The Midnight Dog Walkers’ Club is a lonely and often tense place. Many of my clients and many of you reading this book are so concerned about or embarrassed by their dogs’ behavior in public that they take their dogs out at midnight. Walking a troubled dog at that hour—or at other off-peak hours—in an effort to keep the dog from barking, lunging, or growling (some of my clients describe their dogs as making “hysterical” sounds) at other dogs or people has become a solution of sorts for thousands of dog owners. On the surface, it seems like a viable, sensible solution, but there are problems with using this approach—one of them being that it lacks practicality. We’re busy people, and we’re also a sleepless nation, and we’re frankly too tired and our days too long to realistically take our dogs out for many late-night walks.
The biggest concern with this solution is that it does nothing to help an anxious dog learn to relax around his triggers (stimuli in the environment that cause over-the-top reactions from the dog). Triggers are different for each dog, based on what worries each individual dog. Other dogs are often a trigger, but it can be people, bikes, skateboards, baby strollers, and so on. I’ve worked with dogs that seemingly have just one trigger (for example, large black dogs with floppy ears), but many more dogs seem to have several. The trigger might even start out as just a fear of other dogs, but the dog remains in such a heightened state of worry that the fear response can expand to other triggers, such as children or bicycles.
Some owners decide that it’s safest for everyone if their dogs never leave the confines of home. There are serious liability risks to having a snarling dog out in public, so I understand why some make this difficult choice. The stay-at-home choice also does not change the dog’s internal state. In fact, if the dog can see his trigger strolling past a window or fence each day, he will engage in fence running, which strengthens the very behavior we hate seeing on walks. The dog barks, lunges, and makes a real scene, and the scary thing moves away—thus the dog views his behavior as very effective (no matter that the other dog or person was headed away from the reactive dog’s territory on his or her own anyway).
Reactive versus Aggressive
What exactly is a “reactive dog,” the most common member of the Midnight Dog Walkers’ Club? A reactive dog is a dog whose arousal levels go beyond an adaptive level. Another way of putting it is this: a reactive dog is one that responds to normal events in his environment with a higher-than-normal level of intensity. Some of these overreactions include barking, whining, lunging, hypervigilance, panting, pacing, restlessness, and difficulty responding to his owner, even for well-known cues such as “sit.”
There is a difference between a reactive dog and an aggressive dog, even though some dog trainers sometimes have trouble telling the difference between the two. What behavior displayed by a dog is considered to be aggressive? I use the definition that Dr. James O’Heare, DLBC, uses: “Aggression is defined as attacks, attempted attacks, or threats of attack by one individual directed at another individual.”
A dog’s reactivity can make it hard to go for on-leash walks.
Fear and Anxiety
There is also a difference in a dog’s response depending on whether he starts from a place of fear or anxiety. Dr. Karen Overall, MA, VMD, PhD, states the following in her hefty textbook designed for veterinarians, Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats: “Although anxiety and arousal may be the underlying stimuli that give rise to a fearful response…fear is characterized by physical withdrawal, decreased social interaction, and clear signaling that interaction will be truncated and that the subject/signaler wishes to disengage and is not an overt threat. Purely anxious behavior can range from [a]more overt, provocative one to full withdrawal. Dogs that are driven primarily by anxiety may put themselves into a social system, although it makes them uncomfortable and worried.” That, in a nutshell, helps owners understand why their snarling, barking, lunging dog might just insert himself right in the face of an oncoming “threat.”
A dog saddled with a heightened state of arousal, one that is beyond a so-called normal reaction, is a dog that many owners consider embarrassing or out of control. It’s that “hysterical” dog out on a walk with his owner, who is often being pulled down the street. It’s the owner who is either screaming at his dog to “stop it!” or is quietly blushing a deep crimson color, wishing to be anywhere but there in that moment. His dog doesn’t want to be there, either, and most of the theatrics that the dog displays are actually distance-increasing behaviors: the dog is telling the threat to “go away!”
Most of the dogs in the Midnight Dog Walkers’ Club are, in fact, fearful and/or anxious dogs. Both owner and dog remain hypervigilant and constantly scan their environment, ever on the lookout for that thing that causes the dog’s adrenaline and cortisol levels to spike and his heart to pound—a trigger sets off that “fight-or-flight” mechanism that all animals have. We trainers and behaviorists call that emotional state of “freaking out” in a dog “going over threshold.” The definition of “threshold” that I like best is that given by Debbie Jacobs, a trainer who specializes in working with fearful dogs, in her 2011 book, A Guide to Living With & Training a Fearful Dog: “The threshold is the point at which your dog can no longer deal with a trigger before reacting in a negative way (with fear or aggression).”
Snarling and baring teeth are among a dog’s body-language cues that signal a dog is uncomfortable with something in its environment.
I often wonder which comes first: does the dog upset the owner with an over-the-top response, causing the owner to become a leash-yanker and tense walker? Or does the owner worry about a potential explosion and yank the leash first, signaling that it’s time for the dog to go into overdrive? Either way, a feedback loop is created in which one of these two animals freaks out and the other has no ability to or knowledge of how to stop the unwanted behavior. Fear begets fear and, before you know it, the walk is an enormous trial and is ruined for both participants. Then guilt sets in for the owner because she doesn’t want to face the daily doggie gauntlet of overreactions. So, she stays home, and the dog gets bored and perhaps destructive. This is a recipe for frustration and disillusion for both species.
The author and one of her canine clients at the beginning of a training session.
If dogs could just tell us how they are feeling about things in their environment, we’d all have a much clearer understanding of what motivates these undesired behaviors. They can’t talk, so we observe their outward behavior and decide upon a course of action from there. If you aren’t well-versed in behavior-modification techniques—and those are very different from obedience commands—then you can easily become overwhelmed and frustrated with the maniac dog at the end of the leash. The one ruining your life. The one you worry about every day.
Two of Annie’s clients looking happy and relaxed during an on-leash walk. Both dogs are wearing harnesses, which trainers highly recommend to protect a dog’s vulnerable neck region.
I understand these dogs not just professionally—I also personally relate to the depth of despair humans feel when this kind of dog comes into their home because I have shared my life with a few of them. I learned what to do and what not to do as I lived with an out-of-control Rottweiler while I was a college student. That Rottweiler entered my life nearly thirty years ago. He broke my finger, gave me a concussion, bit my friends, and saved my life, twice. His name was Wylie, and even though his story is decades old, what happened to the two of us is all too common, even today. I tell you about my years with Wylie in Chapter 2.