How To Get An Anxious Dog To Walk

Many people struggle with their dog walks. Having moved recently into a dog-rich environment, I can see just how many that is! Dogs that won’t move and their guardians carry them everywhere… Dogs that lie down and guardians end up standing in place or trying desperately to chivvy their dogs along… Dogs mooching along in haltis… I’ve even got my girl Lidy who seems so excited to be out on a walk that she’ll sometimes pull and lunge, or she finds it difficult to focus on me. My girl turns into a frantic, bug-eyed, panting thing who seems to have ADHD at times. And as for focus at those points – forget it! It’s like we’ve no learning history at all.

For Lidy, it’s easy to mistake her lack of focus and self-control as excitement. It is – but it’s also underpinned by an anxiety that rears up as breed-specific problem behaviours. She gets very grabby, very reactive, very nippy. Sometimes I think our walks are a bit like Laser Quest for her. Last week, I wrote about how her theme tune for walks is ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’ from Funny Girl. Yesterday, everything that could rain on our parade absolutely did.

Including my favourite moment… her having just done her business, me needing to pick it up, and a loose dog in a yard where the fence was but a loose nod to fences.

My favourite type of decision-making:

Do I try to scoop the poop with her likely to lunge at any minute (tip: stand on your lead as an additional measure!)

Do I try to scoop the poop and then wait for the dog to go back inside?

Do I try to scoop the poop and just about-turn?

Do I try to scoop the poop and then try to navigate past the yard with poo bags and leads and treat bags and a dog who’s likely to lose all sense of self-control?

Do I forget both and walk back alone later to pick up the offending mess?

My walks every day are filled with such mundane decision-making.

Honestly, though, if I don’t think on my feet, what may seem like a game of ‘spot the cat’ (seven yesterday, including two that shot out from under cars which was MUCHO exciting for Lidy, and one that just sat in the road to such a degree that I had to alter our route yet again) and a ‘fun’ game of Laser Quest can accidentally turn into something much more serious. Like walking Hannibal Lector when he’s just picked up a handy set of throwing knives.

I joke, of course. Well, I kind of joke.

Her arousal quickly tips over into predation or aggression.

That’s how HER anxiety and stress manifests.

But a number of clients have had dogs who just flat out refuse to move. Or they get outside like my neighbour’s Frenchie, lie down on their belly and just refuse to move.

Judging from all the inappropriate videos on Facebook, TikTok and YouTube, this is a more frequent occurrence than you’d think.

The first step is always a vet check. Of course it is. This is especially true if your dog’s behaviour has changed recently or if it has got progressively worse.

I will say this though. Only once have I had a dog to work with whose refusal to move was based purely on medical issues.

The last video I have of Flika, she’s hobbling at a snail’s pace. She would rather have died than not gone for her walk. We made it about 200m before I decided it was consummate cruelty to go any further. Tilly stopped walking about eight weeks before she died. She’d already lost two kilos from her tiny frame and it was obvious she was nearing the end of her life. Despite having a collapsed trachea and fibrosis in his lungs meaning he was constantly oxygen deprived, Amigo made it all the way around our 3km walk at his own pace, right up to the day he died, where he got in the car but he only made it 100m or so. The day before Ralf died, I realised for the first time that he was lagging by 500m or so.

For all my dogs except one or two, lack of stamina for our usual walks is a real sign that they were entering into the final weeks, days or hours of their life, and up until that moment, I’d have suspected everything was fine.

Heston can barely stand up some days. Every day, I have to help him get up, but to see his excitement at 5.30 as we near walk time is to know that dogs can be in incredible amounts of pain and it won’t put them off their walk.

A vet check is an absolute must.

I’d say though that low level refusal to walk if the vet can’t find anything significant is probably compounded by other things or caused by other things.

The first of those things is anxiety. As I said, for Lidy, it goes quickly from ‘fun’ attempts to catch cats that decide to bolt at the last minute to a dangerous loss of any inhibition.

Other dogs are so anxious that they’re impossible to get into their walking gear. Lidy is her very best dog when the harness comes out. Heston whines. Neither of them is moving away from me when it comes time to get the gear on.

If your dog is reluctant to approach you before a walk, that may tell you something about the walk or it may tell you something about the equipment.

The easiest way to test this is to walk the dog without equipment. That might mean hiring a secure field. If your dog doesn’t enjoy walks but enjoys being in a secure field or walks off-lead as long as their recall is perfect, then that’s useful information.

