Play therapy for Chihahua with Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Blog post about play therapy for dogs with Generalized Anxiety and stranger-directed aggression,
Video and article shared with the owner’s permission. Blog post by Laure-Anne Visele, December 2014.

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague


Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

I am the co-founder and head trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague). I also own Canis bonus, a behaviour therapy  practice. I graduated in Zoology, and am a licensed dog trainer and certified applied animal behaviourist. After my day job, I review dog books and write about behaviour for my blog and other specialist websites.

If you are near The Hague and have dog behaviour issues, drop me a line. I work in English, French, or Dutch and only use animal-friendly methods. You can find out more on my training page.

Who is Vincent?

A client filmed me yesterday working with her chihuahua mix, Vincent. Vincent was diagnosed with full-blown Generalized Anxiety. I am collaborating with his vet behaviourist to tackle his crippling behaviour problems and give him and his owner a long-deserved break.

Looking at the video as a dog behaviour specialist, I was really happy with the session. But I imagined looking at it from the layman’s perspective and it made me chuckle. It essentially looked like I was getting paid for having a blast with dogs.

Vincent’s life up to this point had been hard: he interpreted everything unfamiliar as a grave danger. His constant anxiety evolved into fear aggression as he turned into a ‘offence is the best defense’ kind of guy. His owners had tried everything: discipline, books, trainers. They contacted me as a last resort. The videos show you how much progress we’ve made with his fear of visitors using play therapy.

Play can teach GAD patients not to take life so seriously, and that a little surprise once in a while isn’t the end of the world. After less than one session, Vincent had already learnt to trust me, a complete stranger. It’s still a work-in-progress but I am so happy with what we’ve achieved so far.

Read on to find out more about how play therapy and Vincent.

Establishing trust: Slowly slowly catchy doggie

In the first few minutes of a session with a stranger-aggressive dog, I barely make contact. I look only sideways and I only walk away from the dog. I am advertising ‘unintrusive visitor’ from every pore of my body. From the first moment I meet the dog, I give off this constant promise: “I will not get in your space. I will not get in your space. I will not get in your space. Please trust me?“.

First few moments when I meet a fear-aggressive dog can be tense Image from Darwin, Expression of Emotion

First few moments when I meet a fear-aggressive dog on bluff mode can be, well, tense.
Image from Darwin, Expression of Emotion

Once that message is clear – typically within a few seconds – the dog stops acting up and starts inspecting me. Some do it from afar, others come right to my feet, ready to pounce if I make the slightest movement. That moment tends to be, well, stressful, particularly when you think that I don’t just treat chihuahua mixes, but dogs of all sizes. So I have to control my breathing, my posture, my facial expression, so the dog doesn’t pick up on my own nerves. Once that first contact is over, we all breathe a sigh of relief.

Dogs and zebras and parrots: it’s all zoology to me

To increase the dog’s curiosity towards me, I then start pretending to be fascinated by the wallpaper, my pen, the lamp, whatever is close by. I am just being a big old primate getting on with my big old primate business, and I pay no attention to the dog whatsoever. It’s Economics – and Dating – 101: I am hard to get, so I instantly become more valuable.

dog parrot

Dogs and parrots, same difference ©premierco from Pixabay CC0

This technique is also used with undomesticated species like parrots, or zoo animals, when they need a vet procedure. But I often recycle it for my work with dogs. The beauty of this technique is that there is no pressure on the animal to make contact, and that has an instantaneous appeasing effect.

My favorite part is the look on the owner’s face when, for the first time in forever, their dog is sharing a room with a visitor without barking himself stupid.

Teaching emotional bounce-back: play therapy for dogs

Even when we have a heavy training to do list, I devote the initial stage to working on the emotional side of things. I work on putting the dog in a state of happy anticipation, rather than silent dread. Once I have him there, I start pushing his limits every so lightly, so he experiences a mild stress and the bounce back that follows. I let him practice that bounce-back moment again and again, so he gets better and better at recovering from little surprises.

