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Behind every behaviour lies an emotion
Fear is an emotion. A very strong emotion that causes the dog to display certain behaviours. The behaviour our dogs show when they are afraid is often what causes a problem for us. We just want that behaviour to stop, but as with all other emotions, fear is not something rational.
It is not something you can just tell your dog to stop doing. Just like you wouldn’t be able to tell a person to just stop being afraid of spiders. The person might want to stop being afraid but due to their fear they will jump up and scream every time they see a spider. When working with something your dog is afraid of it is therefor not the behaviour you train but the emotion behind the behaviour.
Fear can be divided into 2. The innate fears which are the fears the dog is born with. They are often also called the good fears because they help the dog determine what might harm them or what might be dangerous and thereby enhances the dog’s chances of survival.
Then there are the learned fears, which are 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 freeze up and shows body language like the tail between the leg or turning the head with whale eyes and try to run away, while others go right into fight mode.
Help your dog overcome their fear
The first thing we need to do in order to help our dogs overcome their fear is to learn to read their body language. When we are able to read the subtle signs we are able to help our dog before their behaviour escalates. Learning body language also improves the communication and your dog will start not only to trust you more but also to rely on you more to remove them from a situation they find scary.
As mentioned before when we work with dogs we are working on changing an emotion not a behaviour. Through our dogs behaviour, however we might feel about it, they are trying to tell us that they are scared of something and it is our job to help them work on their fear and give them tools to work through it. This automatically also benefits us as the bond will automatically increase between your dog and yourself when you try to solve a problem together.
A tool we can give our dogs and ourselves to manage a scary situation could be to remove the triggers in the environment that makes our dogs scared, or try to avoid them as much as possible. Find the distance where your dog is comfortable away from the stimuli and start the training there.
We can even do one better and add treats to the distance we are working in, or any other reward, like a toy they love and of course lots of praise.
By combining those two we are reverting the negative association (their fear) into a positive association, which means next time they see the trigger that they are afraid of, they will now instead think of good things like getting a treat or their favourite toy. You can read more about positive associations and why they are important in this blog.
If you think of a fear of your own you know how hard it is to get rid off, it is the same for our dogs. The next tool you need is therefor a good portion of patience. Respect your dog’s communication and don’t push any further. Reward for the steps he/she has made so far. By doing that you are giving your dog some control of the situation and he/she becomes more calm. Stress is often a bifactor when it comes to fear, and does not help the learning process for your dog. Read more about stress in this blog.
The last tool I want you to have in your tool box is play. It has been shown that play inhibit fear and that dogs actually prefer places where they have played. Play is also a stress relief and can help your dog learn faster. Why not use play to turn a fearful spot into something with a positive association?
It takes a long time to remove a fear, but if you use the tools above you are well on your way to help your dog get rid of his/her fear. If you need help with your dog’s fear, then go check out our Life with a Fearful Dog Program – we want to make your life with a dog a happy one!