Dogs are by their nature non-confrontational animals and use dog language to communicate to their owners if they need to move away from a situation that they find difficult to cope with.

When a dog feels unable to escape and has too much pressure put on it, it will then resort to solving the problem itself - either becoming "aggressive", freezing on the spot, or displaying other default stress behaviours.

The solution to this problem is to closely monitor your dog's behaviour and signals, and offer it a viable escape route the moment your dog begins to signal its unease. This requires forward planning and fast thinking, but it is amazing how quickly handlers learn to sum up potential situations and act accordingly. You can see their dogs actually sighing with relief when they realise that they no longer have to make all the decisions and can enjoy being a dog at last!

I can almost hear some of our readers saying "you are mollycoddling the dogs and letting them be in charge".

No - we are not "giving in" to the dog, we are protecting it and developing a bond of trust and understanding between both dog and human. Once we have gained the dog's trust it will be more confident in stressful situations and, over a period of time, we can gradually reintroduce it to these stressful triggers (if they are really unavoidable).

First you need to reduce its long-term stress levels and then allow the dog to become accustomed to the situation from a distance, always providing the dog with an escape route if it feels it cannot cope. By offering this route, the dog becomes more confident and rarely feels the need to actually escape, once it has been given a choice.

Here are some examples of Escape Routes -

  • In training situations, make sure that stressed dogs have easy access to exits. These dogs and handlers need to be able to leave the area without feeling intimidated by the close presence of other dogs near the exits.
  • Ideally there should be two doors to a training venue - one for dogs to enter, and the other to leave. This ensures that dogs do not accidentally pass one another in the confined space of the door.
  • Screens either side of the door (eg. Netting, windbreaks, or tables lying on their sides) can be very helpful to prevent dogs, barking, watching, or lunging at each other as another dog passes.

Here is an example of a well managed agility ring for beginner dogs, run by EMDAC.

The ring is almost entirely enclosed with netting, offering protection from other dogs suddenly running into the ring and breaking the inexperienced dog's confidence while it is negotiating the agility equipment.

As you can see the entrance is well managed - each dog has plenty of personal space while it waits its turn, and does not feel threatened by nearby dogs.


Meanwhile, here is the exit at the other side of the ring.

When a dog finishes its agility run its adrenaline levels are high from the excitement and exercise. The last thing it needs is to have other excited dogs near by, who will wind it up even more! This may result in default stress behaviours.

As you can see this netted exit is an ideal solution. There are no dogs nearby and so the handler can quietly praise their dog as they come out the ring, and take it calmly back to the exercise area to walk about, read the newspaper, and lower its adrenaline levels naturally. This calm finish area also encourages latent learning, so that the dogs are far more likely to retain in their long-term memory what they have done and learnt in the ring.

  • Another example of Escape Routes is walking your dog in a curve, on a loose lead, when approaching situations that the dog finds hard to cope with (eg. Dogs, people, traffic, farm animals, noisy machines, etc). This curving is a Calming Signal which your dog, and any nearby dogs, will understand.
    If there is insufficient room to do a wide curve, you have three options -
    * Either turn and walk away until you find somewhere (eg. a side road or driveway) until the "problem" has passed, * Walk off the pathway and use trees, cars, bushes etc as screens to break your dog's eye contact
    * Or distract your dog by playing Nibbles or Find It, turning your dog's head and body away from the approaching "problem" , keeping it busy using its senses. This solution will only work when a dog is building up trust in its handler and its long-term stress levels are beginning to fall.
  • Dogs in multi-dog households needs escape routes in their lives as well - places they can go to be alone and not be distracted by other dogs. Sometimes the dogs choose suitable locations themselves, while others need management from humans to arrange suitable rest areas.


This web site has been written by Sally Hopkins (unless the author of the web page is stated otherwise).


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