So, How Can I Help My Dog?
Part of working with a fearful dog involves accepting that it’s hard to know how far a particular dog can go in overcoming the problem. If a dog’s guardian expects that any dog can become happy-go-lucky, extroverted and confident, future disappointment may lurk. As Jacobs writes, “Changing our own views, beliefs and expectations may be the first step the owner of a fearful dog needs to take.” To help a dog overcome fear, it is often most effective to combine several basic strategies.
Visit your veterinarian. The first step should be a thorough medical evaluation to determine if health problems are playing a role. Dogs who are in pain may develop fear of anything that exacerbates the pain, such as being touched, being approached by a playful dog, a leash or collar, or a sport class like agility. Older dogs may develop fears and phobias following physical changes, including cognitive deterioration or loss of sight or hearing. A myriad of other physical problems can be in play as well, and any underlying medical issue should be resolved.
Do all you can to protect your dog from frightening situations. This may involve being an advocate for your dog, such as stopping strangers from petting him or refusing to let a family member use power tools until you get the dog out of the house. Management of the environment is a lot of work, but it’s work that pays big dividends. Protecting a dog from exposure to situations that scare him is a great way to start, because every time a fearful dog becomes afraid, the problem is compounded. And as Jaak Panksepp, author of Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions, says, “One of the most horrible experiences of life is to be stricken by sudden terror. Another is to be continually consumed by the persistent feelings of anxiety that gnaw away at you, destroying your sense of security in the world.” For dogs who are reactive to the point of snapping or biting, preventing situations in which the dog feels the need to do this is essential for the safety of others as well as for the well being of the dog.
Never force your dog to approach something that scares him. It’s not going to help, and it may make the situation worse, adding yet another scary experience that confirms his belief that something is worth being afraid of. Wilde advises that we allow the dog to make the decision about approaching or avoiding a potentially scary situation.
Help your dog develop confidence. Developing your dog’s confidence can help him overcome his fearfulness because these two states of being are not compatible. Anything that allows a dog to experience success is good for his selfesteem and adds to his self-assurance. Training dogs to perform behaviors on cue—standard obedience exercises, targeting, responding to their names or performing tricks—can build confidence. So can getting their nourishment from food-reward puzzles or foodstuffed toys, because accessing the food is an accomplishment. Play is also a way to help dogs feel confident. Once a fearful dog is comfortable enough to happily engage in play, a positive feedback loop develops. The more they play, the more confident they are, and the more confident they are, the more they play.