Have you ever wondered what the cause of your dog's fear might be, and how you can help him overcome those fears? This blog is designed to help you identify fear in your dog, what to look our for that might be causing fear, and what to do when faced with something that makes your dog afraid.
This issue is often misunderstood among dog owners because the way dogs express fear (reactivity to include, but not limited to: growling, lunging, barking, staring, piloerection (raised hackles), pulling, or alternatively, cowering, running, and hiding) is often termed "bad behavior." These expressions do not make your dog a "bad dog", they're just the only way they know how to express how they're feeling in a fearful situation.
Left to cope on their own, these behaviors in your dog can become habits. As we well know, habits are really tough to break! The stresses of living in a human environment can be extremely stressful for our dogs, particularly when they just don't have the tools to cope. So, what can we do to help?
The first piece to this puzzle is learning to see the world through your dog's eyes. We want to become kind, benevolent leaders in their world who respond appropriately to their fear. Remember, emotions cannot be reinforced. Consoling your fearful dog is OKAY. When your dog is reacting out of fear, you can think of it a lot like a panic attack we humans might have. The dog is incapable of processing information normally, and therefore trying to train our dogs during these times of panic is simply impossible.
Our best course of action is to desensitize a dog to that which he or she fears. Desensitization is all about gradually and incrementally exposing our dogs to what they fear in a controlled way. We want to expose our dogs at a very low level of engagement (read: before they react) and slowly, over time, increase the level of intensity. By pairing what the dog fears with something they love, we can help him or her overcome these fears. Depending on how long the fear has been left unattended, the desensitization process can take weeks, months, or even years. The goal here is to change the underlying emotional response to that which the dog fears from panic and dread to positive anticipation.
When searching for the right trainer to help you desensitize your dog, you're looking for the following things:
1. A trainer that uses positive rewards.
2. A trainer that uses science-based training methods.
3. A trainer that is proficient in canine body language.
4. A trainer that specializes in helping fearful dogs.
If you can find these things in your trainer, you're on a great track. Move forward, tackle these issues with positivity and hope, and you and your dog will be well on your way to changing those fears for good!
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, and Decoding the Dog Park.