When you’ve got a high needs/special needs dog, just how do we provide any sense of adventure for them? Rugby stresses over virtually any change in his environment, and because he redirects his frustration with aggression, I have to carefully consider when and where I can and will take him. I want to stay safe for sure, but more than anything, I don’t want to stress my little speckled dog with something that makes him react aggressively!
The problem is that we just can’t control the environment once we take our dog somewhere. We have no idea when the triggers will hit our dogs, and that honestly does create anxiety for owners….which definitely translates right on down the leash to our dogs! If we want to keep our dogs relaxed, we need to be relaxed!
The best way to start that process is to practice the necessary leash skills you’ll need at home so that you and your dog can master them and feel comfortable with them. You can add in outside distractions that don’t trip your dog’s trigger in small doses….working in the back yard while the neighbors are out, or walking in the driveway while everyone is away at work, for example.
Once you feel comfortable with your dog, and you’re able to work simple commands on a loose leash, you can carefully pick and choose the outings you want to give your dog. You’ll want to bring yummy higher value treats that your dog really likes. I also always dress Rugby in his Thundershirt, because that really does help with his barking and general reactivity. His barking always leads to more reaction, so if I can help keep the barking at bay, I have a better shot of keeping him calm. Remember that the goal is always to keep your dog calm and relaxed.
To decide what outing you’d like to try, think about what your dog enjoys, but always consider what will trigger the behavior you don’t want. In Rugby’s case, he really loves going someplace new, but it needs to be remote enough that he’s not likely to run into dogs! People will also wig him out, but he can sometimes see humans and settle down fairly quickly if they are at a distance and not heading his way.
What I’ve done with Rugby, is taken him for a ride in the car and let him just watch things from the safety of his crate. I can bring him anywhere that my car can go, and let him observe from my car. I always start with Rugby just chilling in his crate. Most of the time, Rugby does his anxious “chirping” noise when we arrive, just anticipating the change and being worried about what awaits him. I don’t go any further until he’s calm and quiet. As I just sit in the car, over time, Rugby will finally give it up and quiet down.
Once he’s quiet in the car, I roll down the windows or open the door to let him hear and see a little bit of what’s going on. When he’s calm and quiet, I offer him little tidbits in his crate, with lots of sweet praise in a very calm happy voice. Ideally, I just don’t go any further until Rugby reaches a calm state.
Sometimes, an outing can just be going to a shopping center and parking way out away from the door. This keeps the scary stuff further away, and Rugby can observe from his crate until he is calm. When he reaches a calm state, I can get him out of his crate and walk him around in the parking lot where he can see and hear things, but they’re at a safe distance.
I’ve done similar things at local parks when it’s a park that has a huge expanse of green, and it’s likely that we will be able to be all alone….ideally during the week when most folks are working. Parks are always risky for us, because there’s a chance that someone will bring a dog, and worse yet if that dog is off leash and can get to Rugby. I usually plan those trips when I can bring Michael along so that I’ve got an extra set of eyes and someone to be an extra buffer….just in case.
For Rugby, these sorts of outings are what he can manage, and when we do these sorts of things once in a while, he really seems to enjoy himself and have fun. It stretches him just enough, but not too much. Outings can be simple things for you and your dog which can boost your confidence with your dog and help your dog learn to stay calm when you take him out in public. It’s likely to set you both up for success, and everyone needs a good shot of that to stay hopeful and encouraged!
While you’re out and about this next week, why not scope out potential places to give your high needs dog a fun outing?