Fear in dogs

Fear in dogs

Behind every behavior lies an emotion

Today we are talking about fear in dogs and seeing that it is Chester’s month here on our social media I thought I would share what Chester’s 2 biggest fears are – old men with canes and sewer grates. The first we have almost beat with lots of yummy treats every time we pass people with canes, which is not that often, but the sewer grates sadly remains. We have now reached a point where it is ok to walk past them without throwing a complete panic attack, but walking on them is a no go.

From the beginning of February we have had crazy amounts of snow so the ground has pretty much been covered up until about the end of last week. We live in a apartment complex and have a little path from the main door that leads out to the bigger path. During the snowy period I couldn’t understand why Chester would always jump up on the side snow piles and walk there instead of walking on the little path up to our apartment building, but when the snow started to melt I realized why he acted this way. It turns out that right when you turn onto the bigger path there is a sewer grate. Normally the path is wide enough for us just to walk around the sewer grate, which is why I haven’t given it much thought or even noticed it being there, but when the snow was covering the ground, the little path made by peoples footsteps went right over the sewer grate. Of course Chester must have noticed it being there, and of course, despite not being able to see it, refused to walk on it causing the jumping up in the piled snow on the side of the path.

So what can we do to help our fearful pets cope with their fears?

Fear is not rational – not in humans and not in dogs. Fear can be divided into 2 – there are the innate fears which are often the good fears such as pain and certain smells that will help the dog to survive and then there are the learned fears, which is often the ones that are causing problems. Those could be “I am afraid of the car because the car takes me to the vet and there I experience pain” as an example. In fact 78% of dogs are afraid of going to the vet.

Fear often shows its face in either flight or fight responses – some dogs freezes up and shows a hunched up bag, tail between the leg, white eyes body language while others go right into fight mode.

So the first lesson today is, as always, learn how to read your dog’s body language and understand that there lies an emotion underneath, that they are asking you to understand. By understanding the underlying emotional state we can prevent a potential behavioral problem and not only create a better understanding but also improve the bond between our dog and ourselves.

So now that we have learned to “read dog” we need to help them through their fears in the best way possible so next up is removing the triggers in the environment for the fear. Now that is a very hard thing to do with sewer grates, so in Chester’s situation I simply let him have as much distance as he needs, if that means crossing the street and walking on the other side then that would be what we did.

Secondly we use lots of yummy treats, so every time he sees a sewer grate he gets a treat, even in the beginning if it was just to take one step closer to the danger it meant yummy treat. In this step it is soooo important to be able to see when your dog is showing his “I am afraid” body language and for you to respect that and not push him any further but reward him for the steps he has made so far. By doing that you are giving your dog some control of the situation and he becomes more calm. Now those yummy crunchies are not all you can use. It has been shown that play inhibit fear and that dogs actually prefer places where they have played, so why not use play to turn a fearful spot into something with a positive association through play.

The last thing you should do in order to prevent fear in your dog is to make as many good positive experiences you can in different scenarios and places when your dog is young to beat fear from occurring later on in his life. If your dog has had a positive experience (association) with a certain environment first, then if he should get scared of something in that environment he is faster to bounce back to not being afraid then if he only has had a bad experience with the environment. That is not to say that an older dogs fear cannot be changed, just that it might take a little longer for your dog to turn it around.

As always when dealing with problem behaviors in dogs or any other pet, always contact an ethologist and let them help you work with the problem. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

Thank you for reading this weeks blog, and I will see you next week.

Happy Valentines Day to you all <3 <3 <3