All dogs need exercise, and that often comes in the form of walks for many dogs. Although dog walks can be a great way to get moving, you may feel that your dog hates going on walks. If they don’t seem excited to go, or they sit or lay down in the middle of walking, it may seem like they don’t enjoy it. Some dogs get stressed on walks because they might react negatively to certain stimuli, like seeing other dogs or people in the neighborhood. Here’s how to understand why dog walks can cause anxiety, how to support your dog, and what type of exercise might be a good alternative.
Why Walks Might Cause Your Dog Anxiety
You might be wondering if your dog hates walks, when in reality, they might just be stressed out by what they come across while out and about. Things that might stress your dog out on a walk depends on what the individual dog finds anxiety-producing. Things that one dog may not even notice could be exactly what upsets or triggers your dog. Common stressors can include things like seeing another dog or person, skateboards, garbage trucks, bikes, motorcycles, fast-moving traffic, or wildlife, like squirrels or outdoor cats. Every dog is different, so pay close attention to the things that seem to always be around when your dog gets nervous on walks.
How to Manage Walking a Scared Dog
Understand Your Dog’s Limits
It’s important to understand your dog’s boundaries when walking, especially if you have a dog who is also reactive. Fearful dogs who are also reactive will overreact to certain triggers, with the root of this behavior being fear.
A dog’s threshold is how far away a trigger needs to be until it doesn’t bother your dog. When your dog is calm and comfortable with their environment, they are “below threshold.” When your dog is upset or anxious enough to react to triggers, they are “above threshold.” It’s often a fine balance, so it’s important to manage what you know makes your dog anxious to avoid this.
Distance between your dog and the trigger will also impact how they react to it. Some dogs might find it stressful to see a dog or person across the park. For others, a dog across the street is still too close for comfort. Each dog’s threshold is unique to them, and it may shift, depending on the intensity of the trigger. When you understand what stresses your dog, you can plan outings around how to avoid those triggers and how to keep your pet comfortable.
Don’t Push Your Dog
Some dog owners may think that pushing your dog to go on walks will eventually get them to tolerate it more. This attempt to “fix” the problems their dog encounters by walking comes from a place of wanting to get their dog acclimated to the world around them, but exposure is not always best, especially when forced. Constant exposure to stressors, called trigger stacking, is actually most likely going to make your dog feel worse about them.
Fearfulness and reactivity can actually get worse when your dog is forced to face their fears constantly. This doesn’t shift your dog’s emotional response to what they find upsetting. Spacing out your walks, or not walking, gives your dog the space and time that they need to de-stress. It also enables you to create intentional, effective opportunities to work through behavioral issues, like reactivity, in your home or in training sessions.
Working Through Walk-Related Fear
Instead of forcing your dog to go on walks that stress them out, there are a number of other ways you can improve the experience for them. This can range from supporting them when they’re afraid, helping them break down their fears, or getting accustomed to things they find stressful. Strategies range from coming prepared with rewards to distract your dog, to changing your routine entirely.
Desensitization and Counterconditioning
If you want to desensitize your dog to certain triggers, you can start by slowly exposing your dog to the trigger. You’ll want to start with a bit of exposure here and there, and build up more exposure once you can tell that your dog is getting more accustomed to the trigger. Keep their threshold in mind while you’re working on this.
For example, if your dog is afraid or stressed by the dog part, you could start with some below-threshold exercises. Instead of going to the dog park, maybe you’ll walk closer to the dog park, and over time, get closer to it. It’s important to make sure that your dog remains relaxed and below threshold before moving any closer. Otherwise, you’ll move too quickly, and they won’t feel any safe getting closer.
You might also consider counterconditioning your dog. Counterconditioning involves changing the associations your dog has with the trigger. Currently, your dog feels negative emotions every time they see the trigger. Instead, you’ll try pairing the trigger with something positive, to change their association with it. Eventually, your dog will start connecting a trigger that once made them stressed with something that they love and can be excited about.
