F-E-A-R. Society has a lot of stigma around fear. Fear is bad. We shouldn’t have fear. It’s a sign of weakness. We’re stronger than our fears. We’re braver than our fears… Dogma, anyone?
Healthy fear isn’t a bad thing—in you, or your dog
In fact, fear is biologically essential. We’ve been designed with fear because it protects us and helps us survive. It’s what stops us from entering dangerous situations. We also learn what we can and cannot trust—what we should and should not fear for our own good. A certified professional dog trainer, Sam Wike, CPDT-KA, VSPDT-CDT, writes: “Whether an adult, child, dog, cat, or any other living species, fear is natural. We are all born with a baseline of fear (survival), are predisposed to others (nature) and accrue others through life experiences (nurture).”
Fear shows in dogs in many different ways
Whether your dog’s stressed about going to the vet, picking up your anxieties from work (for real), or skittish around something seemingly really weird—like his water bowl, fear and anxiety presents differently for different dogs. Some common presentations include:
- Compulsive repetition of certain behaviors
- Inability to settle
- Yawning, drooling, panting, etc.
- Potty problems
- Shedding A LOT
- Physical changes, like posture, chemical levels, eye dilation
- Changes in appetite
- And more
Read more about common stress presentation in 10 Common Signs Your Dog’s Stressed Out.
Dogs who have overwhelming, destructive or problematic fear can be helped
While some fear is healthy, sometimes your dog’s anxiety can get to a point where it’s compromising quality of life and care. Extreme separation anxiety can result in danger for your dog, destruction and high vet bills. Fear of the vet can result in poor healthcare and so on.
If you have a fearful dog or a dog that is disruptively anxious in certain situations, experts agree that four specific methods can help them gain confidence, manage triggers and fear-bust for a fuller life.
- PREVENTION: Stop the behavior from being practiced.
Your dog’s behavior is situational and the more something is practiced, the harder it will be to stop. “Practice makes perfect,” writes Irith Bloom, owner of The Sophisticated Dog and highly respected dog trainer with a specialty in fear-prone dogs. “If the dog keeps biting the mailman, he’s going to get better at it (and you will likely be facing an ugly lawsuit, too). It’s essential to prevent the problem behavior from happening while implementing positive training to change the dog’s behavior.”What triggers your dog?
- When the doorbell rings, does your dog bark incessantly? Put tape over the doorbell for now.
- Does your dog try to start fights at the dog park? Go on a hike together instead.
- Does your dog growl at strangers when they pet him? Ask strangers not to approach or pet them for now.
- Does your couch get destroyed every time you leave for more than 2 hours? Make sure you are stopping in to help your dog calm himself before then. (NOTE: DO NOT use methods that shock or startle to deter this behavior or you might just make it worse.)
- HELP YOUR DOG FEEL SAFE: Manage your dog’s exposure to the trigger.
Creating a safe space for a scared dog is a MUST. Dog trainer Debbie Jacobs notes, “If we cannot or will not create an environment in which a dog is not constantly startled or scared by things, it’s going to [be] difficult if not impossible to help them learn to feel safe around those things.”
We don’t want your dog to constantly fear the thing they dread popping up at every corner. Prevention helps this, but understanding the cues that precede what scares your dog helps as well. These are what many trainers focus on when they talk about managing behaviors. “Sometimes management alone is good enough,” writes Irith. “If your dog calms down 10 minutes after guests arrive, putting him behind a gate for the first 10 minutes may be all you need to do to get rid of the dog’s jumping behavior.”
Another way you can create safety for your dog and help them build confidence is by understanding his fear threshold. According to Positively.com, your dog’s unique fear threshold is the maximum amount of stimuli or stress your dog can experience and STILL be comfortable and their normal self. Anything higher throws them into their fear response (that we don’t want them to practice) and their behavior will change as a way to cope with the extreme stress.
Staying aware of your dog’s threshold at any given time will help you prevent it IF you can predict when too much is too much and do something about it before it starts.
- STAY CALM AND CONFIDENT: So your dog doesn’t pick up your nerves.
Dogs look to their humans for cues as to how to react. Our physical cues like body language and our tone of voice become the unconscious direction we give our dogs. If we focus on training them clearly, directly and calmly, and reinforce positive behaviors consistently throughout their life, we can help our dogs remain calm and feeling safe in our presence.
It’s important to remember, too, that the human-dog bond is special and dogs can pick up on our anxieties and stress. So try to keep cool because the research shows that chronic stress syncs between a dog parent and their dog.
Promote confidence in your dog by practicing positive reinforcement and consider consulting a professional to make sure you’re reinforcing the behaviors you think you are. Giving treats to your dog for displaying confident body movements—walking through a doorway in a normal posture or maintaining eye contact or smiling—can help your dog associate confidence with reward. “There is a psychological theory called the James-Lange theory that suggests that if, for instance, you smile, you will feel happier,” notes trainer Linda Michaels. “Thus, using rewards for confident body language in a dog may predict the development of confidence in the dog.”
Some dogs may benefit from medication or supplements for anxiety as well. If you think your dog may, be sure to have the conversation with your vet before adding or changing what you’re giving your dog. All dogs are different so a medicine that works for one may not work for yours. And that’s okay!
- CHANGE THE EXPERIENCE: Show your dog this can be fun.
Once you have your dog in a safe space, you know his threshold, and are able to exude calmness and confidence in your interactions with him…you’re primed to desensitize or use counterconditioning.
“Change how they feel about the scary stuff by changing what it predicts,” suggests Debbie Jacobs. “This is called counterconditioning. Usually we have the scary events become a reliable predictor for something yummy or fun.”
Using short, positive interactions in a controlled environment should help start shifting his perception. With patience and consistency, you can recondition your dog to associate positivity with what was once scary.
Of course, none of these methods are guaranteed to transform a scared dog into the life of the party. It’s important to set realistic expectations for your dog. Some dogs are naturally reserved and would rather hang out at home than the dog park…and either is fine. Some behaviors are simply easier to steer clear of, and less stress for everyone.
By the way, don’t be afraid to ask for help—there are so many fantastic canine veterinary behaviorists and trainers that may be able to help you on your fear-busting journey!