How to Tackle Your Dog’s Fears Head On
A fearful dog is probably the most frightening and intimidating dog that you can deal with, either as an owner or just in general.
Fearful dogs are hard to read, and going from fear to aggression can be fast and ferocious.
Simply put, fear makes their behavior unreliable.
Even a dog cowering in the corner with his tail tucked can defensively attack with little to no warning.
I think dogs like this are feeling what people feel when we have panic attacks.
Your heart beats out of your chest, you can’t think, you can’t focus, and you literally feel like you might die.
There are 2 main things that make your dog’s fear worse.
2 Main Things That Make Fear Worse
#1: Ignore the Problem
The first is probably the most common: a lot of people just ignore the problem.
If the dog is afraid of the clicker, never use the clicker again.
If the dog is afraid of the garbage man, ignore it and keep him inside when there is garbage pickup.
If the dog is afraid of people, avoid taking him out of the house.
I do and don’t understand how people think this will fix the problem!
However, there is no real way of making your dog live in a bubble.
I’ve never had a fear that has just gone away, without significant effort.
Fears in dogs and other animals don’t just go away. And if untreated, untrained and unacknowledged, they can actually develop into full-fledged phobias.
Fears also have the potential to develop into other problematic behaviors like:
Helping your dog overcome his fears will not only help to stop these behaviors, it will help you develop a confident dog!
Confident dogs are much easier to handle and train, you simply need to teach your dog some coping mechanisms and help him overcome his fears.
#2: Forcing Him Into Uncomfortable Situations
The other group of people think that “flooding” the dog by making him face his fears all at once will force him to overcome them.
However, this method can often create a lot of conflict.
And, in many instances, this will make the behavior worse.
Flooding involves forced, prolonged exposure to the actual stimulus that provoked the original trauma (or fear) and caused the problem in the first place. Flooding has been proven to actually significantly increase fear. Overall, Karen L., Behavior Modification in Dogs; 2011
What Is Your Worst Fear?
- Falling or heights?
- Small spaces?
Would you want to be forced to lay with spiders all over you?
To be pushed from a plane?
Or to be locked in a coffin or box?
Until your fear resolved?
Might it actually make you worse if someone did this to you?
I have a fear of heights and if you tried to force me off of a mountain or plane to sky dive, I would probably try to kill you in order to save myself.
You see, even though logically I know that people sky dive all the time and live, and I can understand that my fear is unrealistic, it doesn’t make it any less real FOR ME.
At best, you are teaching your dog “learned helplessness”, a condition that occurs when an animal is repeatedly subjected to an adverse stimulus that it cannot escape. Eventually, most animals will stop trying to avoid the stimulus and behave as if totally helpless to change the situation.
Some people see “learned helplessness” as a cure.
Let’s Take Claustrophobia
You are terrified of small spaces and the feeling that the walls are closing in and you can’t escape. You yell, you shake, you can’t relax.
My friends and I are going to come over every day for 3 weeks and lock you up in a box.
You try and fight back, and do anything to get away, but eventually we win.
Day after day you realize you can’t escape, so you stop fighting.
You may even stop shaking, but does that mean you are miraculously cured?
No, probably not. You may actually be even more scared but there is no reason to show the outward signs.
However, it has been proven that slowly working on biofeedback and learning coping mechanisms can help people with their fears.
Imagining the small space; learning how to calm oneself through breathing and other relaxations techniques; and, slowly, working on fears at your own pace can all be effective.
Adding punishment to flooding can make behavior even more unreliable.
In his Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, 2000, Steven R. Lindsay, said “Dogs habitually exposed to unpredictable/uncontrollable punishment are at risk of developing disturbances associated with learned helplessness.”
In other words, dog that are exposed to flooding and punishment are more likely to develop more behavioral issues as a result of learned helplessness.
You know these dogs; you have seen them. The owner has flooded the dog and corrected the dog over and over around his fears, and the dog learns to shut down completely.
But you can still see the fear in the dog’s eyes and behaviors.
In dog training, we call this a ticking time bomb.
You can try to avoid the problem, but at some point, all that fear and frustration is likely to bubble to the surface and explode in aggression.
Imagine Your Dog is Fearful of Children
You start taking the dog to play yards and parks, and forcing the dog to allow children to be near and then to pet the dog.
If the dog tries to get away or shows aggression, you correct the dog harshly.
The dog learns to shut down, but that doesn’t mean he likes children.
Instead he likely will become the dog that “bit without any warning”.
Because instead of correcting the fear that you find offensive, you are correcting the warning response. This is why a growl isn’t always a bad thing.
The Good News
You don’t have to ignore your dog’s fears.
And, you don’t have to force your dog into a scary situation!
You can safely teach your dog coping mechanisms by devoting just a few minutes a day to training and relaxation techniques.
It takes time, it takes patience, and it takes understanding, but fixing your dog’s fears and teaching him how to cope effectively is totally achievable!
You have successfully conquered the first step by acknowledging you need help and seeking information and support.
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.