Updated: May 12, 2022
The most important thing that we can do for our dogs is to ensure that they feel safe, with the emphasis placed on feeling safe, as opposed to simply being safe; this distinction is key. However, for those with fearful, anxious or reactive dogs, it can certainly be quite a challenging task. So, how do we actually achieve this? Let’s explore five ways in which we can provide our dogs with a sense of safety and security.
Regular Health Checks
Routine veterinary check-ups are a great way to keep our dogs in tiptop shape, both physically and mentally. In addition, if we observe a sudden change in behaviour at any point, this always warrants a thorough veterinary examination in order to rule out any underlying pain, discomfort, or previously undetected health conditions. The importance of this is highlighted in the recent study carried out, entitled “Pain and Problem Behaviour in Cats and Dogs.” Doctor Daniel Mills et al. found that, of 100 recent referral cases of several authors, around a third of those involved some form of painful condition, although this figure is a rather conservative estimate; the actual figure is thought to be as great as eighty per cent. You can read about the study here: Animals | Free Full-Text | Pain and Problem Behavior in Cats and Dogs (mdpi.com)
Looking after our dogs’ mental well-being is just as essential as caring for their physical health. Stress and anxiety impact heavily on the body, affecting both the digestive system and the immune system; appetite will diminish, and regression with toileting is likely. Fearful and anxious behaviours should not be ignored and left to deteriorate further because, potentially, the lifespan of the dog will be shortened, and he will have a poor quality of life.
It is clear that mental health needs to be properly and promptly addressed, which might require the use of anxiolytic medications alongside training. It may be tempting to try to manage these behaviours with non-prescription, unproven supplements and remedies before resorting to medication but, in many cases, this only prolongs the dog’s suffering; it is far more humane to seek professional help as a first line of defence, so that the dog receives the necessary level of support at the earliest opportunity.
Developing sensitivities to sound or becoming noise phobic are further indicators that a dog may well be in pain and, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, veterinary behaviourists consider noise phobia to be a medical emergency. There is a strong correlation between pain and noise phobia, and it has also been suggested that there is a higher occurrence of separation anxiety alongside pain and sound sensitivity. You can read more about this in the studies linked below:
Management in the Home
Management plays a huge part in helping our dogs feel safe. Providing your dog with several safe spaces around the home will allow them to retreat from other pets, and will also offer them respite from children. When in their safe place, they should be left alone to rest, protected from any invasions of their personal space; they should always be respected as sentient beings.
If your dog is worried by people coming into the home, plan ahead and have management strategies in place to protect all parties concerned. This may be in the form of using barriers and safety gates to prevent access to the door and to visitors, or having a safe space set up in a quieter part of the house. This video demonstrates different ways you might do this, with lots of good ideas that will work for varying home layouts: https://youtu.be/sTZTXxOuR8s
You could use television, radio, fans, white noise, etc to mask sounds if your dog is at all worried by noise. If he is triggered by the doorbell or knocking, it isn’t unreasonable to ask visitors to call or text ahead so that you can remove your dog to their safe place before a visit.
In terms of reducing visual triggers, window film can work brilliantly to prevent your dog from watching at glass doors and windows. Patrolling behaviours can really ramp up arousal levels and increase stress, which will also increase the possibility of trigger stacking. There are some really pretty ones available and they still allow the light through; I like the non-adhesive type which is applied using water, as it can easily be peeled back and replaced to allow for counterconditioning.
Management Outside of the Home
If your dog is at all worried by other dogs and people, always advocate for him and protect him from any unwanted advances from others. Limit any interactions that occur, along with changes in environment, so that new experiences are always positive. Give your dog the choice to approach others, without coaxing or luring, and build on these experiences gradually, ensuring that they remain positive.
Walking equipment needs careful consideration to ensure that your dog is both comfortable and safe while outside of the home. My recent blog will help you choose suitable kit: https://www.trailiepawsforthought.com/post/walkies-wear-what-the-science-says
Choosing quieter times and less populated places to walk can make a big difference to your dog. Another option is to hire a secure field, if you are lucky enough to have one local to you, or drive to quieter spots.
Opportunities to have a good sniff not only provide enrichment for your dog, but will also help to lower his stress levels. Building in rest days to your routine is recommended for those that struggle on walks and need a break from stressors to prevent trigger stacking. Staying home to play and enjoy enrichment games such as scentwork and food puzzle toys is a great alternative to a walk, as these activities will help boost confidence and promote rest. Why not do a bit of training and work on loose lead walking, teach a “let’s go” cue for creating distance quickly, or enjoy some engagement games together?
Work on Changing Emotional Responses to Triggers
I am a great believer in helping our dogs to feel better about the things that worry them, rather than relying on distraction to manage these situations. Counterconditioning combined with systematic desensitisation is a wonderful way to make long term and effective change using positive reinforcement, always working at a neutral level of exposure and at the dog’s pace. By consistently pairing the trigger with something the dog really enjoys, such as roast chicken, a positive conditioned emotional response (+CER) will replace their negative feelings and, over time, the dog will spot the trigger and automatically look for his treats, indicating that he has made the connection that the trigger makes the good stuff appear. From this point, distance can be reduced gradually, waiting until a +CER is well established at each distance before decreasing further.
You can read more about counterconditioning and desensitisation here: https://www.trailiepawsforthought.com/post/part-one-a-guide-to-counterconditioning-it-s-both-magic-and-science
As always, seeking help from a qualified professional to support and guide you is highly recommended.
Learn to Read Your Dog’s Body Language
Being able to spot the often subtle, earliest signs of stress is an essential skill if we are to help our dogs feel safe. Displacement behaviours, which are those little, out of context things our dogs do to relieve pressure and “change the subject,” are often the first signs that they are feeling uncomfortable. We may see our dog busy himself with some sniffing if he is feeling conflicted, or we may see him make small gestures known as calming signals, such as a look away, a lick of the lips or nose, or a yawn: these are all clues that our dog needs something to change to provide relief. The key to learning to read our dogs and keep them feeling safe is observation. What do they look like when relaxed? What do we notice about their ears, mouth, eyes, tail, posture? What changes when they start to look worried? If we learn to identify the earliest signs of stress in our dogs, we can monitor them and take action to help them feel safer.
You can read more about recognising signs of stress here: https://pethelpful.com/dogs/Dog-Behavior-The-Body-Language-of-Stress-and-Fear
These are just a few ways to help your dog feel safe, and is by no means an exhaustive list. Safety should always be the number one priority, which will enable our dogs to flourish through building confidence and resilience. Advocate like crazy for your dog in every area of their lives. Observe them, manage their environment to reduce exposure to triggers, and teach them coping skills which will benefit them for the duration of their all-too-short lives. Provide your dog with a predictable routine which will help him cope better with everyday life, and avoid placing him in situations he is not yet able to cope with.
Here's to stress-free snoozes for all!
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