Anxious or Fearful Dog? This Simple Approach Can Help #12

#canine #debono moves anxiety canine connection fear stress relief Mar 19, 2024

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Have a dog who cowers around strangers? Or who gets nervous on car rides or on walks? Do you feel your dog is often nervous, anxious or fearful?  

In this episode, you'll learn about:

  • Ways to help sensitive, fearful, and anxious dogs
  • Behavior in dogs comes from a well-meaning place, as their nervous system is focused on safety
  • Importance of gently inviting dogs to explore different sensations for relaxation and safety
  • Dog owners should regulate their own nervous system to support their dogs
  • Practice relaxed behavior in different contexts and gradually introduce challenges for generalization
  • Build a trust fund for dogs by creating positive experiences and gradually changing the environment
  •  Use gentle contact and movements to quiet the dog's nervous system and deepen the bond
  • Patience, creativity, and mindfulness are important when helping dogs with anxiety
  •  Seek support and guidance for assistance. Email [email protected].


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Did you hear? I'll be opening enrollment in my new online group coaching program so you can learn how to help your dog feel better in body and mind. Stay tuned for more details. Or email [email protected] to let me know that you're interested.   

All information is for general educational purposes ONLY and doesn't constitute medical or veterinary advice. Please consult a qualified healthcare provider if you or your dog are unwell or injured. 


Hi. Does your dog bark at strangers? Or maybe your dog cowers from them, or maybe your dog gets really nervous on car rides or going any place new, any place novel. Hi, I'm Mary Debono and welcome to the Easier Movement Happier Dog's podcast. So glad you're here. So today I want to talk about this. It's, there are so many dogs that are considered really sensitive.

Some people call them reactive. That's not a label I usually use, but they're just really sensitive, fearful, anxious quite a lot, and that makes life kind of difficult and difficult, not only for the dog, but for the person as well. So today I wanna talk about a few ways that I've helped dogs like this so that they could be,

feel more confident and have a more adventurous, fun-filled life. So I wanna start by saying that, you know, there's so many causes for dogs to be anxious. There isn't just one thing, you know, there's so many reasons that it could be. And oftentimes it's a constellation of problems, maybe that cause the dog to do this, to feel this way,

to act this way. And some of it is, is actually genetics that can often be a, a factor in it, as well as things like obvious abuse and things like that. But a lot of times it's none like it's, you know, you can have puppies from the same litter and they haven't been abused, and one or two of them turns out to be really,

really sensitive and just, you know, shy and anxious. So again, I wanna just to really emphasize that, that this, this is a, a complex issue. And what I'd like to talk about today is just like, kind of laying the groundwork for some ways you can help these dogs. Okay? So if you have a dog like this,

I think it's really important to know a few things. So, one of them is that we always have to remember that behavior is, comes from a, from a well-meaning place. I'll put it that way. If you think about it this way, your nervous system and the dog's nervous system is tasked with keeping you safe or keeping the dog safe in the case of the dog's nervous system.

And so certain behaviors, certain responses are in an effort to maintain or to increase safety, feelings of safety. Now that may be really maladaptive. Now, like in other words, maybe that was a useful response at one time, but not anymore. But because the nervous system felt like it solved a problem, it's going to hold onto it. So this is a common thing.

We do this with movement habits as well. You know, we, we walk a certain way, we sit a certain way, and we develop that over time. And then our nervous system kind of gets attached to it. It's like, this has worked so far, like, let's hold onto it. But the reality is it may not be working anymore,

but because it's so familiar and kind of like ingrained, the nervous system wants to hold onto it. So one of the things I think about when I'm, whenever I hear about a dog being anxious and the person, you know, asks me like, how can I help? I think about we want to gently invite the dog to explore different sensations. Okay,

what does that mean, right? What does that mean? Different sensations? How do you invite a dog to explore different sensations? Well, the way I work is I work with the dogs through their body. In other words, it's somatic education. In other words, it's learning that happens through the body. And it's an amazing vehicle for learning your body.

And this is, this is true for humans as well. 'cause I do, I also work with humans and horses and other animals. And we can learn an awful lot by changing the way the body feels and having, you know, different sensory stimulation through the body. So again, I wanna, I'm gonna say that again. What we want to do is we want to gently invite the dog to explore different sensations.