Even ‘non-aversive’ Y-shaped fleece harnesses can be aversive for a dog. I remember when I tried one on Amigo… He just froze and wouldn’t walk. Weeks and weeks of habituation for my boy made no difference. Whoever his guardian was before me had taught him with a collar, and that’s how he felt comfortable walking. Even at the end, where I hated having a collar on him because of his fibrosis, he would only walk in a collar or off-lead. Unfortunately his deafness and cognitive decline meant that he was on lead most of the time. Luckily, he never pulled or I’d have had to reassess.

If my clients’ dogs are happy walking off lead, then it’s likely that the equipment is unpleasant, wasn’t introduced slowly enough to the dog or that the methods the guardian used to walk the dog were aversive.

Remember that many individuals shut down completely when punishers are used. Remember also that we don’t get to judge the aversive nature of the punisher: the learner does. So if the dog isn’t walking on lead and is fine without it, then that tells me a lot. Perhaps the dog doesn’t trust the guardian. Perhaps the equipment is uncomfortable. Perhaps the dog prefers to make their own choices, notably about their own safety. Even stopping and standing still, if it’s aversive to the dog, may cause a reduction in all movement. That’s one of the potential complications of punishment.

I also find anxious dogs can really struggle. If walks are Laser Quest for Lidy, some dogs walk as if they’re going through a war zone.

The first sign I see of this is hypervigilance. The dogs are looking around constantly, on edge. One of the major signs I see of an anxious dog is holding on to their business. That doesn’t just mean a tucked tail, keeping all their scent in, but also failure to urinate or defecate.

Some dogs will mark – or pseudomark at least. My last three have all been markers. Flika’s vet notes included one from her last guardian suspecting that she had a urinary infection because she was doing lots of little wees and no big ones. Nope. She was just squeezing out a few drops here and there to add to smells already there. Then Heston would follow suit. Lidy does the same. Both she and Flika are lady leg cockers. Lidy handstands from time to time against trees. She’s particularly fond of the fox-style poop-on-a-stone type of marking.

When we come out of the house, though, the first wees are big old wees. Heston’s a typical old man urinator these days – an absolute stream for about three hours. Lidy leaves a visible puddle.

Dogs who don’t wee at all on walks or who are reluctant to do so are often anxious dogs in my experience. I know a number of dogs like this who hold on and hold on for hours, unlike mine who’ve all peed and pooped willingly and liberally all over everything that smelt like it needed it as well as to void their bladder and bowels.

Your first job then is to investigate your dog’s health, equipment, comfort, learning history and emotional state.

Without that, you’re not likely to find a solution. When we don’t know what the problem is, there’s no point starting on a solution.

A vet visit is your first port of call. And trust your vet. Once or twice I’ve had to send dogs back who failed to show a marked improvement in the way they walked, but the vast majority of the time, if the vet can’t see anything, you really need to unpick the other things that are going on. Like I said, dogs who love walks will often walk through any amount of pain even just to be outside the gate.

After your vet visit and an investigation of how the dog walks without a lead, you’ve got some idea about whether it’s equipment or your own relationship with the dog that’s causing an issue. If you use punishers, it’s not rocket science to work out that it means your dog will be less happy to be near you and they’ll be more reluctant to walk in your space. You may not think the equipment or your methods are aversive. Only your dog’s behaviour will tell you. A good behaviour consultant will be able to help you identify the problem using this rule-out.

For dogs who are struggling to cope, I think we should be considering medication earlier than we do. If dogs are panicking outside the home, if they can’t even go to the toilet, then this is something I think we should consider early on. Even there, there is a difference between a dog like Lidy with a loss of all inhibition at points and a dog who is constantly vigilant. Different medications may need to be considered.

We should also be considering whether walks are necessary.

Though it may add a little to your regular bills, two or three hours a week at a secure dog field may be cheaper than a month’s worth of Prozac. If your dog is happy in your garden and with occasional times in a secure field, then that can at least help you get over the anxiety hump. If your dog needs safety, it’s cruel to deprive them of it. We should also remember that only the dog decides if they’re safe or not. We don’t get to pick a walk that we know is safe and think that our dog will be happy and relaxed in it.

Some dogs may need a walking buddy. Many scenthounds that come from living in a group can be fearful on their own. Some lines of some breeds like the Ari├Ęgeois and the Gascon Saintongeais can be really anxious. To some degree, that’s mitigated by being in a big group. However, one of the shelters we work with in Germany make a good point about this. Their dogs all live loose and are not kennelled. They make the point that for fearful dogs, they can use other dogs as a crutch. The presence of other dogs never truly fixes their underlying anxieties. If your dog needs other dogs as a form of Dutch courage, it may be worthwhile discussing medication with a vet, or considering the quality and necessity of your walks.

