My Dog Freezes on Walks – Is That Normal?

By Emma Bowdrey, May 2020, Updated September 2020

As a dog behaviourist, one of the questions I am asked with almost every new client is “Is what my dog doing normal?”. There are many adorable behaviours that dogs act out that make them the goofy oddballs we can’t help but love. There are also some things they do that are really rather disgusting. It can be tricky to know what is normal when it comes to our pets and what should be a cause for concern.

Top topics that pop up regularly are: rolling in rubbish or poop, eating poop, chasing their tail, chewing their paws, humping, crotch-sniffing and, well, the list goes on. The answer to most of these is ‘Yes,’ they are all perfectly normal behaviours. They are just not something that humans are familiar or particularly comfortable with. However, when it comes to freezing when out walking it is the severity of it that can reveal if it is a problem or not.

Why Does My Dog Freeze While Out Walking?

This is a difficult question to answer precisely as there can be many reasons for freezing. Many owners are coping with freezing multiple times during a walk, making it quite distressing for both owner and dog. My advice is always to understand the underlying issue to modify unwanted behaviour.

Fear

Dogs tend to react in four ways when they feel uneasy. Commonly referred to as the Four F’s of Fear in the dog expert community this include:

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  • Fight
  • Flight
  • Freeze
  • Fooling Around

Almost everyone has heard of the fight or flight response. The options to either stand and confront the source of your fear (fight) or to run from it (flight). Both of these methods can be observed regularly by humans and animals alike.

The two lesser-known reactions are to freeze or fool around. Fooling around is a displacement behaviour. It is a behaviour that is inappropriate to the situation but diffuses the tension and relieves stress. If a dog is presented with an object or person they have not seen before they may dance around, hot-stepping or barking at the unknown and somewhat scary new thing.

Freezing is exactly as it sounds. Your dog will freeze, relying on stillness to go undetected, like a ‘deer in headlights.’ Dogs commonly exhibit freezing when reacting to stress or fear. Once stood still they assess the situation and then decide what to do next. Is it safe to move on or could the danger still be in the area? If they continue to feel under threat, they may refuse to walk on. Dogs have extremely sensitive noses, amazing hearing, and an incredible line of vision. They may smell, hear or see something that owners are not aware of. Maybe they can hear the neighbourhood bully dog in the distance, smell the treat lady’s biscuits or see kids in hoodies that remind them of past trauma.

Interestingly, dogs can freeze without their owners noticing. The freeze, assessment and decision to continue is so rapid that the dog has moved on before the freeze is noted. This assessment will include the dog’s current circumstances, their well-being and who they are with. The confidence that a dog has in her owner is similar to that of a child with a parent. Dogs who wholeheartedly trust in their owner and their ability to defend are far less likely to freeze while in their presence.

Is your dog showing signs of severe fearfulness? These include; tail between legs, shaking, flitting from one spot to another, distress peeing. I would suggest contacting a canine behaviourist and dog trainer to understand the triggers and work on building confidence.

Building Trust and Confidence

When it comes to freezing because of fear, building confidence is the best solution. It could be that the dog needs to feel confident with the owner. Or it could be that the dog needs to feel more confident when outside. Possibly a combination of the two. Building confidence will reduce freezing and encourage your dog to choose to continue to walk but this can be a long game, dependant on how deep-rooted the fear is

Make a diary of your walks to find patterns in your dog’s freezing. Is there a certain route they do not like? Are there certain noises that trigger them? Does daytime or nighttime produce more freezing? Do they freeze more with one member of the family than another?

Gathering this information means you can start to create a walk that avoids the triggers. Why stress them out unnecessarily. Building confidence occurs much more quickly if a dog is not already stressed and anticipating fear before they have even left the house.

Do not force a dog to walk in a direction that he is scared to go in. You will gain more trust by taking a different route then forcing them to walk on. You might need to only cross the street but to your dog, you are taking onboard their discomfort and taking control of the situation. As trust builds in you and freezing reduces you can start to tackle the source of the fear.

Learnt Behaviour

One common cause of freezing is learnt behaviour. Freezing can be frustrating and time-consuming. Many owners opt for a quick fix to move their dogs on quickly such as a treat. Dogs are clever and quickly understand that freezing can result in a treat and will repeat the behaviour over and over to continue receiving tasty food rewards.

It may not have started as a problem but it has quickly escalated into one. Stop rewarding the behaviour, move your dog on and they will soon stop it.

Well-Being And General Health

Of course, there are other reasons. Maybe your dog is tired and wants to return home. Or they are thirsty and want a drink. Their feet are aching. They are stubborn and want to walk a different route. They may remember the bread that was left out for the birds at No.21, two streets up and hope it will be there again today.

Dogs live in the moment. If a dog freezes, she is doing so for a reason. Work with your dog to understand that reason and then address it. Walks are supposed to be enjoyable for both dog and owner. A chance to expel energy, socialise and bond.

Emma Bowdrey is an ISCP-trained Dog Trainer based in Prague, where she lives with her adopted greyhound, Swift. Emma has worked with dogs since gaining her qualification in Canine Behaviour & Psychology and now runs her own business - Four Long Legs. Emma uses positive reinforcement methods to make each hound a happy one.

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