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Help with a generally nervous dog

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Hello I’m looking for some advice on a generally nervous 18 month old female staffy-something called Luna (we suspect the other half is ridgeback based on similarities to a friend’s pure ridgeback, but we are far from sure).

We got her from foster care when she was a few weeks old, her mum having been rescued from a puppy farm. Luna was borne in foster care. She has had a nervous disposition from the very first time we met her.

We had Luna in our first home for 6 months, then moved to our current location and have been here for a year now with no plans on moving again in the foreseeable future.

While she was a puppy we took her to puppy training every week, engaged in never ending treat-training (we literally had treats in our pockets at all times), took her to lots of different parks and a couple of beaches. We probably didn’t have as many people visit the house as would have been ideal, but that’s just how our lives are. We probably had 2-3 visits per week for a few months, which dropped back to about an average of 1 visit, and has recently picked back up to about 2 again.

Luna has ended up very obedient, really likes playing with other dogs, is happy with people who have dogs with them but is suspicious and nervous around people who don’t (until she gets to know them, then she loves them, but this can take minutes to days). She is still very nervous about anything and everything unfamiliar and has developed a few behaviours I’m a bit concerned about possibly including some fear aggression. I'll go into more detail below:

Up until the last 1-2 months she has always enjoyed playing with other dogs a lot. She can be quite boisterous or not depending on what the other dogs are like. Generally no worries at all about her........however in the last couple of months I had noticed her possibly getting a bit defensive around her people. If other dogs came over to me she might snap or lunge at them, but doesn’t do it consistently. To stop this I make her sit and stay while I go over to dogs first and interacted with them. This seems to have worked, but then in the last week she has started getting grumpy with other dogs seemingly at random. She will bounce over to them looking happy (or they come over to her) have a sniff, and then suddenly her ears go back, hackles go up, and she immediately lunges at them. I have no idea where this behaviour has come from or what sets it off. She hasn’t had a bad experience with other dogs recently that my wife and I are aware of. I’m wondering if this may be her becoming less tolerant of other dogs as she matures, but not having worked out that she doesn’t actually want to interact with every dog she meets like she used to?

I mentioned fear aggression so let’s describe how that manifests. Its most common at home. If we have a visitor (outside of the 10ish people she knows really well) she will bark loudly at them with her hackles fully up and just generally look quite scary. Thankfully she won’t go too close to people and will flinch away if people extend an arm to her (I know it’s not good, but sometimes people do it before I tell them not to). If people look at her (not even eye contact) she starts growling as well. To sort this Luna gets sent to bed (her safe zone) as the visitors arrive. We then do whatever we are going to do while ignoring her, and once Luna has calmed down she is allowed out of bed. She will almost always come over immediately of her own volition, if she is calm we give her treats as she approaches, and then the visitor might feed her some treats under the table if things are going well. This works pretty well but she will still be really jumpy if the visitor moves to a different location. Gradually she gets used to people and will be happy with them moving around and usually builds up to quite liking people if they are around for long enough. While this is good it doesn’t seem to be helping with the initial response to visitors (everyone new is scary, even though she has ended up liking everyone who has come into the house). I'm not sure what to do next on this one.

It’s worth noting that she seems to want to interact with visitors finding them interesting and exciting as well as scary. She is always very keen to come straight over to them and be near (but not too near) them while she gets over her fear. She often leans in for a sniff and will start wagging her tail and glancing at me while doing so....so long as the visitor doesn’t move, if they do its time to jump away and start barking with the hackles up again.

The other thing she does at home is sit in the lounge looking out the front window. She growls or barks (not too much though, this is a much less vigorous response compared to when people visit the house) at most people going past (even if they have dogs) This extends to the full range of her vision and includes people moving about in their gardens across the road (basically if she can see a person they are too close). We normally let her get away with a very little rumble, but anything more and she gets sent to bed until she calms down. Having read some posts on these forums I think we should start giving her treats as soon as we see anyone going past instead?

And finally for fear aggression, while out on walks she will often growl at anyone new in a new area without a dog.

Other behaviours of note before getting onto general nervousness:
I get the impression she feels the need to protect her people from scary things. She seems to try and position herself between us and bikes, strangers, new objects etc. She can be quite subtle about it and I always get her to be on the other side of me if I spot that something is bothering her. In the last few days we seem to be making real progress here, and she has started going to the ‘safe’ side of me if she gets unsettled by something rather than getting in-between us.

Okay, general nervousness:
Throughout her whole life her default response to anything and everything new is to be scared of it. This includes things like new parks – we take her to 4 different parks and 2 dog beaches regularly and she will be excited and happy about going. If we go to a new one she gets out of the car and her tail immediately gets tucked under her body, ears back, looking all over the place. Just generally looking very unhappy.

If a new object or sound appears in a known area she will be scared of it (like a scooter parked in an unusual place, or some rubbish, or someone standing still bird watching when they weren’t there yesterday, or a street light rattles in the wind)/. She won’t go near it, won’t calm down, just wants to run a few 10’s of meters away from it. In an extreme case she may want to go home straight away, but this is rare.

