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Curing Your Fearful Or
Frightened Dog

Fear Behavior In Pets


Ron Hines DVM PhD

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Fear and aggression are the two most common behavior problems I see in dogs. Sometimes, aggressive dogs are actually fearful dogs. I am always saddened to see a pet cower, tremble or pull on its leash to escape from a situation that should not cause it to be frightened.

Dogs that are frightened have specific postures and behaviors. A pet that is frightened or worried stands with its head lower than its back. It avoids eye contact and may freeze or attempt to escape. Its ears are laid back against its head and its tail is tucked between its legs.

Its mouth is closed or slightly ajar. It may tremble and keep distance between it and the person or thing it fears. Some dogs growl when they are frightened or feeling threatened. Females, in particular, may urinate or, in extreme cases, defecate. If the dog runs away, it looks back over its shoulder to be sure it is not being pursued.

Why Is My Dog Frightened?

There are three reasons that pets become fearful in multiple situations.

Basic Temperament Of The Pet:

Some pets are just wired more fearful than others. Dogs are just like people in this respect. Some are braver than others. There is a good side to moderate fearfulness. These pets tend to stay close to home and not get into the dangerous situations overly outgoing dogs do. These are the "scaredy cats" that take several days to recover after a visit to the vets or have to be carried in on their next visit. So make your goal improvement - not necessarily cure. And always remember that some elements of your dog's temperament and personality have genetic components that we can not change. (ref)

Early Socialization:

Some pets were not properly socialized when they were puppies.

Bad Experiences In The Past:

Some dogs are fearful of a specific situation because of a bad experience that occurred in the past. They may have been yelled at or hit in circumstances they did not understand. Fearfulness in a single situation is much easier to overcome with training than dogs that are fearful in multiple situations.

Often fear and obsessive/compulsive behavior occurs in the same dog.

What To Do?

Dogs rarely get over fearfulness without some help from you. If you do not correct the problem it may get worse with time.

Dogs that are in pain can be fearful that you might touch a specific area of their body. Sometimes , tender ears are the reason pets are fearful about having their head touched. You should rule out problems of this through a veterinary exam.

Separation Anxiety is a special type of fear. I cover fear of being left alone in a separate article that you can read here.

Treating fear is much like treating allergies, one minimizes the problem through desensitization and conditioning. In doing so, you need to be confident and unambiguous with your pet. If that's just not you, enlist the help of a professional dog trainer or a cooperative friend. Sometimes you have to make the changes - not your pet.

Desensitizing Your Dog Through Repetition:

Begin by determined what the stimulus is that is frightens your dog. Often there are only one or two stimuli that upset your pet.

It can be an object, a noise or a specific odor. It can be a person or another dog. It can be dependent on the setting or place in which the event occurs.

Once you have determined what it is that frightens your pet, arrange a way to recreate the situation when you need to. If it is the vacuum cleaner or some similar object, move it to the center of the living room so the dog can become used to the sight and smell of it. Introduce your dog to the object as you calm and praise him. If the object smells like something he really likes (food?) he is more apt to accept it.

Remain relaxed because your dog will clue off of your emotion. Give your pet some treats as you praise him. You can even hide some treats under or around the object. It is best to do this while the dog is on a leash and quite hungry and the machine is off. Leashes bandanas and harnesses add a sense of security to your pet. When your pet remains relaxed near the object, turn it on or make it perform whatever action it is that frightens the pet while the dog is some distance away. Slowly, in multiple sessions, lead the dog closer to the object while praising and reassuring him and offering him treats and praise.

Conditioning a dog not to fear human beings is much the same. In this case, the person substitutes for the feared object. If your dog has snapped at a particular person or at people in particular situations, replicate the situation while the dog is muzzled so he can not nip. Use an all-cloth muzzle that fits snuggly but not too tight. The strange person should crouch down at let the dog approach the person rather than the person approach the dog. When the stranger pets the dog it should be on the chest rather than the head. Give a cooperative stranger plenty of food treats to reward your dog.

Desensitization Your Pet Through Modification And Counter- conditioning:

Modification introduces new thought patterns to your dog while in the presence of the feared object. If you instruct your dog to perform a pleasant activity that does not cause fear while in the presence of a feared object, person, animal or situation you will decrease the fear factor.

If your pet has ever bitten from fear, begin with the pet muzzled. Start by teaching your pet to do a trick such as “roll over”. After the roll over, give the pet a treat and praise him effusively. Then, gradually ask him to perform the roll over while in the presence of the feared stimulus.

