Fearful Dogs

Fearful Dogs, Fearful Horses, Fearful Children

Having worked with rescued dogs, horses and children (as a foster parent for 11 years), I've learned the importance of Socialization, Desensitization and Counter Conditioning.

I honestly do not believe there is such a thing as a bad dog, bad horse and definitely not a bad child.

Somewhere along their development something went wrong, an important sign was missed and misinterpreted. Possibly they were never given a chance at bonding or making a connection to humans.

The process of Socialization, Desensitization, and Counter Conditioning can be a long slow process, but in the end very rewarding.

Fear comes in all shapes and sizes, especially for your four-legged friends. Knowing the cause of the fear can be helpful, but not always essential.

Your first step should be to take your dog to your veterinarian, rule out any medical causes.

What You Can Do for A Fearful Dog

Most fears don't go away by themselves, and may quite possibly get worse. Some fears, when treated, will decrease in intensity or frequency but not disappear entirely. I recently discovered dog massage to be a big benefit in this area.

Learning what triggers their fearful behaviors is a good place to start.

  • Is he afraid of startling noises?
  • Is he afraid of being left alone?

Many fears can be treated using two techniques known as desensitization and counter-conditioning. These techniques require a lot of time and patience.

Realistic Expectations For Fearful Dogs

Some of the things that frighten dogs can be difficult to reproduce and/or control. Maybe your dog is afraid of thunderstorms, he may be also responding to other things that happen during a storm. It is impossible to reproduce all of these factors.

This is where I've found a nice relaxing Dog Massage to be the most helpful. It's calming and soothing and can be added to your counter-conditioning routine.

You must be vigilant and patient with fearful dogs and work hard not to become frustrated, remember it's a slow time consuming process to desensitize.

When to Get Help

Both desensitization and counter conditioning can be difficult techniques to master, and because behavior problems may increase if not done correctly, you may want to get professional, in-home help from an animal-behavior specialist.

It's important to keep in mind that fearful dogs who feel trapped or is pushed too far can become aggressive. Some dogs will respond aggressively to whatever it is that frightens them.

If your dog displays any aggressive behavior, such as growling, snarling, snapping, or baring his teeth, stop all behavior modification procedures and look for professional help from an as soon as possible.

Talk with Your Veterinarian

Medication may be available which can help reduce your fearful dog's anxiety levels for short time periods.

Don't attempt to give your dog any over-the-counter or prescription medication without talking with your veterinarian first.

Drug therapy alone won't cure fearful dogs permanently, but in extreme cases, behavior modification and medication used together may be the best way to go.

What Not to Do With Fearful Dogs

  • Don’t punish your dog for being afraid, this will only make him more fearful.
  • Don’t try to force your dog to experience the object or situation that is causing him to be fearful, he'll probably become more fearful rather than less.
  • Never punish your dog after the fact for destruction or house soiling caused by anxiety or fear. Animals don't understand punishment after the fact, even if it's only seconds later. This kind of destruction or house soiling is the result of panic, not misbehavior.
  • Punishment will do more harm than good.

Whether in response to a stranger or startling noise, your dog may display certain body postures, including

  • lowering his head
  • flattening his ears back against his head
  • tucking his tail between his legs if he's scared

A frightened dog may also

  • pant
  • salivate
  • tremble
  • pace
  • or try to escape
He may show timid/shy or submissive behaviors—
  • avoiding eye contact
  • urinating submissively
  • rolling over to expose his belly
  • or he may freeze and remain immobile.

Some dogs will bark and/or growl at the object that is causing their fear. In extreme cases of fearfulness a dog may be destructive (out of general anxiety or in an attempt to escape), or he may lose control of his bladder or bowels.

Be vigilant and watch for these signs, don’t just dismiss them as bad dog behavior

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