Dog Talk: Malaysian dog lovers help their pets overcome fear and anxiety

  • Animals
  • Monday, 25 Feb 2019

Anxious dogs can sometimes chew up things or wreck the house. Pet owners can help them overcome the anxiety, with patience, gentleness and love. Photo:

Last month, we featured Whiskey, an anxious dog who was not eating properly, chewing up the house and not minding her mum. Dog trainer Rubini Maruthian recommended approaches for fixing the food, walking the dog daily, and creating a safe space.

In response, Whiskey’s mum focussed on providing two healthy cooked meals a day at a fixed time. It’s been a hit, and the visible clue is Whiskey’s extra thick and shining fur.

“I gave her 15 minutes to eat, and on the first day, when she held out, I let her see me put it in the bin,” Whiskey’s mum laughs. “It was awful – but it worked. On the third day, she ate. And now, she starts to hover 15 minutes before breakfast and dinner time, and she’s eating really well.”

The walking hasn’t kicked in yet, but the idea of a safe space has been partially adopted. “I don’t ask her to sleep in the hall anymore. She sleeps in my room,” her mum says.

These small changes have led to little improvements. Whiskey looks a lot happier, and she is chewing less and listening more – although it’s by no means perfect.

“Also, we feel that she’s beginning to learn easier. For example, when the family come for a visit, Whiskey no longer barks herself hoarse. She waits patiently outside, and seems to understand it’s a purely temporary situation.

“However, she still has separation anxiety and she’s still frightened of storms. Plus, there is still that anxious chewing behaviour,” says her mum.

Whiskey’s family members are patient and know it’s a project in progress, so we’re all hopeful. But to give us some context, we spoke to other pet owners who have anxious pets.

“When we got Cuddles, our Golden Retriever, she was a year old and traumatised from being severely abused,” reports Beh Yen Phin, a pet lover and corporate trainer in Petaling Jaya, Selangor. “Cuddles was so anxious that every emotion – fear, happiness, concern – all came out as pee. We spent the first two years wiping pee.

Anxious dogs can sometimes chew up things or wreck the house. Pet owners can help them overcome the anxiety, with patience, gentleness and love. Photo:

“Also, she was incredibly anxious, and that came out as chewing. She chewed up the house, from electrical wires to the dining table. One time she even chewed up an entire leather sofa. It was all chewed to bits. And if I went out, I’d have to spend 10 minutes assuring her I’d be back. She was that bad initially,” says Beh.

“Cuddles was so traumatised that she didn’t know how to bark. She was just silent. And when we gave her a kong, one of the ones you fill up with treats, she just looked at it. Honestly, we thought we had a dumb dog. But it was just nerves and bad health.

“After three months, we adopted Toby. With him as a companion, she learned to bark. It was so strange, but it was as if she found her voice. That was good, but the drawback was that Toby was a pup – and he chewed, too.”

One day, when Beh left them alone together, they ruined a few cushions and white fluff was all over like clouds in the living room. Beh and her family weren’t too sure if they were amused or horrified.

“We couldn’t yell, as Cuddles would pee in fear. We reassured her, no matter what. And guess what? It worked! After two years, she just got it. She stopped chewing, and after that, she was the sweetest dog. She learned to use her kong, too. The second she was healthy, she just loved it.”

Pei Yi Liew, a music teacher in Subang Jaya, had a similar experience. “Summer was a little pup, about two months old, when we got her from the rescuer. When we first got her, she hid for days. She was afraid of everything: men, noises, even walking towards tables and chairs made her nervous.

Frightened pets are like scared kids - they don't think, they run on pure emotion.

“We were gentle with her, and when she was six months old, we went for basic obedience training, joining a class with other dogs and humans. We went every week for six months. She learned to sit, stay and other commands. It was positive training and it gave Summer confidence.

“However, at two years old, she’s still a work in progress. Our other dog, Snowy, who is 16 years old, had a stroke recently. When I took out some masking tape to help fix a nappy for her, Summer panicked at the sound, and hid.

“I acted calm around her, and played a game with the tape. I tried to make it fun, to show her it was okay, not scary. It’s how it works; she trusts me when I show her.

“I think with shy dogs, socialising is key. They need to see the world, be exposed to different things, like the dog park this week, the in-laws the next week, and the pet café the week after. If you always socialise the same way, you build a comfort zone but doing more will build all-round confidence. So, don’t keep them at home, bring them out.”

Ravinder Kaur, a Kuala Lumpur native and research assistant in University Malaya, adopted a dog, knowing it had extreme issues. “We adopted Zane when he was just a year old, and he’d already had two homes,” she shares. “He was born on the street and, as a pup, he was run over. He broke three legs and spent months recovering. There were no adopters, and so finally, we took him in.

“When he was delivered to my house, he hid in the garden between the plants. He was so scared that he just sat there, not moving. For days, he did this. He ate and drank, but that was it. He was petrified of people, cars, sounds, everything.

“On the third day, I got close enough to pat him. He didn’t growl or snap; there’s not a mean bone in his body. But he stayed scared and would sit in the corner and shiver when people approached him. Even when my six-year-old niece went near him.

“When I put a dog toy in his den, he sat outside and wouldn’t enter. He was terrified of unknown objects. When I raised my voice, to be firm, he peed in fear. Even walking towards him would have him cower. He was always ducking, thinking we were going to hit him, especially if you had an object in your hand, like your handphone.”

After some weeks, Ravinder became really worried. “Zane was just totally broken. I was frightened, thinking will we ever bond.

“But one day, I saw he had an ingrowing claw. It’s very painful and it had to be fixed. I thought by wrestling him down, and forcing him to be still, I would break his trust. It was amazing but he suddenly sweetened up. It was as if he understood what we’d done.

“After that, I could pat him but it took more months to get him comfortable enough to hug him. It’s okay, he’s been through a lot so I let him decide when he wants to do things.

“I think the most important ingredient is love. Also, don’t put your expectations on the dog. I thought of bonding in terms of weeks, not months. Be realistic, and know some dogs are fast and some take longer. Also, don’t push. I’d love to walk Zane on a leash, but we’re not there yet. It’s okay, he will be ready one day.”

Ravinder can now hug Zane, and when she raises her voice, he doesn’t hide. Also, he’s no longer afraid of her husband. Every month, she sees a little progress. Like just recently, her niece could touch him without him running to a corner.

“I rubbed his belly and, for the first time, his body completely relaxed. We’re getting there,” she says.

Anxious dogs aren’t easy, but with time and care, they can pull through. It’s just a matter of patience, gentleness and love.

Three tips for soothing an anxious pet

As each dog is different, the best approach is to put together a tailor-made programme to help settle them and give them confidence. However, there are three basic rules that are universally helpful.

Soft voice. Some dogs learn to understand words but frightened pets are like scared kids – they don’t think, they run on pure emotion. So, if you use a hard or loud voice, they assume you are angry. Also, they will often think you’re going to be violent. To soothe your pet, never shout. Adopt a soft voice, no matter what.

Gentle hands. Anxious dogs may be nervy because of their nature, however, many are scared because they’ve experienced violence. Never, ever hit your dog. It’s cruel. And don’t yank on leashes or push them about. The rule: treat them like you would a six-month-old baby. There is no excuse for violence.

Go with their nature. Some anxious dogs want to be cuddled. They’ll sit on your lap, busy their nose in your arm or hair, and suck up the warmth of contact. Others find being touched stressful so they need to be alone, in their safe space. Whatever your pet needs, do it. There is no right or wrong way for your pet to react, it’s just part of their personal style.

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