Thursday, September 11, 2014

Tips to Help Your Dog Overcome Fear

“…Your patience and willingness to work through tiny steps will in and of itself take pressure off the dog and speed the process.  Slower is literally faster when it comes to this type of work with your dog…

Foster Mom is helping Kyler slowly learn to overcome his fears
Dogs can develop fear of any person, place or thing.  Considering that the same thing happens in humans, this isn't surprising.  Dogs inherit their temperaments from the dogs who make up the family tree.  A confident mom and dad don't guarantee confident offspring, though, since dogs further back in the bloodline may have planted genetic surprises that hide for a generation or even a few generations. 

Physical health plays a major role in dog temperament, too.  Unable to explain that something hurts, a dog will try to avoid that painful situation.  Some dogs do this by moving away if they are free to do so, but these dogs as well as the more assertive types may react aggressively to ward off something they know from experience is going to hurt.  With any fearful or aggressive dog behavior, medical issues are the first thing to consider. 

Once a dog has begun to react with fear, correcting the original trigger of the behavior is not always enough to change the dog's habit of reacting that way.   The earlier you intervene, the better your chances of relieving the fear.  Recovery is faster when you start rehabilitating the fear sooner.  In fact, if you work through it immediately after the scary event happens, you may be able to alleviate the fear in just one session.  In such a case you're dealing with a first impression rather than an established fear.

Don't count on this quick fix, though.  Be prepared to continue helping the dog at a pace comfortable over the long haul for as long as it takes.  Your patience and willingness to work through tiny steps will in and of itself take pressure off the dog and speed the process.  Slower is literally faster when it comes to this type of work with your dog.

Understanding and Prevention 

Puppies who have the right early life experiences have the best chance of developing confident personalities that cope well with life and have the ability to bounce back from stresses.  The temperament the puppy inherits from its ancestors will always be a limiting factor on just how healthy the personality can be.  But the right handling will make the most of whatever strengths are there, and help to limit the problems from the dog's inherent temperament weaknesses.  Providing a puppy with the right early experiences is more complicated than it seems.  Puppies can stoically endure events in their lives, apparently be fine, and then show serious fear reactions from those events as their defense drives emerge with maturity. 

Yet keeping a puppy protected from any potential fear or stress doesn't work, either.  Part of growing up to become confident is learning that scary things can have happy endings.  Another part is learning that you can overcome something scary.  On the other hand, puppies can get carried away in the enjoyment of overcoming and become aggressors.

Puppies who have too little stress in early life can grow up lacking the ability to handle stress.  Puppies who have no frustrations can grow up unable to cope with frustration, and unable to take "no" for an answer.  This can happen to pups who grow up in one-puppy litters with no littermates to compete with, and to pups removed from the mother dog prior to about 7 weeks of age.  Knowing as much as possible about the dog’s early life experience will help you understand why you are seeing fearful behavior now.

Vacuum Cleaners and other Loud Noises 

Vacuum cleaners make weird noises.  Their use involves a person thrusting the thing around the room in gestures that wouldn't make any sense to a dog.  The concept of cleaning a floor, other than by eating any food spilled on it, would also be foreign to a dog's way of thinking.  There's not much about a vacuum cleaner for a dog to like!  The occasional herding dog will chase it because it moves, and some dogs will "attack" or threaten it because it isn't acting right!

Adding treats to vacuuming time can work through this fear.  If the dog is really traumatized about the device, you may need to start with setting up the vacuum cleaner and giving the dog treats in the next room.  Over several sessions you can move the treat-giving closer, never faster than the dog's comfort level can handle.  Do the process with the vacuum off, next with the vacuum cleaner running, and finally with the vacuum cleaner moving.  While going through this program, put the dog in a different, safe place whenever you do actually vacuum so as not to undo all the good conditioning by scaring the dog again.

Principles of Working Through Fear 

If physical pain is determined to be the root cause of the behavior, make any indicated changes in medical treatment to keep the dog comfortable.  Don't assume that a problem brought under control at one point will never need further treatment.  This requires detective work!  Dogs have a survival instinct to hide their pain, because an animal showing weakness in the wild gets killed.  Look hard for possible physical problems, rather than expecting the dog to cry out in pain or otherwise "tell you." 

Assess the Problem

1. Do you know of an event that started the fear?

2. Is the thing the dog fears actually dangerous and/or likely to cause pain to the dog?  How are you going to keep your dog safe?

3. Are people or other animals being placed in danger by the dog's behavior and if so, how are you going to put a stop to that danger right now?

4. How can you protect the dog from experiencing this fear while you work through the behavior modification steps?

5. Is it necessary for the dog to cope with this situation, or could things reasonably be managed to simply keep the dog away from it from now on?

6. If you determine it's better to protect your dog from this situation rather than trying to treat the fear, give the dog time to get used to your new plan.  Chances are you'll be surprised to see how much happier your dog becomes.

To treat the fear, plan the steps for conditioning your dog gradually to the feared thing.

Plan how you are going to start at a DISTANCE from the feared thing, with it functioning at a low INTENSITY for periods of SHORT DURATION.  Plan how you will, over time, gradually reduce the distance, increase the intensity, and expose the dog to the feared thing for periods of longer duration.  Plan how you will increase one variable at a time.

Determine what things this dog finds rewarding.

For the greatest chance of success, you'll want to use as many of them as possible. Incentives include: food treats the dog likes, food treats the dog goes crazy for, regular meals, retrieving, games with you the dog enjoys playing, special toys reserved for special times, "happy-timing" the dog with a jolly attitude (using excited voice and body language to convey to the dog that is a happy thing), privileges such as a walk or ride in the car, and anything else THIS dog likes.

If you can't come up with anything your dog finds rewarding, developing these motivators is your first training goal!  One option is to break the dog's daily food into more, smaller meals.  Some or even all of the food can be fed by hand, depending on what works best for your conditioning program.

Discontinue all exposure of the dog to the feared thing.

Start your conditioning program at the distance, intensity and duration where your dog happily accepts rewards.  Advance very slowly toward your goal of having the dog comfortable with the feared thing so that the dog will be able to function happily around it in the future.  Be patient and take as long as needed to avoid pushing the dog too fast.  If you trigger the dog's fear during this process, that's a big setback, so keep the progress slow enough to avoid that.

Reward your dog at times the dog is showing confidence.

Avoid rewarding fearfulness.  Certainly don't punish the dog for acting fearful!  Just give the rewards at the moments when you see in your dog the state of mind that is your goal.

It Works - Even with Much Older Dogs!

Chances are good that at some point with every dog you'll have the opportunity help the dog overcome a fear.  Some dogs go through most of their lives with barely an apprehensive moment, and then get hit hard in old age when their bodies begin to fail and they don't know how to cope.  Now you know how to help your dog develop the ability to cope, at any age.

Condensed from “Fear: How to Help Your Dog Overcome It” Copyright 2004 - 2007 by Kathy Diamond Davis. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Kathy Diamond Davis is the author of the book Therapy Dogs: Training Your Dog to Reach Others.


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