Nobody wants their loved ones to be scared, so helping your dog cope with any fears and phobias is a good move for both of you.
Nature or nurture?
Some dogs are fearful by nature – and some are more predisposed to it than others. But fearful behaviour is also something many dogs learn or are reinforced for. Typical fears and even phobias are those related to vet surgeries, physical punishment, confinement, storms and loud noises.
If pressed far enough, fearful or anxious dogs may attempt to escape, urinate involuntarily or even bite if cornered. And although the factors contributing to individual cases vary, there are some common threads that can help alleviate and cure the problem.
Treating a scared dog
If the cause of the fear or anxiety is known, it helps to slowly reintroduce the dog to the root cause and reward calm behaviour. This is known as ‘desensitisation’. Punishment, scolding or harsh training methods – poor techniques in any situation – should always be avoided when it comes to fearful dogs. They will only make the problem worse.
In cases of aggression linked to fear, a behaviourist will be able to give you advice about safety issues and treatment. With patience and some consistent effort on your part, fearful dogs can and will regain their self-confidence.
In extreme cases, as with severe separation anxiety, some fearful dogs benefit from temporary anti-anxiety treatment (prescribed by a vet in conjunction with a behaviour program), but it’s best to find the cause of the anxiety and start a training program that will help the dog learn to overcome it without medication.
Dogs afraid of thunderstorms
Dogs are often afraid of thunderstorms, as they have had little experience when young or a noisy storm has scared them in the past. If a thunderstorm is expected, dogs should be secured where they cannot escape. They could be placed in an internal room or a room with blinds and windows shut. Leave some lights on, to mask the lightning flashes. Calming music can also be played to reduce the effect of thunder and help keep the dog calm. Some dogs enjoy a den-like area, such as a crate or under a table.
A dog who is scared of thunderstorms will need to be desensitised over time. This means playing the sounds of thunder, available on commercial CDs or downloaded sounds, at low volumes, increasing over time. Pair this up with something positive like food, pats or games and the dog will associate these pleasant activities with storms.
If your dog is extremely scared, then consult your vet about suitable medication and ask for a referral to a behaviourist.
Dogs afraid of cats
Dogs who are afraid of cats have either never previously encountered a cat or have encountered one and had a bad experience. Ideally, we want dogs to accept cats without being afraid but also without being too energetic in their interactions.
To desensitise your dog and help them accept cats, your dog needs to view a cat from a distance, when on a lead under your control. When your dog remains calm, they should be rewarded. Over time they can be brought closer to the cat. They can also be exposed to sound recordings of cats and, if your dog watches television, to visual images of calm cats. It is important for dogs to get to know the sounds, smells and movements of cats without having to actually confront one up close.
If your cat and dog do not get along, or you are worried that an animal may get hurt, ask a behaviourist to help you conduct successful introductions. Your pets should be secured when in a room together and both receive rewards for calm behaviour.
Dogs afraid of other dogs
Dogs who are afraid of other dogs have usually had a bad experience in the past. Some dogs are afraid of particular breeds, individuals or sizes of dogs.
Owners of dogs who are scared of other dogs need to manage their dog carefully, avoiding potential encounters that will scare their dog again. If forced to encounter another dog, it is likely that the scared dog will turn to aggressive strategies. This is why many dogs are aggressive on lead, as they do not have the option of getting away. Their fight or flight response only has the flight option!
So, if you can, when you see a dog coming towards your dog, cross the road or turn and walk in the opposite direction. If the dogs are close, turn your dog’s eyes away from the other dog or block their view. This is often enough to diffuse the potentially scary situation. This will not overcome the issue but it does help you manage your dog.
To help your dog overcome their fear of dogs, it is advisable to seek the help of a trainer or behaviourist who will help you conduct a desensitisation program of introductions to dogs. You will need to introduce your dog, from a distance, to one dog at a time, rewarding your dog for staying calm. Over time, you will be able to get closer, and introduce your dog to dogs of all shapes, sizes and personalities.
Dogs afraid of people
Some dogs are afraid of people. These may be strangers whom they have never met or they may be people who come on to their territory. They may be particular types of people – genders, sizes, abilities and disabilities, personalities and particular characteristics of people – people wearing hats, for instance, or people who move around very quickly.
Dogs are rarely afraid of people they know and trust. If your dog has suddenly become afraid of you, it may be this fear that is associated with another event. If you have different scents around you or you wear a different item of clothing or you start to shout, for instance, some dogs may find this scary. It could also indicate an illness in your dog, so have your dog check.ed by your vet
To help your dog overcome their fear of people, act calmly and manage your dog’s behaviour. Take them out of the fear-provoking situation, keeping them on a lead, as frightened dogs are likely to try to run away or to attack if provoked. Seek help, with an animal behaviourist, in starting a program of therapy with your dog where you will conduct gradual, positive encounters. Never intentionally place your dog in a situation that they find fearful.
Dogs afraid of objects and situations
Dogs will sometimes show fear in certain situations or when they encounter objects for the first time. Mops, balloons and parties are all common fear-provoking events for some dogs.
Try to remove your dog from these situations as quickly and calmly as possible. If you wish your dog to accept these objects or situations in the future, then you need to gradually introduce them to the event, in a positive way. For instance, the dog who is scared of large gatherings of people, should be exposed to sounds of music and people talking, and also to smaller groups of people, prior to an actual party.
Again, if you need help with managing your dog’s behaviour or reducing their stress, seek help from an animal behaviour specialist.
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