Andrea’s 7-year-old Pit Bull, Baby, frequently “freezes” during walks: She suddenly stops walking, puts her tail between her legs and shivers. Andrea shares her dilemma with Vetstreet — watch the video to hear her explain her situation. Below, trainer Mikkel Becker provides a helpful response to the frustrated pet owner.

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Dear Andrea,

Walks provide enrichment and exercise for your dog and promote bonding between the two of you. However, if your walks frequently result in Baby responding as if she’s in the middle of a war zone, this is a serious problem.

Identifying the Trigger

Baby’s body language clearly indicates stress and fear: Her posture is low and she’s frozen in place and shaking. In addition, her ears are back, her tail is tucked, her mouth is tightly closed and her brows are furrowed.

Though it would seem that since Baby has walked the same path for so long she should be comfortable there, sometimes the opposite happens. Dogs have an incredible ability to store memories, especially those linked to strong emotions like fear. Repeated exposure when a dog is afraid — or just one particularly frightening experience — can teach her to react with heightened and more immediate fear in the future.

Noise anxiety is fairly common in dogs. Noise phobias frequently begin with fear of a particular stimulus, like thunder. If not addressed fully by a veterinarian, veterinary behaviorist or trainer, the fear may increase to include other common noises, like beeping appliances or car motors.

Sometimes the upsetting noise can be pinpointed. You mentioned the sounds of trucks or construction in the distance; Baby may be afraid of these sounds. If so, she can be gradually exposed to them. This exposure should be combined with lots of positive reinforcement, like treats and praise.

Generally, a fear of a few specific, easy-to-identify noises, such as the vacuum cleaner or passing cars, is easier to address than a severe fear of a wide range of noises.

Training Tools

The treatment for noise anxiety is specific to each dog. In some cases, medication can be helpful; talk with your veterinarian about this option. Some natural supplements can also be helpful for certain situations, but talk to your veterinarian before giving any of these products to your pet.

Training can also help desensitize dogs to noises; if needed, your veterinarian can recommend a trainer or veterinary behaviorist. During training, your dog should be exposed to the noise she fears gradually and only at a level she can tolerate without becoming stressed or frightened. Programs like Through a Dog’s Ear and DogTV expose a dog gradually to noises such as thunderstorms. You can also record your own sound clips of noises the dog reacts to, such as trucks and construction, and play them quietly in the background while you practice various behaviors like sit and stay with your dog. Be sure to reward with treats and praise. The intensity of the noise can be increased over time as your dog remains relaxed.

In some situations, it’s impossible to remove the panic-inducing noise from the dog’s life. Continual exposure to frightening noises can reinforce and heighten your dog’s fear. In this situation, the Happy Hoodie and Mutt Muffs can be useful for some pets.

Get Baby Moving When She Freezes

In your case, the goal of training is to reduce Baby’s fear of the noise and her subsequent freeze.

When Baby freezes, it’s important to be patient. Do not force her out of the freeze; wait for her to move again on her own. A dog who freezes can become upset when forcibly moved, making an already negative situation worse. She may react defensively and bite if handled or moved. For this reason, waiting the fear out is often the best answer.

Situations where Baby becomes upset are best avoided until she can gain confidence and create new associations with various noises. At first, this may mean taking her out only in limited, low-key situations, such as around the block or on the front sidewalk. Gradually, her safety zone can be expanded to areas with greater activity and noise as long as she remains comfortable and relaxed.

A fearful dog can sometimes be redirected before she panics, especially when fear is caught in the early stages. When you find yourself around noises that scare Baby, downplay your own anxiety, which dogs perceive and react to, and ask Baby to do something she likes to do, such as shake or heel. Have her perform these known behaviors in rapid repetition with high-frequency rewards as you move away from the potential source of stress. 

A lesser known but sometimes effective way to redirect a dog’s fear is to stimulate a hard-wired, innate response. Our Pomeranian was afraid of thunder; we would distract him from his fear by howling ourselves. He would join the howling and forget about being afraid, which gave us an opportunity to engage him in a different activity in a quieter area of our house. Chase is another innate behavior that can be used to redirect some dogs. Take off at a jog with fast and abrupt movements, or use a chase toy, like a stuffed animal on the end of a rope, to get Baby to move.

Seek professional help if Baby’s fear is severe and frequent; the sooner this is addressed, the better the chance she will regain her confidence on walks. With the right training, I’m sure you will be back on the trail in no time.

Pawsitively Yours,

Mikkel Becker

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