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Cautious Canines

Practice desensitization and classical counterconditioning. These techniques are often the core treatment for fearful dogs. Systematic desensitization is a structured way of repeatedly exposing your dog to something that he fears, but starting at a low level so that fear is not induced. Then, gradually, during many sessions over a period of weeks, months or even years, the intensity of what frightens him is increased so that he can get used to it at each level before moving on to the next. Scary things are made less scary by being smaller, slower, quieter, farther away or otherwise less intense. Exposing your dog to what frightens him at an intensity level that is too low to induce his fear is completely different than forcing him to confront what he fears by overdoing it and actually scaring him. (For details on these techniques, Patricia B. McConnell’s booklet, The Cautious Canine, is a great resource.)

Classical counterconditioning consists of pairing up what frightens the dog with something the dog loves more than anything else; eventually, the dog realizes that the scary thing predicts the wonderful thing. If your dog fears people, then every time he sees someone, he should immediately receive a fantastic treat or highly prized toy or other item. Eventually, the dog will have a positive emotional reaction to seeing a person, because he knows that something good is about to happen. Exposing your dog to the trigger that scares him, starting at very low levels of intensity and gradually working up to more intense exposures, is most effective. In practice, desensitization and classical counterconditioning are often done together.

Some dogs progress rapidly, but others make progress that can only be detected when viewed long-term, over years or perhaps over the dog’s entire life. No matter which pattern describes your dog, it’s important to work gradually, and as Wilde says, “go at the dog’s pace.” You must only move to more intense triggers when the dog is clearly comfortable at the previous level of exposure. Fearful dogs must be handled carefully and with endless patience.

Build a good foundation. Most behaviorists and trainers agree that in addition to specific behavior modification, a good foundation for helping dogs overcome their fears is built from many aspects of their daily life. Good nutrition, regular exercise and predictable routines are all helpful. Other potentially therapeutic techniques or alternative and complementary therapies include massage, Tellington TTouch, anxiety wraps, Bach f lower essences, homeopathic remedies, acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine.

What Determines How Well a Dog Will Do? Almost all fearful dogs can improve, but the degree to which a dog overcomes his fear depends on many factors. Estep and Wilde agree that the human partner is a huge factor in the eventual outcome. Motivation is critical for success, as is an understanding of the situation and the amount of time the person is willing to commit to it. The use of gentle, positive methods is also linked with improvement. Mild fears or those of recent development have a higher likelihood of successful resolution. The dog’s genetics play a role as well; the stronger the genetic component of the dog’s fears, the harder it may be to overcome them.

Wilde sums up the basic approach to helping fearful dogs: “It takes time and patience … Always be gentle, positive and kind … Never, ever use physical force or corrections.” Jacobs echoes this advice: “Your dog’s trust in you is the most important building block in the foundation for building her confidence. Never use any type of punishment or correction which scares or intimidates your dog.”

Though it can be gut-wrenching to watch a dog live in fear, there are also positive aspects, and that may be part of the reason why some people are drawn to fearful dogs. Wilde has a long-standing history of relating to them: “I always had an empathy for the fearful ones. I was drawn to the shaking dog in the corner.” She points out that having a fearful dog “teaches you a lot about subtleties of canine body language. You become tuned into your dog. You learn to manage things. You gain increased empathy for your dog. You expand your knowledge and patience.”

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