Fear is normal. It is evolutionarily smart. The animals (or humans for that matter) that had no fear were easy pickings for predators and didn’t get the chance to pass on their genes. Today, however, it is not uncommon to see fearful behavior in our dogs directed toward everyday objects – the vacuum cleaner, garbage cans, skateboards, etc. We understand that these objects are safe, but our attempts to explain this simple fact to our dogs in English fail miserably. In fact, there are several myths out there for dealing with a dog that is afraid which are likely to have the same results.
Do you have a friend or family member who has a visceral, paralyzing fear of snakes (or spiders or rodents)? Think about being out on a hike with that person, who loves and trusts you, and together you encounter a snake. It’s not a venomous snake and you know there’s nothing to worry about, but nonetheless, your friend freaks out. Imagine then, in an effort to make your friend feel better, you physically drag him by the neck up to the snake to show him that there’s nothing to fear while he stiffens his legs, digs in his feet and attempts to flee. Do you really think that would be helpful? It is just not a learning moment, and your friend’s trust in you may be tarnished by the incident. Once the person (or dog) has freaked out, the kindest thing to do is to help him move away from the scary thing and calm down. At a later time, you might suggest to your friend that you take a trip to the zoo to see some snakes in a more controlled environment. Repeated exposures at a level where your friend feels safe are much more likely to have a positive impact on his fear.
The same holds true for your dog. Forcing a dog to get close to something that he fears, especially after he has clearly demonstrated that he doesn’t feel good about it, is very unlikely to help him get over it. If your dog freaks out about the vacuum, put him away in a different room with some music and a delicious Kong or bone to chew while you clean the floors. Then you can think about having your dog experience the vacuum in a less threatening way. For example, you could simply bring the vacuum out of the closet, toss your dog a few treats and then put it away. Do this over the course of a few days or weeks, if needed. Once you see your dog looking happy to see the vacuum because it predicts good things for him, you could try moving it around just a bit while it’s off, toss a few treats, and put it away. Then you could turn it on for just long enough to toss a few treats and then turn it off and put it away. At each step you want to stay below the “freak out” stage and wait until your dog looks very comfortable with a step before you make it harder.
The owner of a dog in one of my classes had been told by a neighbor to ignore her dog when he looked scared while playing with the neighbor’s three dogs. This small dog was being mobbed by the other dogs and was trying to hide behind his mom, and his mom was acting like he wasn’t there. Of course, the owner and neighbor were trying to do the right thing for the dog, but they had fallen victim to the myth that if you comfort a dog that is scared, you are validating his fear. We certainly wouldn’t do this to a toddler who got overwhelmed by a situation. We would give him some physical comfort, like a hug, and some soothing words to try to rebuild his confidence. By doing the same with our dogs (although substitute some calm, firm petting for the hug), we are doing our best to reassure and build trust. To be sure, there are instances where the owner is also upset, and the dog can sense this, and nervous talking and petting could make the situation worse. If you are calm, however, giving your worried dog some positive attention is a kind thing to do.
This myth would be true if displaying fearful behaviors was something that a dog turned on and off hoping to get a reward. A dog may sit or offer his paw, hoping to get a cookie, but is unlikely to tuck his tail, plaster his ears back and dilate his pupils in hopes of receiving a reward. External, observable indicators of fear like these are the result of the internal experience of feeling fear. It is this feeling that must be addressed, and food can be a very useful in changing a dog’s mind about a particular situation. Recalling the example of your snake-fearing friend, if you also offered your friend a hot fudge sundae during your visit to the zoo, it might help your friend to feel even happier while seeing the snakes at a distance. As dogs tend to place even more value on bits of roasted chicken than we do on hot fudge, feeding treats when your dog encounters something scary can be one of the best ways to change his feelings. Change his feelings – change his behavior!
If your dog is a scaredy dog, AnimalSense’s Shy Dogs class is a great way to replace these myths with sound techniques to help your dog become a confident canine!