Be Prepared With Rewards
Before heading out on a walk with your dog, be sure to have a treat pouch full of dog treats. We want to reward our dogs for doing desirable behaviors (such as walking calmly or giving eye contact). Dogs are more likely to repeat rewarded behaviors, so we want to make sure focusing on us has a lot of value for them.
Shift Your Routine
Try to adjust your walks to make them less stressful for your dog. Your regular route may include passing a house with lunging and barking dogs in the yard outside which could be a trigger for your dog. Consider shifting your route so you don’t pass that house.
Maybe your dog struggles to remain calm when seeing other dogs on walks, but if you don’t have a private yard, you may need to take your dog out for walks more frequently. One of the best things you can do in that case is change the time of day you walk. Instead of walking your dog in the early evening right after work, for example, consider staggering your walk times. That might mean taking your dog out in the early morning or later at night, when fewer people and pets will be out.
If the presence of crowds of people or dogs causes your dog to be anxious, try walking in less-popular areas. For example, instead of going to a busy park, maybe you can take your dog down a quiet, residential street.
Use Distance to Support Your Dog
While walking an anxious dog, it’s important to pay close attention to the surrounding environment. That will allow you to spot potential stressors before your dog does, and allow you to move away, creating distance from that trigger. When moving away from a trigger, try to reach a distance that will allow your dog to stay under threshold.
If your dog reacts negatively to people or other dogs, you can create distance by crossing the street. You can also get your dog’s attention and move yourselves behind barriers or obstacles, such as parked cars or trees, to block your dog’s view of the trigger.
Pressing Pause on Walks
Try Putting Long Walks on Hold
If you have a private yard at home, you may be able to press pause on walks while you work through some of your dog’s triggers. If you’re walking for the purpose of potty breaks, your dog can go to the bathroom in the yard for the time being. If you don’t have a yard or don’t want your dog going to the bathroom outside, you can limit the amount of time you’re walking. Take your dog out just long enough for them to pee or poop, then return home.
If every walk you take involves your dog having an outburst, it will stress you both out. In addition, these walks provide your dog with a chance to rehearse reactive behaviors like barking and lunging. Giving your dog a break from walks allows them to decompress, improves their feelings of resilience, and helps them be in a better headspace for intentional training sessions. When you go out to train, ideally with an experienced trainer, your dog will be calmer and ready to learn to work through fears and reactivity.
Offer Your Dog More Enrichment at Home
If you can’t walk your dog, how do you give them enough exercise and stop them from getting bored? Practicing basic obedience skills in your home or yard or teaching your dog new tricks helps keep them active. You can play scent games by hiding dog food, treats, and dog toys, then encouraging your dog to go find the items. This is a great way to channel your dog’s natural instincts to search and forage. Try exercises in the AKC Scent Work Virtual Scent Work Test, which are fun ways to challenge your dog at home.
You can also make or purchase a variety of interactive toys, like dog puzzle toys or treat dispensers. Solving these toys and puzzles provides engagement and enrichment. You can also play whatever games your dog enjoys, including fetch and tug-of-war, or introduce them to some new brain games for dogs.
You may be able to take your dog to empty spaces where they can enjoy stretching their legs. For example, dog owners can rent private, fenced yards to give their dogs a chance to run, play, and explore without other dogs or people around. You may be able to rent out a local training facility or part of one to exercise your dog.
How to Reintroduce Walks Eventually
If you have given your reactive dog a break from walks, be intentional when you reintroduce walks into their routine. Ideally, you will want to do this once your dog has had success in working through their fear and reactivity in training sessions. Then, when you’re ready, choose to walk your dog at times and in places where you’re confident they’ll be able to avoid most triggers.
If unexpected triggers come up, try to make the experience as positive as possible for your dog. Be proactive and create distance between them and the stressor by crossing the street or putting a barrier in your way. You can also use treats to distract your dog, which pairs the distant presence of the trigger with something positive.
If you are working with a dog trainer, discuss creating a structured plan together that covers where, when, and how to reintroduce walks.