In this way you will gradually get your pet to associate pleasant sensations with the stimulus or event - rather than fright.

If you feel that you can not instruct your dog alone or if progress is too slow, seek the help of a professional dog trainer or a friend whom the pet trusts. Dogs, like children, learn better from certain individuals more than from another.

Sometimes tranquilizer tablets , given thirty minutes before desensitization lessons helps during initial sessions. Acepromazine is the one I usually dispense.

If your pet has a true phobia, clomipramine (Clomicalm) can be helpful. It takes several weeks before the full effect of this medication is reached.

There are dog trainers and veterinarians who believe that dogs with under-active thyroid glands tend to make bad social decisions. I have never seen a documented case of this, but a simple blood assay called a T-4 level would detect it. (ref)

Dogs that do not receive enough exercise during the day react badly in social situations. Dogs are social animals and spending time isolated and alone is hard on them. Dogs tied out in the yard tend to over react and become hysterical both when people approach them and when they are released.

More About Counter- conditioning:

Counter conditioning interrupts your pet's fearful behavior by diverting its attention to a command behavior or action it is comfortable with.

Distracting the dog to an obedience command, trick or game can break the pattern of fear in these situations. Food treats help too in fearful situations. As soon as your pet begins to exhibit anxiety command him to “sit” and then give him a reward.

Lag as long as possible by showing - but not giving - the treat in order for the dog to focus on your hand rather than on the stressful situation.

Things That Don't Work:

Do not punish your dog. Punishment never works in fearful situations. It only makes the problem worse.

Do not raise your voice to your dog.

Do not force the dog into obedience or drag it toward fearful encounters.

Any intervention you make must be done while the event is in progress. Dogs do not project themselves backward or forward in time and they will not understand what you are fussing about after the event has occurred.

Do not attempt to train your dog if you yourself are apprehensive or tense in the same situation.

How To Handle Dog To Dog Situations:

Some dogs react with fear to the introduction of other pets that do not wish your dog harm. These dogs may react with a combination of fear and aggression or self-defense.

Sometimes your dog will only exhibit this behavior with specific other dogs. Big dogs, multiple dogs, same sex dogs, or overly boisterous dogs may set off a fearful or aggressive response.

Your dog may give mixed signals in such situations such as wagging its tail at the same time it growls.

A helpful exercise is to bring your dog to the doggy park but keep him in the parking lot 50 feet or so from the park entrance where he can observe dogs coming and going. Give him rewards when he remains calm. Slowly decrease the distance to the park entrance until the dog can enter without fear.

These activities should be performed with your pet on a leash and wearing a muzzle or head halter. Ideally your dog should focus on you and the expected treat every time another dog comes into view. It should remain calm and happy with its tail wagging.

Obedience Training

All dogs gain self-confidence and an enhanced ability to deal with new or threatening situations when they develop obedience skills. Putting your dog through regular five-minute obedience sessions prior to having to face stressful situations is always helpful. The more voice commands you dog learns to respond to, the more likely it will be to trust your advice in fearful situations.

Snug-fitting muzzles, leashes with choke collars and head halters all give the dog a sense of comfort and place you, as the owner, in control. I prefer cloth sleeve muzzles over plastic or wire ones.

Fear Of Thunder

Some pets become frightened when they hear thunder or loud noises. Your dog may run off or hide and refuse to come out. If she is outside she may try to escape from the yard and run away.

The problem is usually worse when the dog is out-of-doors. These frightened dogs are often destructive and the problem is often progressive. After first being only afraid of thunder your dog may become afraid of wind, rain storms, firecrackers or flashes of light.

To correct this problem, first establish a safe place for the pet to go when thunder occurs. A quite closet or under the bed is OK. Feed her and praise her in her “safe place”. You can make a tape recording of the thunder or loud noises for training purposes.

You can also wait for lightening and threatening weather to begin to play with your dog and put him through a series of tricks such as catch, roll over, etc. to draw his attention away from the noise. Give him a lot of praise and treats in his “safe place”. When you use the tape recording, gradually increase the volume of the noise. Not all dogs can loose their fear of thunder or loud noises. But most dogs will improve or learn to manage their fears.

It is OK to give your pet acepromazine tranquilizer before stormy weather. Most veterinarians will dispense some for you to keep on the shelf. Valium does not work well in dogs.