As a pet sitter, I’ve encountered many different breeds of dogs as well as various temperaments and personalities. One troublesome trait I’ve dealt with several times is fearfulness or shyness. Excessive fear or anxiety in your pet can become a pretty big problem if left untreated.
Dogs will exhibit fear in various ways, such as trembling, salivating, pacing, running and hiding, tucking their tails between their legs, urinating, or even exhibiting aggression like growling, barking, and biting. Here are a few suggestions on how to deal with an overly fearful or anxious dog.
THE SOURCE OF FEAR
Dogs can exhibit fear of many things, such as people, other dogs, inanimate objects like vacuum cleaners or skateboards, separation from the owner, and loud sounds like firecrackers or thunderstorms. The list can go on and on.
Perhaps the dog was not socialized properly when he/she was a puppy, or was traumatized by abuse, or maybe just
predisposed to being fearful. In any case, you have to be the stable source of energy that will consistently and gently lead the dog away from exhibiting the behaviors associated with the source of his/her fear.
VISIT THE VET
Of course, as with any negative situation with your dog, rule out any medical reasons. Make sure your dog is healthy and that there are no underlying illnesses or medical conditions that might be causing the problem.
BE THE CONFIDENT LEADER
After ruling out any health issues, the most important thing to remember is that you have the biggest influence on your dog. For your dog to overcome fear and become more confident, you have to be calm, assertive, and positive. Animals can sense how you are feeling, so it’s critical that you project the confidence that you want your dog to adopt.
You must also gain your dog’s trust and confidence as the leader. If your dog looks to you as the pack leader, he/she will more readily listen to and follow your instructions. The assertiveness you practice with your dog can only help him/her. You have to remember that dogs are dogs; they are not four-legged humans.
If you resort to reassuring and coddling a dog as you would a child, it could have the opposite effect of reinforcing the negative behaviors you’re trying to stop.
One thing that is very helpful when you attempt to help your dog overcome fear is making sure your dog knows some basic commands like “sit,” “lie down,” and “stay.” If your dog listens to you as a leader and knows a few word commands, it will make it easier for you to control your dog in stressful situations.
DE-SENSITIZE AND COUNTER CONDITION
A common way to help your dog overcome fear of specific things, such as a person, an item, or thunderstorms, is to de-sensitize them to the object of their anxiety. For example, if your dog is fearful of thunderstorms, you can get a
recording a thunderstorm and play it over and over again, gradually increasing the volume.
To do this properly, make sure your dog is in a calm and happy state. Then, start the recording at a very low level. If the dog doesn’t show signs of fear, reward with a treat and increase the volume. If the dog starts showing fear, stop and lower the volume until he/she is calm again. Then, start over.
You can have these types of sessions with a professional or try them on your own. It’s very important to know that this takes plenty of time and patience, with sessions taking place over the course of days, weeks or even months.
You can also de-sensitize dogs to items. We’ll use a skateboard for this example. If your dog acts fearful around a skateboard, you can bring one within eyesight of the dog. Have your dog sit and stay. If your dog stays calm, reward and praise him. If he acts fearful, don’t comfort the dog. That only reinforces the negative reaction.
Instead, move the item away until he calms down and start again. Slowly move the item closer to the dog, rewarding the dog if he remains relaxed. Eventually, you can try having someone ride by at a distance and again look for either
a calm or fearful reaction. Slow and steady is the key and never push your dog too fast.
To counter condition, you teach the dog that the thing that scares him can now be a source of good things. For example, if your dog is scared of men, you can have a male friend help out in the sessions, creating situations where the dog will associate treats and positive feelings by being around a man instead of experiencing the usual anxiety.
Again, like with any training, this takes time and patience. You can have your friend visit and just ignore the dog. Don’t force the interaction. The man can sit on the floor, facing away from the dog, never making eye contact. You can have him hold an especially tempting treat so the dog has an incentive to approach.
Over time, the dog will sniff and approach, and maybe even take a treat that has been dropped on the floor by the man. The dog may eventually take the treat directly from the man. As the owner, you should be there, projecting happy and
positive energy, staying calm,but never reassuring the dog if he/she shows fear or tries to cling to you.
You can use de-sensitizing and counter conditioning together for all types of fears, from objects to people to noises. If your dog is afraid of traffic noises, slowly introduce him to the noises. Take him for walks in town to increasingly busy areas. If your dog is afraid of other dogs, introduce your dog in a controlled and safe environment to a smaller, well-behaved and confident dog. Gradually introduce him to other dogs.
If your dog has separation anxiety, you can implement the same techniques, gradually getting him used to the idea of you being gone. Have your dog sit and stay while you move away. Reward the dog if he stays and doesn’t whine or cry. Slowly increase the distance and the duration of your absence. Keep rewarding calm behavior and don’t reward anxious behavior.
The key to using these techniques effectively is to move at a slow and consistent pace, gradually training your dog to be more confident and trusting. These techniques can work if you are patient and always remain calm.
CALL IN A PRO
You might want to consider calling in a professional to help you since these techniques take a lot of patience and correct handling. If you push too hard or too fast, it can cause your dog to become more fearful and even aggressive. A very fearful or anxious dog might benefit from a knowledgeable trainer who has experienced and treated troubled dogs.
You and your dog can also benefit from professional obedience and/or agility training. Learning new commands and skills can serve to boost your dog’s confidence, give him something new and exciting to focus on, relieve boredom, and distract him from the things that might scare him.
DON’T SCOLD OR PUNISH
Never scold or punish your dog for showing fear. This will only be counterproductive. At the same time, remember not to reassure or coddle your dog when they are in a frightened state. This will only reinforce the negative behavior. Instead, try to take their mind off of whatever is causing them fear, or start running through training drills that you have been working on. Making them work at a time of distress is a great way to alleviate the fear, and make them use their brain in a productive way.
BE PATIENT AND CONSISTENT
As with any type of dog training, this will take a lot of patience, consistency, and persistence. You can’t rush your dog into becoming a confident and happy animal. If you push too hard or too fast, you can cause setbacks and additional
problems. Training your dog can take weeks or months, so keep in mind that this is a long-term proposition.
For some dogs, it might be appropriate to look into some type of anti-anxiety medication. This may help in the beginning, but I believe in solving the problem, not masking it with medication. Only a vet can check your dog and prescribe the right medical solution. Do not give dogs human medication as it can be harmful or even deadly.