Why some dogs develop fears and phobias is difficult to determine. However, recognizing your dogs behavior as fearful and helping her work through her fears is the most effective way to handle phobias.
Sometimes fear can be specific, for example, some dogs fear men in uniforms. Other fears may be generalized, so that a dog once afraid of only thunderstorms eventually becomes afraid of fireworks and slamming doors too. Working with your dogs initial fears to prevent fears from escalating is important.
For most owners, it is easy to identify the cause of a dog’s fears. A dog that is afraid of loud noises may hear a clap of thunder, crouch near the ground, and tremble. She may urinate, her pupils may dilate, her ears flat against her head, and she may try to hide someplace.
What to Avoid
In this type of situation, do not comfort and console your dog by petting her and telling her everything will be fine. Consoling a fearful animal by petting and speaking in a soothing tone can reinforce the fearful behavior and increase her fear, i.e. she is being praise for trembling and hiding.
Tension or worry in the owner also communicates to the dog that there is something to fear. Next time she hears a boom of thunder she will undoubtedly continue to exhibit fear as the owner continues to reward her with soothing praise and stroking. It becomes a cycle as your dog becomes more afraid and may begin to extend her fears on to other things.
The same goes for forcing a dog to “face her fears” by making her accept the approach of someone or something she’s afraid of. That may result in an animal that panics and may eventually bite. She may growl a warning and when that doesn’t work she may bark. All she’s asking is that she be allowed to get use to that scary thing at her own pace. Reprimanding her for growling or barking will only teach her that she must use her last resort: a bite.
How to Help Your Dog
One way to help dogs overcome fears is through desensitization. Desensitization begins with a low level stimulus similar to whatever the dog is afraid of, then increasing the stimulus in stages until the dog is no longer fearful.
Here is an example of the desensitization process for a dog afraid of thunder:
· Play the taped sound of a thunderstorm at the very lowest audible level and take your dog into another room, away from the speakers. Have your dog sit, lay down, or do a trick. Reward your dog when she does what you ask.
· Once the dog is comfortable with the “storm” at that level, turn the volume up very slightly and continue working with your dog on commands to distract her attention from the noise in the other room.
· Again, if the dog is comfortable, turn the volume up a little bit more and repeat the “trick for reward” routine.
· As long as the dog is not showing any signs of fear, continue to turn up the volume in small increments and work with the command/reward sequence in another room.
· Once the volume can be increased to the level of a real storm, and the dog is comfortable in another room, turn the level down about one third what it was and work with your dog in the same room as the speakers, again asking for sits, downs, etc., and rewarding with food or favorite toys.
· Begin again to slowly increase the volume with the dog in the same room, repeating the sit/down routine with rewards.
Eventually, your dog should be able to be in the same room as the “thunderstorm” without showing any signs of fear. Remember to go slowly and don’t try to accomplish more than one volume level at a time. It could take weeks to go from one level to the next, it just depends on the extent of your dogs fear.
Pay attention to your dog’s reactions at all times. If your dog shows any sign of fear at any stage of the desensitization process, stop immediately and go back to the previous step.
When to Desensitize Your Dog
This process works well in teaching fearful dogs to accept things they’re afraid of. For it to work effectively, though, it is important to avoid whatever is causing the fear during the desensitizing process. That can be difficult. If you are working specifically with thunderstorm problems, start the process in the winter months, when storms are least likely to occur.
This type of desensitizing can work with other fears as well, including strangers, babies, people in uniform, etc. Remember not to force your pet to accept something she is not comfortable with. Develop a plan and take small steps. The benefit of taking your time can be long lasting.
If your dog’s fear of people has led to aggression, it is critical that you seek help from a behaviorist before starting a desensitizing program.
Information provided by Michigan Humane Society Rochester Hills, Michigan
Behavior Help Line (248)650-0127