All dogs are different, each with their own quirks, fears, and anxieties. As a community of dog owners, we all need to respect those who need space and learn to assess situations. Emily shares her life with a nervous dog and her top tips on how to manage those anxieties.
Danny is my 13-year-old Trailhound, and he’s a yellow dog. A yellow dog is a dog who needs space. This could be a nervous dog, a dog recovering from surgery or with health issues, a reactive dog, a bitch in heat, a rescue dog…and this could be space from people or other animals or both.
I have lived with Danny for 10 years after rehoming him from Dogs Trust, and dealing with his anxieties is part of every day life. I’d like to talk here about my personal experiences with Danny’s anxieties and how this affects both myself and him. I’ll be open and honest and hope that it can help raise a little awareness about life with a nervous dog.
Danny is a nervous dog. He always has been. He was bred as a racing dog and lived outside with minimal human contact for the first couple of years of his life. So his socialisation was pretty much none existent. When I first got him, he’d never even been in a house. Everything terrified him, the tv, the washing machine, the telephone, everything. However, he soon discovered that all of these things were quite safe and nothing to worry about and that actually, this indoor life was quite cosy and enjoyable!
Some things have proven to be not so easily solved though, namely his social anxiety. At first, it was hard to take him anywhere. Noises would make him jump, he wouldn’t settle anywhere there was other people or dogs around, and he would regularly become so scared that he would physically shake. We worked hard together to overcome this, and have come on leaps and bounds since those early days. We now find Danny’s feelings are very much dependant on the behaviour of the people and dogs around him.
Is my dog aggressive? No! Is my dog reactive? Yes.
Danny wouldn’t randomly attack a person or another dog for no reason. He will react to situations he is put in. For example, if we’re out for a walk and another dog calmly walks past, Danny will do the same. However, if a dog off the lead charges over to him, Danny will go into defence mode in reaction to this behaviour. If we are a pub surrounded by people, Danny will stand and watch them going about their business and may even wonder if that person over there might share their meal with him. However, if someone approaches him and bends over putting their face at his, he will go into defence mode in reaction to this.
We regularly have problems with dogs off the lead. Despite his age, Danny is a very active dog. He loves hiking, climbing mountains and going on adventures as many other dogs do. And I love doing these things with him. However, sometimes it’s panic-inducing. We’ll be walking through the woods and see a dog coming in the other direction off the lead. As an owner of a yellow dog, my reaction to this is “oh no”. We regularly end up off the path in some bushes trying to avoid an off lead dog.
So many dog owners let their dogs off the lead without having proper control over them, and for someone on my end of the lead, this is problematic.
Please Think About The Other Perspective
If you are walking your dog off the lead and your dog runs over to mine; could you instantly recall your dog away if I asked you to? If you can’t and your excited, friendly dog bounces at Danny and he reacts badly, snaps or lunges at your dog; who’s at fault? I’ve encountered many dog owners muttering comments about my ‘aggressive’ dog because their dog has jumped in Danny’s face and he has snapped at them; never bitten, just snapped. You might be thinking “that would be your fault because my dog is just being friendly”.
So let’s switch it around. You’re out walking your dog. You’re walking him on the lead as you always do because he’s a nervous older dog, who has arthritis and is going deaf. I’m out with my friendly excited dog, walking off the lead. My dog spots your dog from a distance and is so excited to see them that they sprint across to you and jump up in your dog’s face to say hello. You wave over to me to ask me to call my dog away, but my dog ignores my calls. Your old dog is panicked by this, but can’t run away as they are on the lead so the only way they can change this situation is to snap at my dog to let them know they aren’t happy with their behaviour. Who’s fault is it that my dog got snapped at? Mine or yours?
I’m not preaching here, I’m just trying to switch your thoughts around to what it is like for those who share life with a nervous dog.
