How To Handle a Fearful Dog

Brutus, a Labrador retriever, is considered a large dog. He’s a handsome creature, young and vital, but you notice whenever a thunderstorm coasts into town that Brutus is nowhere to be seen, and when you do find him he is a huddled, trembling mass. Angie is a shelter rescue and suffered an abusive past in a puppy mill. She is terrified of absolutely everything including her new owners, the outdoors and other dogs. She bolts when she sees another dog or a person approaches her; she barks at anyone outside the house. These two examples of fearful dogs are not terribly uncommon but they can be frustrating and even daunting to inexperienced owners. Fortunately, they are fixable conditions requiring patience, a calm demeanor and a pocket full of tasty treats.

What You Absolutely Must Not Do
Your friend is about to deliver her first child and she is terrified. The epidural is on its way but as with many aspects of childbirth there are risks in having the spinal injection. You lovingly take her hand, hold it tight and proceed to tell her she is right to be afraid, that the epidural that can take away her pain can also cause her paralysis if she moves while they administer it. Then, you gently tell her, she can look forward to never being able to hold or hug her baby. Yes, she should be scared; she should be very, very scared. You smile at her in comfort. While these fears are true and founded, is this the right time to encourage her terror? Absolutely not. So it is with coddling and comforting Brutus when he is trembling in fear at a loud thunderstorm.

Fear is natural in all animals but debilitating fear is not something we prize as human beings and it is not something we tend to encourage. In fact, we do quite a bit to get over our fears and say inspiring things to others to help them get over theirs. We act strong and fearless for the sake of the fearful that they might have a role model, someone to draw strength from: we puff out our chests, raise our chins, square our shoulders and make light of the danger or the source of terror. We do these things to help others but we rarely perform this way for a frightened dog that really needs to see it. They look to their humans for an example on how to behave when they are scared and if they get a weak demonstration of baby talk and pawing, they will associate their fearful behavior with receiving attention and continue the cycle. What they need is assurance from your body language; they need to see you are not afraid. Many people call this calm energy but whatever you like to label it, show it to your dog when things like storms, firecrackers and other loud noises frighten him. Brutus will draw his strength from yours and try to follow his leader’s example.

What You Can Do
With dogs a cool head is the main thing. Do not punish fear but do not encourage it. Many dogs will not take treats or eat when they are trembling in horror, so do not force it or yell at them when they refuse to eat. If Brutus has a safe place, let him go there and ride out the storm. It can very difficult for a concerned human parent not to comfort his dog so if you must do something, simply sit near him and show that you are not bothered by what is bothering him. If Brutus allows it you can take his mind off the storm or source of agitation by distracting him with games or commands. He may not be attentive during these moments so don’t take it personally if he does not play along.

In extreme cases like Angie where everything is a fear, you may need to engage in what is call cognitive therapy among humans and desensitization with dogs. Essentially they are the same thing, which is a psychological therapy method that introduces the source of the fear repeatedly until the impact of the source diminishes. With a canine who cannot associate the act specifically with something that is trying to help them, it may take a good deal of time and patience. Each trigger object or situation will have to be dealt with separately and it is started by showing the object to the dog at a distance, praising her for staying calm and giving her a treat, then bringing the object just a little bit closer and repeating the praise. If she does not respond to the treat and praise but shows only fear, then you have pushed her too far and you will have to start over again.

Distraction works well in these cases too, where a command to sit (or teaching sit) with the trigger object in the background helps the dog to associate the fear item with positive praise and treats until they expect something good whenever they are exposed to the trigger object. This is not as easy as it sounds and will require vast patience, endless praise and a lot of treats. It also demands that the human be calm, show no anger at having to start over and can keep a firm tone without shouting. If you cannot perform these functions, you may consider working with a dog behaviorist. Also, do not be afraid to administer some medication to help calm the dog down in the form of acepromazine tranquilizer, which can be dispensed by your veterinarian. This is a good idea for severe cases of terror such as before a thunderstorm.

Do not give up on your dog, she can be taught to rethink her fears and associate such negative experiences with positive attributes. Animals have self-confidence issues too and may need to have their confidence rebuilt or strengthened. Either way, dogs look to their humans for guidance and as examples of how to react to a situation. Every correction takes time; commit yourself to that and Angie will respond in kind… eventually.

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