Many anxious dogs need to build a more secure bond with their guardian or their person walking them. Being on a lead in a novel environment without your social network is a challenge for a social species. I think this follows on from the previous point. If the dog doesn’t trust us to keep them safe, then we may have a lot of rebuilding to do. In a way, it’s not dissimilar to the last point that the dog may be given courage because of their social network. Watching Heston being taken away from me into the vet was hard: my normally confident boy was not going anywhere without me. My vet in France never really requires us to be separate from our dogs, but I know UK vets prefer to take animals away from guardians. Still, I watched six years of training go down the toilet as the vets had to carry him away from me. Heaven help us this week with his check up.

Prior use of force and coercion can be a reason why many dogs just stop dead. Even if we don’t think it’s that aversive, the dog clearly did.

We should be our dogs’ secure base. I certainly am for my dogs. That’s not to say they can’t cope without me. It’s just to say that our dogs need to trust us not to push them too hard and also to keep them safe. Anxious dogs need to be able to trust us.

We may also want to consider using safety cues or talismen to help our dogs understand that the world is predictable and safe. I use a lot of pattern games for exactly that. Leslie McDevitt’s opening lines about the pattern games says it all: there may be all hell breaking loose out there, but the dog and I are engaged in building our relationship and doing our thing.

Trick training can ironically really help anxious dogs, I’ve found. Operant training, especially in multiple contexts, can help dogs understand how to operate the world. Unlike classical conditioning and counterconditioning, which are passive processes, operant learning is active learning. The dog is learning how to work the world. It’s much more empowering than Pavlovian processes, I find. When the world gets a bit too much for Lidy, we go back to pattern games. It resets us and reminds us that everything is familiar, even though it is different.

We also need to make sure that the guardians are re-contextualising learning and helping the dog to generalise. If you’re always doing things in the same way in the same place, sometimes a failure to walk on lead or respond to guardian cues can simply be a lack of generalisation. I spend ten minutes on every single walk Lidy and I do where we just practise things we were doing. If I want her to eat at the vets and to behave consciously and operantly in the vet, then I need her to know that the rules still apply wherever we are. The worst thing I think dog trainers do is to help the guardian teach a novel skill in a dog club or in the home. That’s the easy bit. Why leave the tough bit – generalisation – to guardians knowing they’re novices, their dogs are novices and generalisation is hard?

Often when I see dogs whose guardians say won’t respond, it’s either because the guardian hasn’t understood the underlying emotional undercurrent driving the behaviour, or because the guardians haven’t generalised behaviours from the home.

Finally, don’t dwell in the whys. It may be that your dog has the perfect storm of fearful genes, congenital pain and mobility issues, a complete lack of socialisation, aversive equipment and a fearful guardian who has used punishment in the past and flooded the dog accidentally. Knowing this changes nothing. Navel gazing until you’re sick of the sight of your own navel won’t help you move forward. Understand causes, absolutely. Dwell on them? Don’t bother.

If things are that bad, get on board with medication from the beginning and support it with a great behaviour modification plan.

You may have to reprioritise. One client had a dog who wouldn’t walk at all and was carried everywhere. When I asked the guardian whether this was an issue, really it was just her own embarrassment that had led her to want to change things. She liked walking. Her dog liked being out and about. He was a little dog who didn’t need the exercise. Being carried was not ideal, so a stroller was a perfect compromise. If you’re going for such options, however, make sure that the stroller isn’t just another way to flood the dog by trapping them and forcing them to endure stressful situations from which they cannot escape. The next thing you know, your dog will be avoiding going into the stroller or passively flopping about like a ragdoll, knowing all attempts to escape will be stymied.

Unless the dog is anxious in the home (in which case medication needs to be seriously considered!) then what you do in the home may not count. I’m a huge fan of free work and use it often with dogs who are anxious in the home, but unless I can sort out a free work set-up on my walk, it’s not going to be an easily generalisable skill when it comes to building confidence on walks. You may want to work on your dog’s underlying confidence: that’s perfect. However be mindful of the fact that – unless the home is incredibly stressful – walks may be a step too far for most dogs. Given that most dogs I see who are resistant to walking are either very small non-terrier breeds, using food may not be an option and the dog may simply be overwhelmed. Bringing the outside in with ‘Smell Libraries’ can help: pick up stuff from the outside world – be it branches, leaves, grass or fabric – and encourage the dog to engage with smells in a less scary environment.

In short: see a vet, do your rule outs, build the relationship and take time to rebuild the dog’s trust in the world if anxiety is an issue. Consider lifestyle changes and whether there are alternatives that you could use to exercise the dog that don’t involve going out of the home as frequently. If the dog’s issues are overwhelming, psychopharmaceuticals shouldn’t be the last thing we consider. All we’re doing is wasting our effort and prolonging our dog’s discomfort if we don’t consider medication early enough.