Often, the most obvious sign of fear in dogs is avoidance of things that worry the dog. Avoidance is powerfully reinforcing since it offers distance and safety from objects that the dog fears.
As humans know all too well, reinforced habits are very hard to break, and the same holds true for our canine friends. Yet continuing to retreat from things that are scary does nothing to build a dog’s confidence, and that confidence building is the key to your success.
Six secrets for changing fearful behavior:
1. Don’t isolate your dog. It might seem natural to want to protect your dog from things that she is afraid of, but that does little to address the core issue – lack of confidence. The less experience a dog has with an object, person or event that she is fearful of, the more likely she will be to react by fleeing, barking excessively or even being aggressive. Repeated, gentle exposure is critical.
2. Don’t put your dog into fear-causing situations faster than her coping abilities can manage. Many short exposures are more likely to bring success than a handful of intense experiences. Try to find a safe distance to observe the thing that causes your dog anxiety and reward her for being brave enough to hold her ground and remain calm. Gradually decrease the distance to the person, dog or object. You can chip away at fear by being careful but persistent.
3. Reinforce any behavior that is seen as moving forward or is less fearful than the last reaction to the same situation. The response you are hoping for may be as minute as not hiding behind you or not withdrawing from the approach of a bicycle, child or skateboarder.
4. Go slowly but don’t let your dog become dependent upon flight behavior. If running away from stress is the only response your dog ever uses, she will never learn to trust another response. This calls for careful observation and good judgment on your part. Have you pushed training too far, too fast, or is your dog merely falling back on well-worn behavior patterns instead of working with you to gain confidence? Try teaching a command that is mutually exclusive to the fearful behavior. For example, if your dog tends to retreat behind you, ask her to sit when you notice that she is becoming fearful. If she can learn to respond to a command in those situations, she can’t simultaneously retreat.
5. Remember that even an “average” dog holds a PhD in interpreting human responses. Evaluating our body language and verbalizations is obvious, but research has shown that even pheromones and hormones play a role in a dog’s understanding of our emotional state. Becoming agitated or overly dramatic when your dog needs calm, decisive leadership is counter-productive.
6. Reward your dog for coping with her fear. Choose a high-level reward such as bacon or leftover pork roast to use when your dog is successful. Controlling an outburst or investigating a new item should be reason for a small celebration!
Helping a fearful dog might be a test of patience, but few efforts with a dog will pay off with higher rewards.
Julie Winkelman is a certified pet dog trainer and a certified dog trainer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.