Danny and Strangers
Danny also has anxieties with strangers due to his lack of socialisation at a young age. He’s a bit like a cat in the sense that the less you are interested in him, the more he is interested in you! However Danny is quite an unusual breed, and he’s a very handsome boy, so people wanting to say hello to him is a common occurrence.
I will always tell people who approach him that he is nervous, but this gets a variety of reactions. They will stop their direct approach to him and ask questions or I can give them a biscuit to offer him. These people are great! Some people will say, and this is a direct quote, “oh I’m great with dogs, he won’t be nervous with me”, then bend right over putting their face at his. These people will then be shocked and mutter things when he growls at them. We get a lot of judgement from strangers.
As it stands at the moment, I will always check out a situation before I put Danny in it. I will check how busy it is in a pub before we enter, or how many dog owners are getting dogs out of a car off the lead to go for a walk in those woods etc. I’ve missed taking Danny to many places and doing many things because it’s been too busy for him.
All Dogs Are Different
The message I’d like to put across here is, all dogs are different. Some dogs would be in a pub beer garden and relish the attention and belly rubs from strangers. Some dogs, like Danny, would love being in that pub beer garden with their human and be having a great time until someone puts them in a situation they find uncomfortable.
Please listen to dog owners about their dog, they know them best. Ask if you can say hello to the dog before you approach them. If they say no, or inform you the dog is nervous or unwell or reactive; take this on board. As a dog owner who notices people approaching my dog and worries, I can tell you that this is all much appreciated!
If you see a dog with a yellow lead, bandana, lead cover, vest or ribbon; this dog is a yellow dog! Speak to the owner before you have any involvement with the dog. It may be something as simple as a bitch in heat, it may be the dog is deaf and you could startle them if you fuss them when they haven’t heard you coming, it may be a dog like Danny who is nervous of you approaching, or it may be the extreme of an aggressive dog who may react badly to a strangers presence.
For reactive dogs like Danny, situations they are uncomfortable with don’t just affect them there and then in that moment, they can affect them with other things afterwards too. Just the same as with humans, nerves caused by one thing can also affect them with other things. We’ve had many instances with Danny where he has been fine and relaxed and happy until another dog or an uncomfortable approach by someone has put him on edge for the rest of the day affected his enjoyment of the rest of his adventure.
If you share life with a nervous dog, I hope that reading this helps. If not, I hope it helps you to see it from the other point of view.
Tips for helping dogs with anxiety
If you are someone that lives with an anxious dog, I’d like to share some of my tips for coping with day to day life. These are what I find helps with Danny, obviously, every dog is different, but they might be worth a try!
- Get yellow for your dog. These are sold on various websites and include bandanas, vest, leads and much more. I got a yellow ‘nervous’ lead for Danny and it really helped. People really noticed it.
- Danny is a foodie dog, and I never go anywhere without biscuits these days. They are so helpful for distracting his attention away from something or giving to people to give to him. If your dog isn’t a foodie dog, perhaps their favourite toy could work in a similar way.
- Calming products and treats can be really helpful too. I have a spray for Danny which I spray on his chest. It’s an all-natural product made from essential oils which not only smells wonderful but seems to help him stay calm. You can get a variety of calming products like this including tablets, collars and spot-on treatments.
- Know your dog’s limitations. You know your dog better than anyone, and you should both be working together to get the best for both of you. If a situation looks like it might be too much for your dog, maybe give it a miss and try again next time.
- Give your dog time out’s. I do this often with Danny, especially in situations like a pub or similar public area. We’ll periodically leave for a while, go outside, stretch our legs, let Danny go to the toilet, offer him a drink, have a little walk about etc. He will often then settle faster when we go back in.
Do you have any other tips?
Do you share life with a nervous dog and have any other tips? What are your experiences with your yellow dog? Has this helped you understand a different point of view about anxiety in dogs? Let us know below, we’d love to hear your comments!
For advice on taking a nervous dog to dog friendly places click here.