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Behind every behavior lies an emotion
Today we are talking about fear in dogs and I thought I would first share what Chester’s 2 biggest fears are – old men with canes and sewer grates. The fear of old men with canes we have almost beat with lots of yummy treats every time we pass people with canes.
It was easier to conquer then the sewer crates where we have only managed to reduce the fear. We have now reached a point where it is okay to walk past them without throwing a complete panic attack, but walking on them is a no go.
So what can we do to help our pets cope with their fear?
Fear is not rational – not in humans and not in dogs.
Fear can be divided into 2. The innate fears which are often the good fears such as pain and certain smells that will help the dog to survive.
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 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 learn how to read your dog’s body language. 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. By creating a better understanding we improve the bond between our dog and ourselves.
Now that we have learned to “read dog” we need to help them through their fears in the best way possible. We start by removing the triggers in the environment.
That is a very hard thing to do with sewer grates or any other none removable thing your dog might be afraid of. We therefor create more distance. 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. Here you can also use praises or a toy.
In this step it is soooo important to be able to see when your dog is showing his “I am afraid” body language. Respect his 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 becomes more calm.
Yummy treats and praise is not all you can use. It has been shown that play inhibit fear and that dogs actually prefer places where they have played. Why not use play to turn a fearful spot into something with a positive association.
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. (Read more about how to create positive associations here)
Do this when your dog is young. If your dog has had a positive experience (association) with a certain environment first, they are faster a bouncing back to that happy association should they get afraid. That is not to say that an older dogs fear cannot be changed. It might just take a little longer for your dog to turn it around.
Remember that it is always best to contact a professional behaviorist when dealing with problem behaviors in dogs. You can contact me here.
Happy positive associations to you all!