Every veterinary hospital has canine patients who are anxious away from their owners. Dogs who were seemingly happy when they arrived but as soon as they are separated from their pet parents, they pace and whine. And if left for the day, they bark incessantly in their kennels and can even become unsafe when handled.
Take, for instance, the case of Clyde the foster Springer Spaniel. Clyde quickly learned how to focus on and heel for his foster mom and to be comfortable around new people; however, when he was separated, even with her in sight, he paced, whined and lunged at the end of his leash. He was even too anxious to take tasty treats. Twenty minutes later, though, we had him happy, focused even when walking, and eating food rewards.
What did we do?
For dogs who are too anxious to even eat treats we often rely on getting them to walk in a specific manner. That is, we don’t just let them pull in any direction because that just reward their pulling and keep them in a high arousal state. Plus, I’m sure you can remember a number of dogs who’ve been allowed to pull on walks. If they are in good shape they don’t calm down until they are really tired, which may take several miles!
To use the walk to train a dog to be calm, we walk on loose leash at a speed of about 135 beats per minute (bpm), but as soon as the dog is about to get his front feet ahead of yours, you stop before they have a chance to get out of control. Once stopped, if they will readily sit, have them sit for a second or two. If not, just wait until they are stationary for a second or two and then immediately walk ahead, again at 135 bpm as their reward. An alternative to stopping is to perform an about-turn with proper T-turn footwork so you provide the clearest direction. Or you can pre-emptively do a U-turn before they have a chance to start passing you.
At first you’ll have to stop frequently, often every 2–3 steps—which is why it’s important to start your walk briskly. At first, the dog may often just stand. But if your technique is good, within 5 minutes the dog is often staying with you instead of pacing ahead and is starting to sit and to calm down. In the case of Clyde, we were able to using petting as a reward and as he started relaxing he also started eating treats. After just 15 minutes, he was heeling nicely for me and when my intern worked with him next, he immediately heeled nicely and sat calmly for her.
If you’re a veterinary or petcare professional or anyone serious about learning Low Stress Handling techniques, take our online Low Stress Handling Silver Certification Course. It consists of 10 online lectures and labs, plus a workbook to help guide you to getting the most out of your studies.
And you’ll see the step-by-step practice exercises including the human-only exercises that are needed to get the techniques down right, in Handling, Moving and Restraining Dogs in Stressful Environments.