So instead of being, you know, constantly reinforcing like this hardwired response of fear, we want to help the dog experience other responses. Now, this is where you have to be really, really intentional and mindful because you never, ever want to over face a dog because that will just make their anxiety worse. In other words, the nervous system will really like say,

oh my goodness, that was scary. We never want that to happen again. And you can actually make the problem worse. What I'm suggesting instead is a way of number one, first, working with yourself to regulate your own nervous system and then to gently start to bring in different, different sensations to your dog in a safe environment. Okay? And I'll explain this in just a moment,

but let's go back to you for a minute, minute here. Again, I wanna emphasize there are so many reasons why a dog might be anxious. Some of them have to do with pain, for example, or something. Again, that happened when, you know, long time ago, but they're still holding onto that response. Or, you know,

oftentimes it's cumulative thing. Again, I mentioned genetics. I mean, there's so many reasons why a dog could be just feeling anxious a lot of the times. So we have to respect that. We have to respect that the nervous system had a good reason for creating these responses. Okay? And then we want to realize also that this is not to say that anyone's at fault,

okay? Again, many, many different reasons why the dog could be anxious. But what we found is that the more you can regulate your own nervous system, the more you can support your dog. So again, I wanna emphasize, we're not saying that you're at fault for your dogs being anxious. What we're saying is that the more you regulate your own nervous system,

the better equipped you are to help support your dog in getting over this and, and helping your dog find new options in how to respond. So even if you feel very calm, you know, all that good stuff, it's still helpful, I found for people to take the time and just spend some time by themselves. You don't even have to have your dog there.

But to just take a few minutes and start to focus on your breath and to focus on your sensations in your body, the feelings of tension, and start to actually work through, like from your top of your head to your toes on helping release any unnecessary tension. Because so many of us carry much more attention than we really need to. And that gets transmitted to your dog.

Your dog feels that even though you might feel perfectly fine and happy, but there's an underlying sense of tension. So as far as the breathing, it's not that there's one particular way that's the right way to breathe at all. 'cause you, you have to be able to adapt your breath to whatever you're doing. But if you just, if you're just sitting quietly or standing quietly or lying down,

for example, you know, just kind of start to lengthen your exhales a little bit, lengthen your exhales a little bit, and then feel how your lungs fill up differently after that. And what that can do. Having that little bit longer exhalation can actually help to quiet your nervous system. So that coupled with the idea of like letting go of unnecessary tension and just like working through,

you know, again, from the top of your head to your toes, feeling, where can I let go? And sometimes it's helpful to tense areas a little bit and then really let them go. But over time you'll develop much greater body awareness that that won't be necessary. But in the beginning, you might wanna do that. Okay? So without going into all the details,

you know, for the sake of the podcast, just think of like just doing like a scan and just like a, and think of it as like a wave of relaxation flows through you. And again, from the top of your head to your toes or from your toes to the top of your head, you could do, you know, one direction and then the other.

And really think about how you can let go of unnecessary tension. 'cause here's the thing, we are so connected with our dogs, and that means that the way you move, the way you breathe and the way you direct your attention are all felt by your dog, right? They all, they're all experienced by your dog, and they all play a role in shaping your interactions with your dog.

So your underlying sense of ease or effort has a direct impact on how you and your dog experience each other. So the more you can, again, regulate your, your, your feelings of ease, right? Notice what you're thinking about. So often we have, because we have so many thoughts a day, right? They, I've seen estimates from 60 to 90,000 thoughts a day.

And apparently about 95% of them are unconscious. So once you start to get a little bit better handle, not saying you're gonna notice all those tens of thousands of thoughts, but start to notice what you're paying attention to. And that can also help you regulate your nervous system and again, improve the experience that your dog is having when your dog is with you.

Okay? So that's really important. 'cause the other thing that happens is that when we are with our dog, who's, if the dog is anxious, sometimes we start to anticipate like, oh, I see a dog walking down the street, uhoh, you know, fluffy is gonna be really upset about this. You know, we start to anticipate something bad happening instead of anticipating something delightful happening.

