Dr. Zazie Todd is the brilliance behind the Companion Animal Psychology blog, and Colleen Pelar and I loved having her as a guest on Your Family Dog to talk about making happy dogs happier. This week, however, she has a post on Companion Animal Psychology about Eight Tips to Help Fearful Dogs Feel Safe. As per usual, Dr. Todd is spot on in her approach to helping a dog overcome its fears, and she has some wonderful recommendations on books that might be helpful as well.
Here are her 8 Tips (For details, see the blog post. All quotes are from the blog):
- Recognize the dog is fearful. This may seem like an obvious step, but sometimes owners don’t recognize some of the subtler signs of fear their dogs exhibit. Learning your dog’s particular signals will help you to better discern your dog’s mood and allow you to intervene sooner rather than later. *
- Help the dog feel safe. Helping your dog feel safe is your first priority with a fearful dog. What safe looks like depends on the dog. One pup may need a place of his own to regroup, another dog may need to hold a beloved toy, and yet another may find solace in a predictable daily routine
- Don’t use punishment. “[I]f your dog is fearful, it is especially important to stop using punishment because the risk is your dog may become more fearful or even become afraid of you. Your dog is already stressed by whatever they are afraid of. You don’t want to add to that stress by using aversive methods.” Positive reinforcement is the best way to reassure your dog and teach her that the world is actually a good place to be.
- It’s okay to comfort your dog. When you are scared, does it help to have someone comfort you, offer you something else to focus on and give you a reason to not be so afraid? The same may be true for your dog as well. If he solicits your attention and comfort when scared or stressed, go ahead and reassure him, because “you are a secure base for your dog – meaning your presence can help them in a stressful situation.”
- Don’t force your dog to face his fears. “Some people think forcing your dog to face the thing they are afraid of will make them get used to it. But what can happen instead is they sensitize to it and get more and more afraid.” You can help your dog become less fearful, but it is a slow desensitization process whereby the dog is gradually exposed to what scares him. And, it is generally best done with the help of a professional trainer or behaviorist so that the process does not become overwhelming to you or the dog.
- Seek professional help. A professional trainer who works frequently with fearful or aggressive dogs can help to expedite the process of desensitizing your dog and make sure you are on the right track. “And don’t forget to consult your veterinarian too and find out if medication can help your dog. In some cases they may refer you to a veterinary behaviourist.”
- Be in it for the long haul. Resolving anxiety and fear can take a long time, and in some cases it may improve, but never fully resolve. “So it’s important to understand that it may take a long time to help your pet, and that fearful dogs can still have a happy life.”
- Make the most of available resources. There are a lot of books and blogs out there on helping your dog to overcome his fear. Be sure you get one that employs positive reinforcement training and lots of tasty treats. She lists a lot of books, all of which are excellent resources, but one I have used with success is: The Cautious Canine – How to Help Dogs Conquer Their Fears, by Dr. Patricia McConnell.**
And, don’t despair! Fearful dogs can have long and happy lives, especially if we give them the support and tools they need to feel safe and be successful in their world.
*I have several blogs on body language, here are a few: Can you hear me now?, Being Anxious is no Fun for You or Your Dog, This is not the dog I wanted… And if you prefer your information orally, Your Family Dog has a lot on body language, but here are two: What Does Friendly Look Like?, Growling–Is It a Good Thing?