It doesn’t matter if you have a huge bull mastiff or a tiny toy poodle – all dogs can feel scared every now and again. For some, it looks like slinking into another room the moment you roll the vacuum cleaner out of the closet. For others, it’s an all-out war to get the dog out of the car at the vet.
We all want to ease the fears of our furry friends so that they don’t suffer. After all, just like with humans, stress can be dangerous to the overall health of your pets. Plus, a frightened pooch is also a safety issue: flight and aggression are two big concerns when it comes to a scared dog.
Interestingly, many Pet Owners think that they can’t change the fact that their dog is a big scaredy cat deep down. However, you’ll be happy to know that your dog’s fears aren’t permanent. With a little bit of patience and persistence, you can encourage your dog to relax during stressful moments.
So, how can you do it? It all comes down to four easy steps.
Step One: identify the triggers that make your dog scared
In general, dogs can be scared of a variety of things; fireworks, thunderstorms, new people, and storm drains are the most common. And even that loveable old trope of barking at the mailperson may be a sign of a frightened dog. Your own dog will have their own quirky little fears, be it the sight of a person in a large hat or the sound of a car backfiring. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to the situations in which your dog shows fear.
You may be asking yourself how you can know when your dog is afraid. While some signs, like hiding and whimpering are obvious, there are a few subtle ones too. Lip-licking, yawning, scratching, and even aggressive behaviours like barking and lunging can be signs of fear.
The more time you spend with your dog, the more noticeable these signs will become to you. From there, you can figure out what is triggering the response.
Step two: manage your own response
It’s strange to think that the first thing you should do to change your dog’s behaviour is alter your own. However, the truth is your dog is an expert at knowing whether you’re happy, scared, anxious, or angry. For example, let’s say you become stressed because you have company coming over and you’re worried about your dog’s reaction. Your pooch will assume that something threatening is on the horizon, and will become scared and might react poorly. A self-fulfilling prophecy, no?
On the other hand, if you’re relaxed when your guests arrive, your dog will see there’s nothing to fear. One way that you might do this is to remove your dog from the room temporarily while you make your guests comfortable. Once everyone has settled in for about 10 minutes, then you can invite your dog back in. What they’ll see, then, isn’t an intruder breaking in through the front door, but rather a group of happy people.
If someone like the mailperson is coming around, you might make a point to step outside to say hello. After a while, your pup will see that there’s nothing threatening about the mailperson. At this stage, you can start bringing your furry friend out with you for a chance to mingle.
This is also true for situations like thunderstorms, fireworks, loud music, and the like. The first instinct, of course, is to soothe your dog in the moment. However, it’s actually much more helpful to remain calm and go about your business. That’s because when you stoop to comfort your dog, they’ll take it as a sign that there really is something to worry about. In other words, they’ll interpret your concern as mutual fear.
Now, the hardest situation for any Pet Owner to bring tranquility is when your dog is scared of other dogs. Anxiety between doggos breeds aggression, which is stressful for everyone involved. But it’s really important that, even though you fear for your dog’s safety, you remain calm at all times. The best thing to do is interact positively with other Dog Owners and act like everything will be fine. If things go south, calmly remove your dog without reprimand or anger. Then, try to put the experience behind you and try again.
It can be tricky to train ourselves into being relaxed, but there’s a reason why this step comes before working on your pet’s behaviour. A calm leader of the pack means a calm and happy dog.
Step Three: reinforce the behaviour you want
The great thing about dogs is that all they want in life is to make you happy, and maybe enjoy some treats and toys, too. That’s going to be very useful for you when you’re trying to ease Fido’s fears.
Now, the trick here isn’t to reward them for showing signs of fear, but rather to reward the right behaviour. If your dog is cowering under the table, for instance, coax them out with the promise of a treat. Don’t give them the treat while they’re still under the table.
Think back to the example of having guests over. You can make that setting even more positive for your pooch if you let your guest offer them a treat. Obviously, you want to make sure that your guest is comfortable with the arrangement, but it will make a huge difference in teaching your dog that the things they previously feared can now be a source of all things good!
This is also a great trick for a trip to the dog park. Whenever your dog has a positive interaction with another pup, in which the pooches just sniff each other and move on, you should reward with a treat.
Don’t be afraid to use verbal approval and plenty of cuddles, too. If your dog sees their good behaviour has made you happy, they’ll learn quickly what you want from them. It may seem a bit silly at first, especially when you find yourself loudly congratulating your pooch for not barking at another dog, but the more overboard you go, the quicker you’ll see results.
Step Four: give it time
Every dog is different, and some fears are more entrenched in your dog’s brain than others. That means that it’s impossible to gauge how long it will take for these simple steps to take effect. The important thing is that you provide your dog with consistency. Every time your dog greets newcomers by sniffing their hand instead of growling, give them treats. Or, every time your pooch ventures out from the bathroom during a thunderstorm, entice them to play with their favourite toy.
Just like with humans, it takes many more positive experiences to take the place of negative ones. The key is to be patient and keep with it.
Over time, you’ll get to see a more confident, happy dog!