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Anxious Adventures: Are you Equipped?

Anxious Adventures: Are you Equipped?

Anxious Adventures: Are you Equipped?

It is important for almost all dogs to regularly experience and explore spaces that aren’t their home environment, and these outings should be part of their daily routine. But, for some anxious dogs, the dog walk can be a very stressful experience.

For our anxious companions, I propose we reframe the dog walk to be a little adventure instead. A quest for a bit of daily doggie knowledge and enrichment, with no path mapped out or destination in mind, just a safe, quiet sniff spot and some time to explore.

There are so many types of adventures you could have, but that’s for another blog. Today I want to make sure that you are properly equipped for your anxious adventures, as all successful quests require tools and provisions!

My list of must-haves for anxious dog owners, and how to best use them:

  1. Comfortable, reliable walking equipment: Escape attempts or reactive episodes can be more likely for fearful dogs. Ensure your harness or collar fit well and all attachments are in working order. If your dog is averse to having their collar, harness or leash put on, you should consider changing your equipment for something new. Equipment can have associations with previously stressful experiences and uncomfortable equipment will cause your dog more distress on a walk. Remember that your adventure starts from home, and a good set-up will help your outing go smoothly.
  2. Positive Reinforcement: Food and a toy. The focus of your anxious adventure should be to support your dog in building their confidence. Well timed reinforcers are critical in a number of ways:
    1. As rewards for training or walking progress – make it beneficial for you dog! Praise and treats can go a long way in helping anxious dogs feel more confident on walks.
    2. As enrichment to scatter in places and encourage sniffing - more sniffing = more calm. Sniffing should be the focus of your outing.
    3. As a focus to hold their attention when avoiding triggers - always helpful when trying to turn and get space away from someone or something.
    4. As a distraction for wayward excited ‘friend’ trying to say hello - throwing a big handful of treats at an oncoming dog has helped me escape a few tricky situations in the past!)

Ensure you’re prepared with your reinforcers by having a well-stocked treat pouch and a favourite, practical toy that can be concealed easily if need be (tennis ball size is best). Always bring them out with you on an outing.

  1. Clear Visual Signals: If your pup needs space, let other people know. Humans are only that…human, and many can’t help that they want to make friends with all the dogs. Use a clear, bright safety vest to help others see that your dog may require some extra consideration. As a consultant I have watched hundreds of people double-take and move away when they have spotted a safety vest on a dog - I can't recommend them strongly enough!
  2. Sensible footwear and clothing: The importance of this only seems to hit home when you are the one trying to run backwards out of a sticky situation with your dog and go arse-over-teakettle in your thongs or have a dog trying to hide in your maxi dress. Please dress for adventure, not for a leisurely stroll!
  3. Your phone: emergencies happen, especially with anxious and reactive pets. Please make sure you have a means of getting help if you need it. A whistle stashed in your treat pouch can be a great help too!

What to avoid:

  1. Wearing headphones: We all what to cram our tree time with extra content – podcasts, music, reels and the rest. Unfortunately, our attention cannot be in 2 places at once. Our anxious pups rely on us to be their eye and ears while on adventures. Just for this half hour, give them your full attention and listen out for possible triggers.
  2. Carrying extra baggage/coffee: Frightened hounds will react in one way or another – be that fight, flight, or freeze. The more encumbered you are, the less likely you will be able to react in time, keep control of your equipment or remove your dog from a situation if needed. I only take what will fit in my training pouch!
  3. Popular areas: Avoid crowded areas with lots of people or other dogs, as this can be overwhelming for anxious dogs. Instead, try to find quiet, peaceful locations where your dog can explore more freely and have a trigger-free outing. I generally avoid anywhere with ‘dog’ in the description when taking anxious dogs. Dog parks, dog beaches, dog cafes and dog markets can be very overwhelming for our anxious friends.
  4. Busy times of day: If your dog is getting triggered by the other dogs or people around, they will not benefit from the stress-relieving activities of sniffing and exploring. Pick your time wisely, or alternatively, go to these spots when others are avoiding them – in the rain!

Remember, patience and consistency are key when it comes to helping anxious dogs feel more comfortable. It takes a lot of preparation and practice to support them in the right ways. Make it easier for both of you by simplifying what these adventures entail, and focus just on having a good sniff, taking in some alternative surroundings, practicing some training and marking some new spots (dogs only please). With a bit of forethought and the right appraoch, your dog can learn to enjoy their outings and bring the anxiety-relieving benefits home with them too.

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