Is your dog fearful of something? Have you seen your dog cower, shake, growl or even bark at seemingly nothing? Fear can seem like a silly thing at times, and yet, fear is in the eye of the beholder, isn't it? Fear is a survival mechanism, fear keeps us safe and free from harm so in many ways fear is entirely normal. Sometimes though, that fear seems misplaced, abnormal, and even silly to those with an outside perspective. Let’s dig into that a bit more.
Fear is something we see in many dogs and it manifests itself in many ways. There are dogs that shut down, they just stop moving, stop looking, and just turn into themselves. There are dogs that will run away and hide or visibly shake.There are dogs that overtly react by barking or growling. Along with your dogs who you would never know that they are dealing with fear unless you really knew what to look for. There are those and many more ways that fear can show itself in your dog. We can not talk to our dogs. We can not look at them and tell them that there is no reason to be afraid of the new decorations at the neighbor’s house, or the trash cans at the end of the driveway on dump day, or even your family when they come over for the holidays. Life would be so much easier if we could, but the simple fact is that we can not. What we can do though is accept that it is there, recognize it is not irrational to them, and do our best to help them tackle that fear. The first step on your path to helping your dog deal with that fear is learning how to spot it.
Learning what to look for is so important. By reading your dog's body language we can do a better job at determining how they feel. Their behavior is important but their emotional state is even more critical! When you can see your dog start to loosen up and have fun, you know you are in the clear! When their body tenses up, and their tail posture changes, well, you may need to be more cautious about your surroundings to ensure your dog feels safe and secure. We encourage you to check out some videos on dog body language here, and learn to apply that knowledge into your everyday life with your dog.
Sometimes the things dogs are afraid of are more obvious and common. Other dogs, thunderstorms, strangers, and fireworks are all common and as such, they are more likely to be accepted as normal things that dogs are afraid of. Dealing with these fears can seem easier as you have the chance to commiserate with other dog owners about how Fido hides in the bathroom at the faintest sound of thunder, or reacts to other dogs on trail. Knowing you are not alone can validate concerns and make us feel much better about prospects in tackling those fears. Just because they are common though does not make them any different than the more rare fears our dogs can have. Just because other dogs are not afraid of what your dog is, does not minimize that fear. Especially to your dog!
Let me give you an example. Our dog Manzo is terrified of hiccups. Hiccups! That weird little intake of breath that we all do, (including Manzo but that does not seem to bother him at all for some reason!) might as well be certain death in our precious dog’s eyes. Why? Who knows! On the first hiccup he gets up from whatever he is doing. Eating, playing, sleeping, it does not matter, he gets up, walks over to you and stares worriedly into your eyes. It takes some consoling, reassuring, and probably a snack or two to convince him everything is okay. If you hiccup twice though, it is all over. He will run away, hide in his crate, and shake until long after your hiccups are gone. It is the saddest thing anyone has ever seen. Now, it would be easy to dismiss something like the fear of hiccups as silly or irrational, but that would not be fair. To Manzo, it is a very real and a very scary thing.
So we have accepted that some things are just terrifying without much understood “reason” behind it. What can we do to help our dogs when they are afraid? It is a common misconception that you should not comfort your dog when they are scared because it will encourage fearful behavior in them. This simply is not true. Fear itself is so aversive that it cannot be encouraged in any way with positive reinforcement. Think of yourself watching a scary movie or walking through a haunted house. Doing this with someone you trust and love holding your hand will make it much easier right? Now what if they just completely ignore you? The confusion of that and the frustration of being ignored when you are struggling will compound and those bad feelings will become worse. It is the same with your dog. There is plenty you can do beyond simply comforting them too. The ThunderShirt can be a great tool for predictable fears such as thunderstorms, fireworks and car rides. Proper counter conditioning and desensitization using positive associations around the things that trigger fear, is an amazing way to start to change the way they feel. If you change the way they feel, that will change the way they act.
It is also important to keep in mind that stress adds up. Once you have been through a traumatic event, like a sudden jump scare or an extremely uncomfortable situation, your adrenaline spikes. This happens with us and with our dogs too. If your dog has many fears or is bothered by something that happens often, their adrenaline will not have time to drop back to normal and thus, getting through difficult or scary situations will be harder and harder for them. There are plenty of ways out there to help with your dog’s every day anxiety too.
If we can help them find a lower, more manageable baseline , we are going to be more likely to have success.
So the next time your dog seems scared of something that makes no sense to you, put yourself in their shoes. Reach down and reassure your best friend. Grab your treat pouch and turn it into a training opportunity. Never push them past their limits, take things one step at a time, rejoice in small victories and watch your dog’s confidence grow! Want some help tackling your dog’s irrational fears? Send us an email to get some one on one help (firstname.lastname@example.org), join our homework club and become a part of the learning community!