Changing the Leader Follower Dynamic to Help a Pair of Dogs Relax and Stop Being Anxious

By: David Codr

Published Date: August 15, 2015

Chloe and Jack

For this session I worked with a couple of anxious Yorkie litter mates; Chole (Left) and Jack. Their guardians called me in to help stop Chloe’s habit of anxiety and nervousness in the car, her separation anxiety and Jack’s tendency to get over excited.

Ive found that often when I am called in to work with dogs who are anxious or nervous, its often related to the structure, more specifically a lack thereof, in their lives. If a dog doesn’t have any rules, it causes them to think they are in charge. But when the humans don’t act like followers, this stresses out and confuses the dog. For dogs with lower self esteem, this can result in other behavior issues and that was most certainly the case here.

Compounding the issue, one of the dog’s guardians lavished love, petting, praise and attention on the dogs. While petting a dog is a good thing, petting a dog at the wrong time or for the wrong reason can actually make the dog think its being petter for being scared or nervous. In some cases, the dog will continue to emulate that unbalanced behavior to continue to receive the attention.

When I saw both dogs jump up on the couch and climb on top of their guardians without any consideration as to whether the guardian wanted them up or not, I knew this was part of the problem. When I saw Jack climb up so he was sitting on the top of the back of the couch, higher than his guardians, I knew that we needed to add some rules and structure to help start to take the mantle of responsibility off of the dog’s shoulders.

I suggested a number of small rules and changes to inject some discipline and structure into the dogs lives. Because Jack was sitting higher than his humans, one of these was to make the furniture off limits for 30 days. Because dogs perceive a sense of rank based on how high they sit amongst the members of the group, this small rule will go a long way towards changing the leadership dynamic in the house.

The guardians had a dog bed but because the dogs weren’t using it, it had become a pillow holder! I had them bring it over into the living room then showed them how to make it more appealing to the dogs.

Next I showed the guardians an exercise that I developed to help dogs learn to control themselves and the humans practice leading the dog. I was able to run through it a few times with Jack who was the more confident of the two dogs. But when was coaching his guardian through the exercise, he struggled at the end, refusing to come and claim the reward for completing the exercise. This was a pretty strong signal that his confidence wasn’t very high.

To help Jack learn to relax, I wanted his guardians to get into a habit of leading him. This can occur in many different ways including literally leading the dog. We went outside to the steps to the back yard so I could show them how to use ascending or descending the stairs to practice leading the dog.

I had one of the guardians place Jack into a sit, then move to the stairs stopping every few paces to remind him that he needed to stay in place. I also explained how she could use her body language, movement and position to communicate that she wanted him to wait for her to go first.

It took a few repetitions before Jack became comfortable enough to wait as he watched his guardian head off without him. Only once she was at the top of the stairs did she give him permission to follow. But even this exercise was challenging for the dog. Once he was called up and with his guardian, he was reluctant to take the treat.

In addition to telling me that Jack’s confidence wasn’t as high as we would like it to be, it reinforced my belief that over petting and loving the dogs had resulted in their feeling that something was amiss if they weren’t being over loved.

My thoughts were confirmed when one of the guardian told me multiple times that it was killing her to not pet the dogs for doing even the most basic of things or pointing out any treats that they didn’t immediately find on their own. But when we do everything for the dog and shower them with praise and attention when they do nothing to deserve it, it can desensitize them from the reward itself. This is a classic example of too much of a good thing turning bad.

While one guardian was over loving the dogs, one was coming on a little too strong. While he wasn’t striking the dogs, his deeper voice and louder delivery had resulted in some real reservation and trepidation from Chloe. When we went through a simple recall exercise, he had real difficulty getting her to come over and take a treat from him hand.

Even when he was able to get her to recall, she stood as far away from him as possible; leaning way over to get the treat, then moving away quickly as soon as she got it.

I showed the guardian how to position his body in a softer stance that will appear less confrontational to Chloe and suggested that he refrain from verbal corrections for the time being. Even a loud voice had a negative impact on little Chloe so using a form of communication she can more easily relate to will go a long ways toward helping her feel more comfortable near him.

The husband’s loud voice and bold body movements combined with the over protective and doting the wife was providing; Chloe was caught between two extremes.

We continued to practice the recall exercise with me making small adjustments to how the husband called Chloe and delivered the treats. As we practiced, you could see the dog becoming more comfortable being near him. She leaned forward less and didn’t move away as far after getting the treat.

Next we went out into the car so I could see Chloe’s reaction when on a drive. At first she was ok, but as the car picked up speed, she started to get more and more anxious. I had the guardian pull the car over and we waited until she returned to a completely calm state before we started driving again.

We repeated this start and stop strategy for about a mile and had some success. She wasn’t getting as anxious and it took her less and less time to calm down once we stopped due to her getting overexcited. After another mile or so, we got onto a busy street and drove for a while at a faster rate of speed.

This proved to be too much for Chloe who started to get anxious again; he eyes were blinking, she was starting to pace while licking her lips so we pulled over into a hospital parking lot.

I used a blanket to fashion a makeshift swaddle and wrapped it around the dog with her head sticking out. Little Chloe looked like a pig in a blanket or dog-burrito as I handed the bundle to the wife. We tested this new setup by driving forward about 100 yards or so. At that point the dog started to get a little anxious so we stopped and waited for her to calm down again.

We continued on this way, making more progress, but still no long term solution as she returned to an anxious state every hundred yards or so. Still she was not getting as anxious as she did before and her recovery time continued to shorten.

I had a thought that the dog had a case of motion sickness that was impacted by the surroundings she saw rapidly flashing passing by so I had the guardian cover her eyes for the next attempt. This time we were able to give about 200 yards before she started to get anxious.

Once her anxiety returned, we stopped and once stationary, the guardian uncovered the dog’s eyes. We waited for her to settle down then drove off again. This time we were able to go farther and longer before the anxiety returned. We continued to practice this technique on the way home and even on the faster streets, the dog was able to remain calm.

The guardian said that even when she started to get anxious now, it was much more minor than before and far far less than before this session. I suggested that they continue to practice this exercise while gradually increasing the length of the drive, but always stopping when she started to get anxious.

The goal is to gradually increase her ability to deal with the movement of the ride. Just like lifting weights, we need to move forward in a gradually increasing fashion. This allows the dog to “practice” being calm in the car as they drive. In time this practice experience will turn into confidence and eventually the anxiety of the car will go away completely.

This was an interesting case that required actual Dog Psychology to help the dog get over the fear of the car that she had developed. The car exercise will help immensely, but equally important will be the guardians continued efforts at taking over the leadership role in the home. The more the dogs identify as followers, the more they will be able to relax. The more the guardians practice simple obedience exercises and teaching of simple tricks and commands, the higher the dog’s confidence will rise.

It will take a three part effort (increasing of confidence, changing the leader follower dynamic and practice at the car ride) in order for these dogs to settle down and stop being so anxious or nervous when encountering things they don’t understand.

By the end of the session, the dogs were much calmer and looked much more confident. They were walking with heads raised high, a calm energy level and good body posture. They were even staying off the furniture on their own. By rewarding the dogs for the things they don’t, and disagreeing when the dogs engage in leadership jobs the guardians will be able to help their dogs transition into a follower role. Once this is the case, they can go back to being dogs instead of stressing out about the humans who don’t follow their orders! When that happens, they will be able to enjoy a calm and balanced life free of the pressure and stress that was causing so much nervousness and anxiety.


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This post was written by: David Codr

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