Once she has been scared in an area she remains scared of that area even when there is nothing there/good things have happened there more recently. As an example, in one of the regular parks there are a couple of spots where bikes have come around a corner and startled her. Since then she has had loads of treats there, and several good interactions with other dogs. Despite this every time we go there her ears go back, she looks around in all directions very often, tail will be down but not underneath her, generally low body position, and she won’t want to play at all, she just marches forward as quickly as she can without running until we are through the scary section. I’m not sure how to make this a safe and fun area again? If I can’t then we are steadily going to run out of happy walk places :-(

Finally, even while we are in good happy places she will still be looking around often, checking for anything. She even does this in the house at home.

We have spoken to the vet about this who recommended putting her on ENDEP50 while we try to desensitize her to things. This has made her slightly less afraid of things (we still get the same reactions but not always as strong), but it doesn’t really seem to be helping her improve in the long run.

Any help is much appreciated. It seems like we nearly have a wonderful dog, and it’s quite sad seeing how scared she gets of things that could otherwise be great.

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You've done a good job observing and recording her behaviours.    From this, you could probably go a step further and actually maybe make up a sort of table with her triggers and responses in columns.      This will be helpful for you, but also for the professional help I would be getting .. not just your GP vet, although lowering her general sensitivity level is probably a good start.


Good for you for the steps you've taken to help her, and to protect others.   I personally would be going a bit further, and for the moment, not take her to places where she has the possibility of being approached randomly by other dogs.      I would recommend that you have a bit of a look on the internet for information about 'trigger stacking' to see why. 


Also for the moment, I'd keep going with your idea of sending her to her safe zone before visitors come in, to reduce her levels of stress/anxiety/over arousal .. it doesn't really matter which, they'll all have the same effect.


You could certainly try the treats when there are arousing things/people/dogs in sight outside, but you really need to be in a position to do that all the time .. so that she doesn't sometimes get the chance to bark at them.  In training terms, you want to reduce or eliminate the chances for her to practise the behaviours you don't want to see again.


Having said all that, if she were my dog, I would not just be treating it as a training issue.   I would also be getting some professional help from a skilled and confident vet behaviourist who is also a skilled trainer .. if you can find one.    If you can be a bit more specific about your area (WA is a big place :))  people might be able to point you in the appropriate direction.


ETA  I just had a quick look, and it looks like there is a possible (on paper anyway) vet behaviourist operating out of Murdoch Uni.  But you might want to ask around and see if anyone has had success with this or other vet behavioural services.

Edited by Tassie
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I second what Tassie has said. Try to avoid triggers and continue practices you have in place to keep your dog in a calm state of mind. I would also strongly agree with seeking the advice of a good vet behaviourist, rather than a regular vet. My dog was previously fear aggressive/reactive towards other dogs and we worked closely with a trainer for approximately 2 years to rehabilitate him successfully. He was then attacked twice in a short period of time and the second attack completely blindsided both of us and was combined with a massive crashing sound. Since then he has developed fear and anxiety towards a huge range of things.. dogs, loud people, loud noises, strange noises unexplained noises.. and although he is no longer reactive, he exhibits a lot of the fear signs you've described in your dog and this could not be helped by training alone. I am not an expert and can only go by what you've described (which is really detailed and informative by the way) but in my experience, much of what your dog is experiencing sounds like an anxiety issue rather than a training issue, and needs the help and advice of a vet behaviourist. Training and behaviour modification will still be a part of what you need to do but it sounds like your dog needs a thorough assessment by someone who really knows what they're doing. I know how much effort it can take to manage a dog with fear/anxiety and reactivity issues and it's wonderful that you are so in tune with your dog and are working so hard to help her. 

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Hi! I also have an anxious dog and agree with Tassie & Snook, they’ve given some great advice. I just wanted to mention that there are a number of vet behaviour consultants, or whatever they are calling themselves these days, in WA. There are those listed here plus Dr Gibb Macdonald at Morley Vet and Dr Nichola Frampton at Perth Veterinary Behaviour Service. Hope this helps!

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What the others have said, and then that again.. You've been doing a great job, but it also sounds like you have a challenging situation on your hands.


One thing to consider is that change takes a long time, and progress can be slow. Small steps are key. You are very observant in reading her body language, so you need to incorporate that into your desensitisation lessons. Once you are seeing the triggers you've already pushed her beyond her thresholds and learning will be slower. I'd work at reducing her exposures to stress in general, and then tackling each issue individually.


Our dog has always been similar in sending mixed messages. Excitement and fear. Fortunately not towards people.. that is all excitement which has required a lot of impulse control, but specifically with dogs or other animals she is unsure about. She bounces from emotion to emotion. May rush in too quickly to say hello, then get scared and submissive before hackling up and showing other defensive signs.


Some of this is her personality, always has been.. and never triggered through bad experience. We have worked hard over the last few years to where the opportunity to practice behaviours are much reduced, and in the situations that this does occur that she is more able to listen to command settle herself. 


In regards to guests, instead of just treats.. you could have something special that only comes out when someone comes over. Be it a kong, a bone, something super high value. 

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