And I'll tell you how you can start doing that. You can start doing that by actually practicing relaxed behavior in other contexts, in other environments. And then you eventually kind of build your way up to being out on the sidewalk, out at the park or, or wherever the scary things happen. But it's really important to set up the environment so you're setting your dog up for success.

So in other words, you can control the environment. So just say, you know, that your dog is most comfortable lying on the floor in the living room or next to you on the couch somewhere, you know, and maybe it's at after dinner or, or, you know, choose a particular time and location where you have the most chance of your dog being really comfortable and relaxed and try to reduce any distractions.

You know, if you have other animals, kids, you know, whatever. Make sure that you're setting this up that you and your dog can be the most successful. And then this idea of how can you help your dog explore different sensations. 'cause remember, you know, your dog is, is, is, is has been practicing being tense, being,

you know, being fearful for maybe a long time. So now we want to kind of practice being more relaxed. And one way I have found to do that is, again, learning that happens through the body, using very gentle contact and movements that start to quiet the dog's nervous system. So it's, it's very different than just petting. And so I have a whole free training on this 'cause I,

I can't explain it over a podcast. So I made you a free training. If you haven't already picked it up, you just go to mary Debono dot com slash love dog. And that's all one word, all lowercase. And it'll be in the description of whatever you're, wherever you're listening or watching this. But if you do that training, you know,

watch it and start to practice with your dog and be very, very mindful that you are being patient with your dog and that you're not trying to force anything on your dog. Remember, this is about helping your dog feel that you and your dog can enter into a state of relaxation together. Because what you end up doing is you start to build what I call a trust fund.

Okay? Oh, you didn't know your dog has a trust fund, huh? Well, good news, you can build up a trust fund for your dog. And what that means is you start to build like a, a bank of positive experiences and then gradually you can start changing the environment, but you already have. But again, it has to be gradual,

you know? So you start to kind of add in little challenges and to see if now that you've been practicing this more relaxed state, can it transfer, can it generalize to other contexts? And this is where, you know, you have to be really creative and you have to be really patient. So again, this episode is just to give you like the basic,

basic ideas about this and to, to get you, if you haven't already, but to go watch that training, it's totally free. Okay? Mary Debono dot com slash love dog. All lowercase, all one word. But 'cause what we want to do is we want to build a connection between you and your dog where you're, you're both in this relaxed state,

and again, you start to, in your case, you can just bring it up at will, and then hopefully, because you've been practicing it with your dog, and again, do the, the rhythm circles that I explained in that video, the video training your dog now has more access to it. So again, this is about exploring different sensations with your dog,

because again, if this is all your dog knows is how to be anxious, we need to give your dog other options. But it, it's not something you can force. It's not something that you can try to speed up the process either, okay? Because your dog may need some time to start to assimilate this and to start their nervous system to start to recognize that this feels good,

it feels safe, okay? So now you add maybe a little bit of a challenge in maybe you have some street noise or something that normally, you know, might be just the, just the idea of it might kind of get your dog a tiny, tiny bit nervous, but not much. You know, again, if you just try to, to immediately transfer this out to the street where dogs are coming or,

or some other situation, a car ride or whatever, maybe if your dog is nervous taking car rides, you can work up to this. Like, in other words, you do this first where your dog is the most relaxed, then maybe you do it out in the yard, you know, again, your dog is pretty relaxed, but you know,

but now you're helping to transfer that to a slightly more challenging environment. And then maybe you get closer and closer to your car, but still not in the car. Maybe then the door of the car is open, but the dog is outside the car and you're doing these rhythm circles. Maybe you could set it up that the dog could be on a comfortable mat lying down outside or do it standing up if you have to.

But you, the idea is then eventually then maybe you have the dog in the car, but you don't go anywhere. You don't go anywhere, you just do this in the car. So you do your rhythm circles. And again, I have the free training on it, so you just go to the free training. I can't explain it here. And,

but I, I also explain in the training, I explain, and please don't skip over that part. I explain why they work so well, because there is some neuroscience behind it, okay? But they help your dog have these different experiences, okay? And now what you're doing is you're changing the context, you're changing the environment. So now your dog is learning,

oh, I can be relaxed while I'm in the backseat, for example. Or I can be relaxed while I'm wearing my walking harness, you know, or whatever it is. So, but, but this is where you have to be clever. You have to be clever. You have to think about how can you do this in tiny, tiny, small steps so that you're never over facing your dog.

