Q. My 9-year-old Bichon mix, J. J. used to love walks through pet supply stores, parks, etc. but over the past few months is exhibiting fear with strangers mostly. So I’ve tried to get more people to pet her, but it only gets worse. The same thing happens at local parks after a half hour or so. If a group of children rush over to pet her (she’s so cute how could they resist), she ducks her head, will not take treats and pulls to get away. Why would my otherwise friendly girl do this and what should I do about it?
Grace in Middletown
A. Basically J.J.’s being forced to endure a situation she’s uncomfortable with. Something happened along the way that you may have missed. Perhaps someone petted her roughly, or she’s just worn out.
Whatever her reason she’s showing signs of stress and should be quietly removed from the trigger. She’s telling you “I’ve had enough now.”
Experts refer to this behavior as crossing the threshold – from a calm emotional state to one of distress.
Akin to panic attacks in humans, dogs display a variety of “disconnect” language owners should learn to read, such as freezing in place, excessive jumping and barking, yawning, avoiding eye contact, pulling to get out of the situation and refusal to take treats.
Stress behavior is often confused with stubbornness or fear, but that’s not the case here. And it’s not like we can explain to dogs, “take a deep breath and try to relax”. Recognizing the signs and getting the dog away from the stressors (without a lot of hoopla or sympathy) is critical.
I recently went through this with my 19-month old Newfoundland at the Harrisburg dog shows. The first day went very smoothly and Maggie seemed to enjoy all the attention and other dogs. But Saturday the crowds swelled—more people, more dogs, more noise. By mid afternoon during Meet the Breeds, she totally shut down, avoided petting, refused treats, circled, and tried to drag me back to our set up area.