How Do I Help My Fearful Dog?
By: Jeff Noce, Voyce President
Every week, I invite Voyce blog readers to submit any questions or comments they have about health or behavioral concerns. Because of the great response, each month I address at least one question in more detail.
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About a month ago, I adopted a dog who is afraid of a lot of things. For example, he jumps at every little noise, doesn’t like walking through doorways and hides when other people come over. Despite this, he is very sweet and gentle, and I really want to help him get over his fears. Any advice?
Congratulations on your new pet and thank you for being so willing to work with him. Helping a dog overcome his fears takes time but is an incredibly rewarding feat.
If you haven’t already, you might think about hiring a qualified dog trainer or board certified veterinary behaviorist to work one-on-one with you. They’ll be able to personally observe your dog and give you advice specific to your situation.
In the meantime, here are a few general tips to keep in mind as you work with your pup:
It’s important to know your dog’s triggers…the things that make him afraid. When you know what causes a fearful reaction, you are better able to manage the situation. From your note, it sounds like you already have a good handle on his triggers. But keep watching him for subtle signs of nervousness and make note of them. For instance, lip licking, yawning, head turning and whale eye (showing the whites of his eyes) are good indications that he’s feeling stressed.
If you’re uncertain and your dog has a Voyce Health Monitor, log in to the Wellness Management System and check his vital signs. Changes in heart and/or respiratory rates can be a good indicator of his mental state.
Take It Slow
Compassionate, well-meaning dog owners can be under the impression that their fearful dog just needs to “get used to it.” So they repeatedly expose him to stimuli with the idea that eventually their dog will realize there’s nothing to be afraid of.
Although this may sometimes work in less extreme cases, a better tactic is to desensitize your dog by slowly introducing him to the things that frighten him. For example, if he’s afraid of loud noises, start with softer ones that he doesn’t find frightening. Then gradually increase the level.
Change the Association
Unfortunately, it’s virtually impossible to rationally explain to a dog why something won’t hurt him. So the best approach is to change the way he feels about something through lots of positive reinforcement.
You mentioned that your dog is afraid of walking through doorways. To change the unpleasant association he has with doorways, offer praise (What a brave boy!) and treats whenever he gets close to one. This starts to shift the emotional meaning attached to the door in his mind. “Hey, good things happen when I’m near the doorway. Doorways aren’t so bad!” Before long, you may find him going through it like a champ.
Patience. When working with a fearful dog, it’s important to have this in spades. The fact is that your dog’s fears didn’t develop overnight and they won’t go away overnight. But the good news is that with time, patience and persistence, things will change for the better!
As a partner in your dog’s journey, you will build trust, boost his confidence and help him deal with his fears in a positive way. Then one day, you’ll look down at your happy, smiling dog and realize just how far you’ve both come…and that moment will make it all worth it.