Walking Stella – Helping a highly fearful dog enjoy her walks.
Stella is one of the more fearful dogs that I walk. She is a 12-year-old farm bred collie who lived in a stable for the first 18 months of her life, where she was repeatedly attacked by other dogs. Due to her experiences during her early life, she has always been a very fearful dog, but is a loving, devoted companion to her owner.
I started to walk Stella as her owner was unable to get out and about due to her health. Stella’s first walks with me were not easy, although she would come with me, she was confused as to who I was, why I was taking her away from her owner and worst of all, why was I taking her to new places with scary people and unknown dogs.
Due to the location of her home, we are somewhat limited in the places where Stella can have a walk. In an ideal world, I would be able to take her to an isolated area where she could explore in peace, but that simply is not possible, so we have had to work with an imperfect situation.
The first thing I had to do was to build Stella’s trust in me. I was careful to never force her to do anything. I did encourage her through my voice and body language to walk in unfamiliar places and reward movement with treats, but it was important that I never used physical force, she had to know that she has the power to tell me “no” when things are too much.
One commonly held belief about fearful dogs is that we should make them confront their fears – that can go spectacularly wrong. A dog who feels they have no option can go two ways: They can either shut down into a state of learned helplessness – while an observer may see “calm submission” this is not a healthy state of mind, it can store up issues for the future and is certainly not a dog who is forming a healthy bond with their handler, nor are they enjoying life! Or the dog can take matters into their own paws by lashing out. While Stella is not reactive, any dog that feels trapped and scared can lash out, either by barking and lunging or in extreme circumstances, using their teeth, so when working with Stella, it was important to never put her in a position where she felt unsafe.
Our first few walks were spent walking up and down the same few cul de sacs, I am sure the residents thought I was crazy or possibly behaving suspiciously walking the same dog past their house several times in half an hour!
Stella was happy enough walking around the quiet residential streets, but I wanted to broaden her horizons whilst keeping her feeling safe. There is a local nature reserve ten minutes from her home and, although it is not perfect as there are some blind bends and it can get busy, I thought we could give it a try. At first, we would arrive at the reserve, take just a few steps in before Stella would stop, I allowed her to sniff for a bit, then we would head back home. Slowly the few steps turned into 20 meters, then 50 meters. If we saw another dog or human coming, we would find a safe passing place, even if this meant walking right back out fo the reserve again. This was to allow Stella plenty of space. On a couple of occasions when she was approached by another dog, I put her behind me and intercepted the dog. She had to trust that I would deal with any uncomfortable situation and keep her safe.
We usually meet the same dogs and owners each visit, they have all been brilliant keeping their dogs with them and allowing us to pass, at a distance. This has helped tremendously as Stella has learnt that she is safe to walk past dogs – nothing bad will happen. So my heartfelt thanks goes to those owners and their dogs for their patience!
Once Stella discovered that she could safely pass other dogs, and that she could trust me not to put her into situations that she could not cope with, she has shown a real improvement. In the past couple of weeks, her owner has noticed that she is looking forwards to her walks, she comes running out to me instead of having to be coaxed and walks all the way round the reserve with little hesitation.
Of course, Stella is still a fearful dog and always will be, she will always need very careful, sensitive handling and will probably never be totally comfortable around other dogs, but she now enjoys her walks and shows real enthusiasm and enjoyment which is a big success in my eyes.