Fear. What is it? What does it mean? How should you respond? Fear is a topic that has a lot of myths surrounding it in the dog world. Regardless of what has made your dog afraid you can use the following steps to help your dog through the situation.
1. Don't push your dog to 'just deal with it'.
Firstly, doing this risks your dog experiencing learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is where an individual realises that whatever they do, it won’t change the scenario they find themselves in so they do nothing. This can often be misinterpreted as them feeling calm, relaxed or happy with the situation, despite it being the opposite. Imagine facing your worst nightmare and having someone force you through it to the extent that you have to just deal with it, it’s not a fun thought is it?
Secondly, forcing your dog through something they’re scared of is more likely than not to make their fear worse. That moment of forcing your dog through it could be the thing that triggers a lifelong phobia for your dog.
Practically, this means letting your dog stop at a distance that they’ve chose (i.e., not walking them towards something that you believe they are afraid of), increasing the distance from the scary thing until your dog is able to watch the scary thing without an excessive fear response, in the case of scary noises this means reducing the volume of the scary noise where possible, or removing your dog from the situation if you are unable to increase the distance enough for your dog to feel comfortable.
2. Comfort your Dog!
If your dog is coming to you for reassurance, there is nothing wrong with comforting them if they find it helpful. There are some dogs who do not enjoy physical reassurance when they are afraid, and that’s okay, the above tip will be enough to keep your dog okay. However, if your dog does enjoy physical reassurance, there’s nothing wrong with comforting them through it. Now, when it comes to this, there is a caveat. You don’t want to risk making your dog feel more afraid. When comforting a scared dog, the best way to behave is one that offers comfort in the form of petting, allowing the dog to use you as a barrier (whilst ensuring you aren’t too close to what’s scaring your dog) without coddling them in a way that changes your behaviour too much. You want to be upbeat, light, happy, laugh if you can, you don’t want to change your tone of voice, hide your dog from whatever has scared them or change your behaviour such that a bystander would know your dog is afraid. Essentially, if your dog is happy you want to look like your normal self when out for a walk. If your dog is worried, you simply want to look like your normal self walking in a different direction from whatever has scared your dog.
Often, a question that comes through at this point is ‘won’t that teach my dog to be afraid?’ and very simply, no. If you were out with a child and they were afraid of something, you wouldn’t dream of not comforting them just incase you make them more likely to display those fearful behaviours. You would help a child through the situation! It’s exactly the same when it comes to your dog.
Both of the above tips will lead to your dog trusting you more and knowing that you are a safe place to turn to when they are afraid. This will enable them to turn to you whenever they are afraid which is such a valuable thing for your dog to do throughout their life. It will lead to your dog being more confident because they know you’ve got their back.
Have you got any questions about how to support your dog through their fear? What have you tried with your dog already? Let me know in the comments!