is walking with confidence, a car back fires or your neighbor decides to move the trash can.

  • Try to walk when there are less triggers around. If your dog is terrified of the trash truck, avoid the hours when they collect trash. If traffic noises terrify him, walk when there is less traffic.
  • Walk on the same route each day to get your dog used to it before walking on new roads.
  • Treats shouldn't be used to lure the dog closer to something the dog is afraid of. The dog may get closer to the trigger and startle, and even learn that a treat predicts that something scary is about to happen.
  • When your dog feels fear of something, take away the drama by saying something like "Oh, it's just a garbage can, you silly girl!"Talk in a happy tone of voice.
  • Determine what triggers your dog's fear and work on desensitization and counterconditioning. The "look at that" game can be applied to anything your dog fears. Use high-value treats to create positive associations.
  • Train your dog to make eye contact by making a kissy sound followed by a treat.
  • Always praise your dog when she decides to investigate something she is scared of.
  • Walk your dog with calm, confident dogs your dog knows well and doesn't react to. Following these dogs may help your dog calm down.
  • Stay calm when you see an upcoming trigger. Don't tighten the leash as this will become a cue that will alert your dog that a fearful event will take place. Cue your dog to turn around. For more on this learn about" dog emergency exits."
  • Try to use a DAP collar.
  • Try walking your dog with a Thundershirt or Anxiety Wrap.
  • Learn to recognize subtle signs of stress dogs manifest.

Alexadry, all rights reserved, do not copy.

A great video packed wth tips for dogs fearful on walks


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    • Edward J. Palumbo profile image

      Ed Palumbo 3 years ago from Tualatin, OR

      I appreciate this information. We'd gotten our dog (a rat terrier mix) from a refuge, and she's very good to me, very trusting, but she walks like we're on a patrol in enemy territory. I stop frequently, I kneel and play to let her relax, but she's been with us a year and reacts to every visitor by barking at them, to every approaching male as a threat, so we step off the sidewalk or greenway until they pass. I got her when she was almost three, and I don't know what she encountered before we brought her home. She's gentle and caring with out other dog, an 11 year old dachshund, but anything/anyone outside the home is a potential threat. After more than a year, I don't know what it'll take to make her feel more secure.

    • alexadry profile image

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 3 years ago from USA

      So many dogs love to walk, that it may seem odd to find that occasionally one who dreads them. It's very sad.

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 3 years ago from Philippines

      Very informative. You would think dogs love to walk, but now I realize for timid dogs, it can be a scary experience.

    • alexadry profile image

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 3 years ago from USA

      Walking a fearful dog is indeed no fun. You need to scan the environment continuously to determine the presence or absence of triggers. Not the relaxing typical walk.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Interesting and so helpful for dog owners. Walking dogs can be fun but also with other dogs along the way it can be problematic and fear is not a good sign in dogs.

    • alexadry profile image

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 3 years ago from USA

      Poor Skippy! We can't blame these dogs for having such a hard time overcoming abusive situations. Sounds like the short route is reassuring and he likes the routine. Thanks for the votes up!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 3 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Skippy, the dog we have now who was my mother's dog prior to her death was abused as a puppy. He has never outgrown his fear of strangers. Now at his age with his developing cataracts, we simply let him walk his preferred short route and let him come home again prior to our taking a longer walk without him. Interesting post! Voted that as well as up and useful.