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Tiptoe Past the Triggers:
Rethinking Neighborhood Walks

Ren Volpe, July 7 2023
Four large dogs on leash walking down a street
Four large dogs on leash walking down a street, photo by Ren Volpe

Walking a reactive or fearful dog can be stressful, both for your pup and for you as their human companion. Many dog owners feel obligated to take their dogs on daily walks around the neighborhood, thinking it's a must-do for responsible dog ownership. But there's no hard-and-fast rule stating that your dog must take that familiar route twice a day, especially if you both find yourselves constantly on high alert, expecting the next scary encounter.

If your dog gets anxious or scared during neighborhood walks, exposing them repeatedly to upsetting or frightening things won't magically make them "get over it." Behaviors like barking and lunging at other dogs or people, pulling on the leash to go home, or freezing in place indicate that your dog is overwhelmed. And let's face it, no one can learn when they're in a state of panic.

The Role of Routine in Helping Reactive Dogs

Establishing a routine and sticking to it can be incredibly beneficial for fearful or reactive dogs, as long as that routine predicts positive experiences. However, if your dog is constantly bombarded with things that scare or upset them every time you step out the front door, you're unintentionally creating a predictable but negative pattern.

Dogs with existing fears and reactivity issues aren't starting neighborhood walks with a clean slate. Going on routine walks that repeatedly expose them to triggers only heightens their overall stress and anxiety levels. If your dog consistently finds itself in situations or environments that are too challenging, it might be time to take a break from those neighborhood walks.

It's also important to note that responding to the same triggers day after day can reinforce reactive behaviors, turning them into stubborn habits. Fear and excitement trigger similar physiological responses in the body. For example, charging at the neighbor's dog behind the fence may initially be fear-based, but over time it can become an exciting adrenaline rush that your dog anticipates. The more your dog rehearses reactive behavior, the longer it will take to overcome it.

Understanding Trigger Stacking

Often your dog's reaction isn't solely triggered by one thing but rather by the accumulation of multiple stimuli they've encountered. It could be the house with the barking dog, the flapping tarp on your neighbor's roof, the spot where they got startled by a loud noise, or the sound of traffic. All these things add up.

"Trigger stacking" happens when multiple triggers or stressors are present simultaneously or in close succession, leading to an overall increase in stress or anxiety. So if you're puzzled by your dog's extreme reaction to something seemingly minor, it's likely because they've already encountered other scary things earlier in the walk.

We humans experience trigger stacking too. Think about those days when you wake up late, can't find your car keys, and there's no coffee left. Then you explode when someone cuts you off on the drive to work. Minor inconveniences feel overwhelming because you've already dealt with a series of stressors.

Single Event Learning and Fear

"Single-event learning" refers to the formation of associations after just one exposure to a particular experience. This is especially true when the experience is intense, startling, or frightening. All animals, including humans, are wired to remember fear as a survival mechanism. Ignoring or forgetting past dangerous situations could mean putting oneself in harm's way. While you can understand that the neighbor's dog barking from behind their window isn't an actual threat, your dog may interpret it differently. Fearful events tend to leave a lasting impact.

Let's take the example of Rosie the Chihuahua. Rosie would panic and pull into the street every time she passed a specific spot near her house. It turned out that a few weeks prior, a gust of wind had knocked over a large recycling bin while Rosie was walking by. Now Rosie associated that particular block with fear, even on days when no garbage bins were present. With each walk along that route, Rosie's fear progressively intensified to the point where she refused to go in that direction. No amount of coaxing, reassurance, or treats could make her feel better about that location.

However, by employing a careful and systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning protocol, Rosie's fear gradually diminished over just a couple of weeks. During this behavior modification process, we made sure to avoid that specific area unless we were actively training. We didn't force Rosie to get close to the scary spot until she was truly ready.

If you find yourself struggling with neighborhood walks, it's likely that your dog isn't starting from a neutral state when you step out the door. The memory of previous triggers encountered during walks creates a mindset where your dog expects the worst.

Alternatives to Neighborhood Walks

Of course, I'm not suggesting that you should completely avoid taking your dog outside. But there are alternative ways to meet your dog's physical and mental needs without subjecting them to a constant stream of stress hormones. In order for your dog to learn how to feel safe and calm during walks, they need plenty of positive experiences feeling safe and calm in outdoor settings.

To set your dog up for success, it's essential to avoid locations that are too challenging. This creates a safer and less stressful experience for both of you. Instead of trying to control your dog's behavior, focus on controlling the environment.

If you dread the thought of leashing up your dog for a walk around the block, here are some alternatives you can consider:

  • Hop in the car and drive to a quieter and more secluded location. The more natural and peaceful the surroundings, the better.
  • Use a long leash (10 to 20 feet) and allow your dog to explore and sniff at their own pace without feeling confined.
  • Use your backyard for potty breaks instead of navigating the potentially triggering obstacles in your neighborhood.
  • If you don't have a backyard, keep potty breaks brief to minimize exposure to multiple triggers.

The goal isn't to avoid neighborhood strolls forever. Working with a qualified behavior consultant can help your dog overcome triggers in the immediate environment. But while you're in the training process, you don't want to constantly expose your dog to things that upset them, as it can undermine the progress you're making during training sessions.

Prioritizing your dog's well-being and their need to feel safe means adapting your approach to walking them. Avoiding triggers while you work together to overcome your pup’s fears will make the process easier and more effective for both of you.

About the author:
Ren Volpe is a Professional Dog Trainer and a Certified Behavior Consultant. She is also the crazy dog lady behind GoDogPro, a new online service that matches dog owners with force-free dog professionals godogpro.com