I start with lots of distance, frequent rewards, soft speech, and barely moving. I then sprinkle in a stress moment or two, then immediately start playing again. I might speak a bit louder, or stand up, or move my arm quickly. Immediately aftewards, it’s business as usual and we just go on playing.

Emotional bounce, a skill needing a lot of practice Courtesy of

Emotional bounce, a skill needing a lot of practice
Courtesy of

I will push him hard enough that he notices my odd movement, but not hard enough that he minds. I get him to rehearse this choice: “Do I retreat again in my world of fear and aggression, or do I shake myself off and play again?” If he lunges or barks, I haven’t done my job and I’ve pushed him too far.

‘Chase!’ A therapy tool for fearful dogs

When working with stranger-directed aggression, I distribute all rewards away from me until his body language tells me that he is comfortable. To do this, I say ‘chase!’ in an excited voice, then send a treat rolling so the dog can run after it.

The chase boosts the dog’s sense of control: it confirms he is not forced to be close to me. And for anxious dogs, control is key. So the dog chooses to come back to me. If you do this game again and again, you end up with a dog who understands that approaching a visitor can actually be a ton of fun.

Amazin' chasin' By Adam Gustavus Ball on Google Art Project

Chasing will do the trick
By Adam Gustavus Ball on Google Art Project

The added bonus of chasing is that instantly sheds stress. No matter how you try to protect them, these sessions are hard on the dogs. Imagine being in the same room as a tarantula to help treat your spider phobia. It can be the world’s most charming arachnid, you’ll still be on your toes. So the dog might be tentatively discovering that visitors can be fun, but the fear is always lurking and could come bursting out at a hair’s trigger.

So when I see a dog get too tense, I give him a ‘chase’ break. It has a magic rebooting effect so we can start again when he’s obsessed with chasing the treat rather than how scary I really am.

Be a seeker, dog, not a fearer

I also intersperse my therapy sessions with ‘Xmas tree’ breaks. I hide treats in an object with nooks and crannies, then I step away and give the dog permission to ‘go find’. Rooting around, searching, sniffing, digging, etc. all use what Jaak Panksepp (neuroscientist) calls the ‘seeking circuits’. These are largely incompatible with the ‘fear circuits’. The more curious and exploratory you are, the less you are influenced by fear.

This golden tip, along with countless others, illustrates why I insist people calling themselves ‘behaviourists’ have a multidisciplinary understanding of behaviour, and are not purely coming at it with their trainer’s hat on.

Using these little emotional recovery tips can really help a dog cope during a session, and can promote the general good association you want the dog to make with visitors.

Promoting self-control: great things come to dogs who wait

There is an added bonus to the whole Xmas tree situation: when I prepare the ‘tree’, the dog has to back off and wait until I give him permission before he digs in. I won’t say anything, I won’t push him back. I will just cover the object until the dog backs off again. So he soon learns that self-control pays off. For fear aggressive dogs, self-control can mean the difference between a bite and no bite. So we have to teach them to think with their brains, and not their mouth.

I might use a real tree – sticking treats in the bark – or a crumbled up piece of paper for this.

Bend that orbito-frontal cortex now, that's where impulse control's at ©Paul Wicks from Wikipedia public domain

Bend that orbito-frontal cortex now, that’s where impulse control’s at
©Paul Wicks from Wikipedia public domain

Starting with training with plenty of play breaks

After a while, I start introducing more training to the sessions. In this case, on request by the treating vet behaviourist, I am teaching him Overall’s deference protocol: he will eventually need to sit and look at his handler in the presence of a trigger, instead of lunging and exploding into a fit of fear aggression.

Right now, we’re teaching him to look up at me once he’s sitting. We’re starting easy. He can take his time and there are no triggers. Once we have it rock solid, we’ll be road-testing it with real triggers. Look at the video, then know that one of his triggers is being looked in the eyes by visitors. What an impressive achievement.

Where we are now

Check out little Vincent here. I wish we’d filmed his first encounter with me so so you could see the leap of faith he has taken. In our first session,  I just had to look at him and he would crouch. Last session, he jump on my lap and curled up there, contented.

Thank you, Vincent, for giving me one of the most touching moments of my careers.


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