How to Help Your Dog With Fears and Phobias
A fearful dog is a challenge to own and train. In familiar settings, the dog may be a sweet, wonderful family pet, but in new places, he may turn into a jittery mess. If your dog is like this, it is important to help it become less fearful and more confident.
The most common things that dogs are afraid of are:
- Loud noises
- Large groups of people
- Slick floors (hardwood, tile, etc.)
- Other dogs
- New places
- New people
It may seem like your life revolves around your dog, especially if he or she has a major phobia. I mean, you may not be able to take him out or bring people over. But it's time to find a way to correct the problem.
Make a Commitment
Fearful dogs do not suddenly become confident. Training a fearful dog to become more confident is a time-consuming task that is best undertaken with a determined attitude.
- Being specific about how you want your dog to react and behave is a huge step toward making it reality, so have a plan set out.
- When training a fearful dog, it is important to be flexible. Sometimes it may seem as though you're taking one step forward and ten steps back.
- You must be able to realize when you are pushing too hard and what changes need to be made.
Fearful dogs operate on emotion. They are not really thinking about what they're doing, so no amount of correction or comforting will help them. If you take on working with a fearful dog, remember to have patience and be flexible.
Be Organized and Consistent
Have a regular training schedule and break down your goals. For instance, maybe your dog is afraid of strange men.
You may start off by using a male member of your family who your dog likes and teach it to target the person's hand. Targeting involves the dog approaching a strange person and touching his hand. This would need to be broken down into steps:
- Have the person sit in a chair and ignore the dog, at first.
- Then, you could have the stranger drop small pieces of treats all around their feet and let the dog take his time about going up and eating them.
- If the dog is still too scared, break it down even further. Have the person lie on the couch or sit further away.
- Your dog's appetite is a good indication to his comfort level, and if he is too stressed to eat, you need to make changes in order to see any progress. Gradually, you would make it so the dog would be able to go up and target the person's hand.
Using targeting to help with a dog's fear will give the dog something to do instead of being afraid. Taking the time to teach your dog how to target will be one of the most important techniques you can teach a dog to get over his fears.
Genetics, Abuse, or Lack of Exposure
People often assume that fearful dogs have been mistreated by a prior owner, but more commonly, dogs are fearful because they lack early experience with other people, sounds, and situations. Genetics can also play a role in fearful behavior. It is possible to acquire a dog who has been mistreated by someone that has come in contact with it, but most commonly the cause is the lack of socialization as a puppy or young dog. The best way to overcome a shy and fearful dog is to set a plan.
Some breeds are naturally shy, but due to puppy mills and inbreeding, these traits can be increased. Before you buy a puppy from a pet store or a breeder, research the place or person. A good breeder is committed to turning out puppies who are healthy, well adjusted, and ready for life. A lot of love and care goes into each puppy if the breeder does his job right.
If you feel like your puppy is shy because of a genetic trait, it is still possible to train him. Even well-bred puppies with good breeders can be more fearful than their litter mates. If the shyness is caught early enough, intensive socialization and training should be taken up. The earlier the problem is identified, the easier it is to deal with. Certain breeds can be more prone to fearfulness, but any dog can grow up being fearful of new people and experiences. Before buying a puppy, research the breed and ask the breeder about the parents' temperaments. It is also a good idea to meet the parents of the puppy.
If you feel that your puppy has become fearful because of a lack of socialization, get started now. The sooner you realize this, the better. Consider enrolling your dog in training classes or doggie-day care. Take him or her to dog parks.
If a puppy misses early socialization, he will become a fearful dog. The critical window of early socialization is from about eight weeks to about eighteen weeks, but if doesn't close there, but puppies need to be in an environment that will stimulate him to learn about life. The lack of early socialization can result in shyness, fear, and fear-related aggression. Develop a plan to help socialize your puppy early.
When you begin to train a fearful dog, you need to make sure it has a structured environment. The more predictable the training sessions and rules, the better the dog will be able to cope. Spoiling fearful dogs will make them worse, because a fearful dog needs a strong and consistent leader. Rules are a must!
- Avoid reinforcing fearful behavior. Petting and talking soothingly to the dog or picking hum up reinforces the fearful behavior. A more hands-off approach will send the message that there is nothing to fear. Yawn, stretch, or just flat-out tell the dog there's nothing to be scared of.
- No punishment, ever! There is never a reason for punishment in a situation where a dog is fearful. When a dog is frightened, it is not able to learn, so punishment will make things worse.
- Safety first. Keep the leash on at all times in public and make the house escape-proof.
- Exercise and mental stimulation. Exercise will help your dog develop confidence.
With lots of patience and careful training, a fearful dog can gain confidence and, in turn, will be able to live life happier. This is a time-consuming task, so do not rush the process. Teaching a fearful dog to target is a great way to build his confidence if you make a game out of it. Start with teaching the dog to target your hand, and then move to other objects. Eventually, the dog should be able to target or touch objects that he has previously feared.
Classical conditioning causes the dog to perform a certain behavior, so it can help you cover more ground more quickly. This can be helpful for dogs who are too scared to work at all or for those with noise sensitivities.
This technique involves playing a noise at a low volume or keeping the scary person or object at a distance so that the dog notices it but does not react fearfully. If a dog won't take a treat from you, then the volume is too high or the person is too close. Increase the volume gradually, or decrease the distance between the dog and person. Eventually, the dog won't even notice the noise or person and will continue to play and take treats.
This process involves interaction with a fearful dog in a positive way. The dog starts to associate the feeling of being relaxed around the loud noise or person, and eventually it will be accepted as a part of the environment and nothing to be scared of.
This technique is the complete opposite of desensitization, and involves throwing everything you've got at the dog all at once. For example, if the dog is scared of cars, walk him on a busy road until he realizes that there's nothing to be scared of.
Many trainers do not approve of this method, as in some cases it can be more detrimental that anything. In some cases flooding the dog with his fear can make him fear more. Flooding should only be attempted by an experienced trainer.
Fear is an emotion that can get in the way of training. If nothing else has worked, you may want to consider another method of treatment. Fears can be a result of an injury or a medical problem that can be detected through chiropractic or acupuncture. Massage techniques are also available for dogs. These can help dogs become more confident and aware of their bodies. Regardless of what you start with, remember not to do any harm on your dog. The more open-minded you are, the more your dog will benefit.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.