An excellent Facebook post was recently shared which dealt with a piece of advice which is commonly given: to ask your dog to sit when triggers are oncoming and you don't have much room to manoeuvre. The post raised the point that this approach is really difficult for fearful, nervous and anxious dogs to cope with. Asking your sensitive dog to sit or remain stationary as a trigger approaches and passes actually risks sensitising them further, and should be avoided. This is really vital information, and the post then raised the question, what should you do instead?
Most dogs will cope better with this scenario if they can keep moving. Approaching on an arc is far less threatening and polite than a direct approach, so avoid face-to-face encounters. You can imagine what it feels like to be asked to sit still and focus while something that worries you makes a direct beeline for you, coming closer and closer, and you can't do anything about it, while you wait for the inevitable. Scary stuff!
If you do get stuck in a tight spot, I would create as much space as you possibly can. Distraction is a good option to keep your dog feeling safe until the trigger has passed, perhaps with a scatter feed (if there isn't a risk of attracting other dogs) or feeding treats by hand. However, bear in mind that distraction is not a long-term solution for reactive behaviours. Counterconditioning and systematic desensitisation are the gold standard of behaviour modification as they focus on helping the dog feel better about a trigger, and building feelings of safety in order to gradually reduce distance. Distraction does not feature in this process, but it is a good tactic when management has failed and you need to keep your dog feeling safe.
You can read all about counterconditioning here: https://www.trailiepawsforthought.com/post/part-one-a-guide-to-counterconditioning-it-s-both-magic-and-science
You can read all about how we can keep our dogs feeling safe here:
Calling out or employing a policeman's stop hand signal might be needed if people do not give you space when it is available, or if you need time to gather yourself and your dog. Wearing yellow is fairly well recognised now as a dog in need of space, but this isn't always respected.
Management of the environment is a major factor here. If at all possible, stick to walks where you know that you will have a good view of what’s coming and can create space for your dog. If it’s not possible, look for things in the environment that you can use to your advantage: fencing, hedges, driveways, cars to duck behind, things to shield you, etc.
I check out new walks without my dogs so that I can scout out places to get off the tracks/paths and avoid the chance of not having enough space. Being stuck with nowhere to go and having a trigger descend on your dog is incredibly hard for them to cope with and will contribute to trigger stacking, as well as making walks less enjoyable for you both. Avoid if you can!
You can read all about trigger stacking here:
If your dog is comfortable with being picked up and would gain comfort from this, that could be an option to protect them, or lift them up and onto something to further distance them from a trigger. This needs to be conditioned in advance so as not to cause any distress, however.
If there are no physical barriers available, you can place yourself between your dog and the trigger to body-block them. Some people also condition a pop-up umbrella to use as a shield.
Keeping them moving with a well-rehearsed emergency “let’s go” and avoiding until the trigger has passed is the best option. This needs to be practised in lots of situations, starting with no distractions or triggers present, so that your dog is able to respond consistently, and when it really counts. Training it as a game and perhaps adding in running can make it more exciting and fun! If your dog is able to take food, you can also feed on the go.
Remember: you always have the option to simply turn and go in the opposite direction, or find an alternative route - you don't have to stick to your planned walk!
Here is a great video on how to train a "let's go!" cue:
This is by no means an exhaustive list of avoidance tactics, but a few ideas to help you on your way to perfecting your ninja moves!
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