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Help your Dog Go from Scaredy Cat to Super Hero

BY REBEKAH OLSEN

Just like there are people who are afraid of clowns while others are terrified of the dark, many dogs are afraid of something, too. Whether it’s a thunderstorm, wood floors or new people, your pooch may have developed a fear that leaves you both stressed and searching for a solution...or a safe spot underneath the bed.

Most often your dog’s fear is a result of a negative experience or poor socialization as a puppy. For example, my dog Midas slipped on our wooden floors once and now his reaction is, “The floor is hot molten lava! Must avoid!” Thankfully, there are steps we are taking to help him overcome his fear of our scary floor--and these same tips can help you to gently modify the behavior and give your dog a lesson in bravery.

If you’re not sure if your dog is exhibiting fear, consider if you notice any of these signs:

Trembling body
Tucked tail
Ears laid back
Withdrawal or hiding
Cowering and other submissive behaviors
Growling
Aggressive barking
Pulling or lunging toward or away from the object
Snapping/biting
Submissive urination/diarrhea
Licking or biting oneself

Pay attention to when your dog begins to show these signs so you can determine what is causing the reaction. Did your new neighbor come to visit? Was there a loud noise outside? 

Once you’ve determined the cause, check out these do’s and don’ts on how to train the scaredy-cat out of your dog in a safe and positive manner.

The Don’ts

Don’t Comfort or Coddle. It may go against your natural instincts, but when your dog is exhibiting signs of fear, you should not overly console or coddle them. Doing so may reinforce the behavior and tell your dog that he is right to be afraid and that something is definitely wrong. 

Don’t Shout. Shouting, yelling or even forcing the dog further into the scary situation while saying “it’s okay” will only heighten your pup's sense of fear and anxiety.

Don’t Punish. First, punishment does not work in any type of training (learn more on page 20 of our August issue here). However, adding punishment to a fearful situation will create a negative environment and teach your dog to be more afraid of the stimulus. 

The Do’s

Do Ignore the Situation. When your dog is afraid, you should continue about your business as normal and ignore the situation. If it’s thundering outside, continue with your usual routine and maintain a calm presence. If your pet is nervous around a new person, greet your friend calmly to show your dog that the stranger does not mean danger.

Do Walk Away. If ignoring the situation doesn’t work, calmly remove your dog from the stimulus. Again, do not force your dog towards or away from the situation, but attempt to gently redirect their attention to a safe place, such as their kennel or your bedroom. If your dog resists, then leave them alone where they are and try distracting them (see below). Also, if your dog hides underneath the bed, let them stay; this is their chosen safe zone. 

Do Distract. Use counter conditioning to divert your dog’s attention to a known command or to an experience that she knows and enjoys. Your goal is to replace the negative fear behavior with a desired, positive behavior. Ask for your dog’s attention; give a command and reward immediately. The added bonus of the treat will help your dog associate something positive—and tasty—to the situation. You can also distract your dog with his favorite toy or bouncy ball and engage him in playtime. (This method has worked wonders with our publisher, Heather Dowdy, and her storm-phobic Aussie mix, Shelby!)

Do Reenact the Situation. Unless you’re Storm from X-Men, you may not be able to reenact a thunderstorm, but there are some situations you can recreate with a little positive spin. If your dog spooked when you unraveled the measuring tape, retract the tape, then slowly unwind it while giving your dog treats.  If your tall, male friend was talking in a loud voice that scared your dog, ask him to re-approach using a calmer tone while offering your dog treats—even if he has to throw them from a distance.

Do Prevent. If you know what your dog is afraid of, you should also take steps to prevent the fear occurring in the first place. Socialize your dog as early as possible in variety of new situations with new people. If your dog has a history of biting or nipping strangers, use a soft muzzle to when introducing new guests and ask the guest to allow the dog to approach first. Have your guest give your pup plenty of treats and pet them on the chest rather than the head.

With Midas, we placed towels all over our wood floors and dropped treats along the pathway. This encouraged him to walk on the towels without fear of slipping. Over a period of a few days, we removed a few towels at a time and kept a steady stream of treats scattered everywhere. Before long, he forgot the floor was lava!

Do Use the Right Tools. There are also many tools available to help calm anxiety. We love the ThunderShirt, which applies gentle pressure on your pup's body to help calm his fears. You'll want to introduce your dog to wearing it for short periods in a positive environment, and work up to longer periods, before putting it on him during a fearful situation. For example, on a happy, clear day, try it on him and offer treats, playtime or a short walk so he will associate the vest with something happy. Then, when you know that a storm is heading your way or that fireworks will be going off at dusk, you can put it on ahead of time. When the scary stimulus comes around (whether that be thunder, a crowd or a car ride) your pup will hopefully feel a bit calmer about the situation. 

MOST OF ALL... Remember to always use positive training methods and if you feel uncomfortable tackling the fear yourself, you should reach out to a professional trainer. (We happen to love Kat Martin-Ray of Dogs and Kat, and Nikki Ivey of DogSpeak.)

With some of these tips, a little work and a lot of patience, your pup will be feeling like SuperDog in no time... ready to take on the world!

What is your dog afraid of and how are you helping him overcome his fears? SHARE in the comments below! 

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