We spoke to Suzy Whyte, expert in all things dog behaviour and founder of The Dog Centre Kilkenny, specialising in adventure walks for dogs as well as specialised dog training. Here’s Suzy’s advice!
Question: Suzy, help! My rescue dog is terrified of other dogs when we’re on walks. What can I do to help her?
Rescue dogs can have tricky pasts. They may have experienced trauma or stressful situations in their lives or they may have missed out on proper socialisation when they were young. Couple this with going for a walk on leash and we can inadvertently put our dogs in situations that make them feel unsafe or overwhelmed.
When our dogs are on leash, they are attached to us, completely reliant on us and their flight/escape option is also taken away (due to the leash) which can cause further issues as we take away our dog's ability to disengage from scenarios on their own. Even if the scenario is as simple as meeting another dog in a face to face greeting on a path making our rescue dog feel nervous.
This is okay! There are a few ways we can help build our dog's confidence around other dogs.
First things first, advocate for your dog. If she's looking uncomfortable or trying to move away or bark, give her space, lead her away from an oncoming dog. Be her teammate and help her feel secure and safe.
The most important thing is we don't force an interaction with other dogs on her if she finds these interactions uncomfortable. This could potentially put her in a position that she must use more defensive behaviours, like barking as a coping mechanism. A simple "sorry, we are training" is also a polite way of letting approaching people with dogs know to give your dog the space she needs.
Next, we can use a trust exercise to help teach our nervous dog that other dogs can come with rewards and feeling good. We do this by starting in a quiet area at a distance our dog feels safe. We know she'll feel safe when she can take treats, focus on us and appear relaxed in her body language. If she loses the ability to do any of these, she can't do any learning, she needs to increase the distance between her and the closest dog. This is a way of exposing her to other dogs in a way she feels safer.
Every time she looks at a dog, immediately say "yes" in a positive tone and give her a treat encouraging her to turn her head back to you. If she looks back at the dog, repeat the "yes!" Marker and treat again. Repeat this a few more times. This is a good way to start teaching her to notice something in the environment on her walk that can be scary and show her it can be positive and come with food rewards and praise.
You can practice this in a few different scenarios always keeping at a distance your dog is comfortable with. Go at your dog's pace and avoid trying to rush her. After time you will see the distance she needs to feel comfortable will decrease. Be sure to contact a behaviour professional if you're struggling with your dog's fears.
Written in conversation with Suzy Whyte .
Thank you Suzy! You can contact Suzy @the_dogcentre on Instagram for more expert advice!