first time this has happened to us, but I learned from that experience, and now carry citronella spray on all our walks. I’m glad I do, too, because this was not a friendly dog. (As a side note, it is not actually comforting to have an owner yell, “She doesn’t bite!” as their dog is rushing at yours full speed, growling and snarling.)
Although the incident was very scary, it had the best possible outcome. I was able to get the citronella spray out quickly, which was effective in driving the other dog off; it never got closer than five feet from Maisy. I was pleased with Maisy’s response, too- instead of rushing forward toward the dog, as she has in the past, she hid behind me. Perhaps I’m being anthropomorphic, but I like to think she did that because she trusts that I’ll protect her.
Even so, there’s no denying that stressful events like this really affect her. A certain amount of this is to be expected, and I’ve even written before about the effects of stress hormones on the body. As a result, I’ve been thinking a lot about what we should do for our dogs after a stressful experience.
My initial response seems to make a big difference in Maisy’s response. My goal is to help her through the immediate crisis by acting calmly and taking control of the situation as much as possible. Maisy is incredibly sensitive to my moods, so even though I felt incredibly panicky and like crying hysterically afterwards, I had to keep it together for her sake. I made a deliberate effort to breathe normally, to walk loosely, and to talk to her in as normal of a voice as possible.
Part of this is possible because I prepare for the worst. In this case, I had practiced using the citronella spray, which allowed me to remain calm and act quickly. I had also done some desensitization and counter-conditioning with the it (thanks to Sara for the idea) so that it didn’t add to Maisy’s stress. I also carry treats with me every time I take Maisy somewhere. As we were walking away, I fed Maisy a continuous stream of treats. This allowed me to both assess her mental state (not too bad, actually) as well as do “damage control.” I’m quite sure there are no amounts of treats that can overcome the emotions that come from an experience like that, but it offers a certain amount of normalcy.
Because subsequent stress can retrigger a new wave of stress hormones in the body, I’ve found that it’s incredibly important to keep the first 24 to 48 hours low-key. I’ve seen a number of references that suggest that the most important factor in recovering from stress is rest. As a result, the first day or two should be as boring as possible.
For Maisy, this means we don’t leave the house except to go potty. Even time in the yard needs to be minimized as you never know who might walk by your yard. No demands should be made on her during this time, and this includes training. If she initiates play, that’s fine, but it should be kept short and sweet. For the most part, she should be sleeping.
After the initial 48 hours, I gradually add activities back in to her routine. Easy training activities (nothing new!), extended play time in the yard, and very short walks in the neighborhood (longer ones are okay only if I know we won’t encounter scary stuff) are incorporated back into our lives as I see less edginess and her startle response decreases.
It might seem excessive, but I try not to return to "normal" for about a week; this site says it can take up to six days for the stress hormones to return to normal, and I believe it. Maisy is definitely edgier for several days after a stressful experiment. On Monday- four full days after the incident- Maisy growled over things that normally wouldn’t provoke a response: kids on skateboards a block away, a person sitting under a tree, a motorcycle parked in a driveway.
Despite the reduced amount of activity, I try to keep things as normal as possible. I must admit, this is hard because things like our daily walks or evening training sessions are a huge part of our routine. Still, I feed her the same things on the same schedule, play with her if she asks, and allow her free range in the house, even if that does mean she doesn’t rest as much as she might otherwise.
This is what seems to work for us. I suspect that some version of the same things would work for most dogs, although the timeline will likely vary a bit dog to dog. Similarly, some dogs may be able to tolerate more or less activity at different times than Maisy can. I think the real key is watching our dogs’ body language and adjusting our expectations as needed.