And if you do, if you do over face your dog, it happens, it happens. Forgive yourself, number one, do not hang onto it and just take a few steps back. It's okay. Trust me, it happens to all of us. So don't worry about that. But just take your time with this. And then if you, if you are running into something that you think,

I don't know how to break this down into steps, like I'm running out of ideas, what do I do? Email me, email me or talk to me in the Facebook group, the Facebook group. It's free. It's called Dedicated to Dogs. And you can find it on Facebook, and also it's in the emails I often send. So, but,

or, or just email me Mary at mary Debono dot com, but I'll put a link, there'll be a link to the Facebook group in the de this description that wherever you're watching or listening to this, you'll see that as well. It's a free Facebook group. So think about that. Like how can you start to expand your dog's environment where he or she feels safe and relaxed?

And I have found by doing this with dogs, working through the body, using these very particular movements on the dog's body can be a great way to transfer, transfer that feeling of relaxation and safety. And there's, okay, you're gonna, you're gonna hear all about it in the free training, but I'll tell you another little thing. These particular movements that you're going to learn,

the rhythm circles, they actually, if they're done the way I explain how to do them, okay, slow and, you know, soft and all that good stuff, what happens is it actually, they can actually stimulate the release of different neurochemicals in your dog that increase your dog's ability to bond with you. That, that basically help facilitate a deeper connection and more cooperation.

And it, there's probably a, a wonderful evolutionary advantage to that because it's actually similar to things that a mama would do with her puppies. You know, the slow, gentle licking, for example, can actually stimulate it. You're not gonna be licking, so don't worry, you are gonna be using your fingers, okay? And it's a different thing.

It's actually a circle. But what happens is that it stimulates them in such a way that the, those neurochemicals are released and helps the puppies, for example, bond with the mom. And in this case, helps your dog bond even more closely with you. And you may already have a close bond. This can actually help it get even deeper. And there's,

there's way other advantages too. It helps release tension in the dog's body. But again, there's a particular way that I do them. And so even if, you know, other circular touches, these are different. It's not, it's not one is better than the other. They work differently. Okay? So make sure you watch the training and then let me know how it goes.

But again, I wanna put that little nugget of information I wanna repeat that is that you're inviting your dog to experience different sensations when you do that, if you do it in a safe, gentle way, then your dog realizes that it's possible for them to feel differently. So you're giving them that experience that they feel differently, both in body and mind.

Well, so now their nervous system, if, if this is done in the way I'm describing, says, oh, this, this is safe, and it feels better. So now you start to give them options so they don't have to be stuck in that habitual way that they've been responding. Where they're fearful, you know, that doesn't have to be their go-to response anymore.

And this can take some time. So I'm not gonna sugarcoat it. It's, it can take some time. So please be patient. I mean, and, and think about it like I talk a lot about compassionate curiosity, right? So that's a state of being really curious, but without judgment, right? So you're compassionate. So if you think of compassionate curiosity,

you, you embrace this idea of when you're working with your dog, when you're interacting with your dog, you have compassionate curiosity. By the way, it's a great state to be in for, for anything, right? For living is that you're really curious, but you're also compassionate. So we let go of the judgment, including the self-judgment. That's the probably the worst of it all right?

We're judging ourselves. Just forget about that. Think about being compassionately curious and then building that deep connection with your dog and helping to regulate co-regulate your dog's nervous system, right? And it's like you, you be almost like, you think about a little bit like in training, like you're, you're entrainment so that you are, you're both feeling that sense of ease and that sense of safe safety and relaxation.

It's pretty cool. So, so go ahead, make sure you watch the, the free training and then please let me know how it goes for you, Mary At mary Debono dot com is where you can reach me and I'll put a link in the description for my email as well. And I just wanna thank you. I wanna thank you for caring so much about your dog and for listening to the podcast.

I really, really appreciate it. Okay, I'll let you go for now, and I look forward to talking to you again real soon. Thank you so much. Bye for now.