Case Study: Belgian Schipperke with High Anxiety

Black Belgian Schipperke lying in a pile of grass

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Ben is a 15-month-old Belgian Schipperke, he came to Hilary, an experienced Schipperke owner, aged 7 months with high anxiety from a breeder who had decided not to keep him on. Ben was raised mostly in a kennel environment and had little or no training; he had very few social skills and was anxious around people and other dogs.

Ben’s high anxiety

Ben could not relax. He was constantly in a state of high anxiety. When meeting another dog, or strangers, Ben would become very fearful. He would tuck his tail tightly and try to bolt; so, Hilary could not let Ben off the lead. Ben did not like to be handled. He would cower if Hilary tried to pick him up. To add to his problems, Ben did not like travelling in the car and would spend the journey trembling, panting, and drooling.

Behavioural help

Hilary realised that she needed to seek professional help. Having spoken to her vet she was referred to a local animal behaviour specialist. As Ben’s high anxiety was so extreme, with the agreement of her vet, Hilary began feeding Breakthrough dog food to Ben to reduce his high anxiety to a level where he could begin learning new behaviours. Hilary introduced the new diet over a period of 5 days to ensure that Ben’s digestive system was not compromised.

Hilary's Ben on the boat
Ben the Belgian Schipperke out for a walk

Breakthrough is the complete, dry, version of Val Strong’s serotonin enhancing diet. Serotonin is known to reduce behaviours such as aggression, anxieties, over-excitability, and reactivity by raising overall mood state and promoting more positive emotional responses.

High anxiety behaviour modification plan

Step 1

Use general obedience exercises to boost Ben’s confidence. Through positive reinforcement training Ben will enjoy learning when to sit, lie down, and come when called. The knowledge that sitting when asked has a positive outcome and makes him feel good, means that in scary situations Ben will know that being asked to sit will relieve tension and replace his negative feelings with more positive ones.

In addition, introduce a default behaviour, such as ‘look at me’ with the reward for this behaviour being something special. Use high value treats and reserve these for this behaviour only.

Step 2

Focus on games and other exercises that Ben finds exciting and enjoyable. Start these off in a calm and relaxed environment before embarking on facing the world. This establishes a rapport and positive relationship between you and Ben and ensures that Ben knows that he can rely on you in scary circumstances.

Teach Ben some tricks, find all the things that Ben enjoys doing. Use these activities, toys, and games to help him relax and enjoy playing in new environments and situations. Teach Ben to nose bump your hand for a treat. Once you have got him to nose bump when asked you can use this exercise to change his focus from something scary and make him relax.

Another useful game is to teach Ben to find treats you throw on the ground. This is a great searching game and allows him to disengage from the scary thing approaching and do something he enjoys reducing high anxiety. You can always ask Ben to find more treats if you need to.

Step 3

Try to introduce Ben to unfamiliar things every week. Do this at home where he feels relaxed and comfortable. You could place several objects around Ben. These could be anything from new toys to a skateboard, a tin tray, a gym ball. Be inventive but make sure you do not overwhelm him. When Ben approaches one of the unfamiliar objects reward him with a treat. You could also use an activity/puzzle toy to help Ben become more confident in problem solving.

You can develop this further by getting Ben used to negotiating different surfaces such as bubble wrap, large bin bags, a child’s play tunnel or walking over a ladder on the ground. All these things will boost his courage.

Ben’s high anxiety progress

Ben and his new family had a fabulous holiday in the Autumn, something they did not think they would be possible a few months earlier. It was a 2-week barge holiday. It only took Ben a couple of days to settle and he enjoyed watching the world go by. Ben remained relaxed and was able to go with Hilary and her family into the local pubs. In Hilary’s own words Ben became in fact a little too confident at times and in the second week ended up falling in!”

Ben today

Ben continues to improve. His confidence is growing with other dogs. He enjoys a good game with his canine friends in the park. Ben can now go with Hilary to her saddlery shop and does not react to customers when they come in. Bonfire night passed with lots of fireworks and only a few minor barks from Ben.

Without the use of Breakthrough, Ben would not have been able to learn new behaviours as his anxiety was too high. Ben continues to eat Breakthrough and Hilary is a happy owner.


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