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Handling Fearful Behavior

Updated on September 3, 2014
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Brian is a dog lover who's highly interested in the mental and emotional lives of dogs. He owns and trains Wally, a Coton de Tulear.

Who says Family Guy isn't educational?

I got the idea for this hub watching an episode of Family Guy. It mentioned "doggy hell" and I was wondering what would make up "doggy hell" in Wally's eyes.

So I thought about it and how I could help him deal with those devils when they try to shake and threaten him, which leads to the Hero part of the title.

Hell is everywhere for a fearful dog

To a fearful dog, everything is a potential threat, a potential demon lurking around the corner. New things, dark corners, anything that doesn't scream peaceful and harmless can set a fearful dog off. These things can make him feel like he's surrounded and has to fear for his survival.

I remember well those days when Wally used to want to bolt at the sight of a kid walking towards us or become a shivering mess because a really loud sound happened or something big was nearby.

He was clearly miserable and it was up to me to ease his concerns and show him the world isn't inhabited by demons.

Be my hero!
Be my hero!

Heroes: This is what fearful dogs need most

Much of the discussion around handling fearful dogs is around providing firm/calm leadership so that you can "tell" him there's nothing to worry about. The thing about this approach is that it really doesn't make him feel too much safer ("the thing can get me while he's not looking!"). Conditioning helps a lot as it changes his perspective over time, but what do you do in the mean time? What will you do if whatever it is has a mind of its own (like a kid or a stray dog or a trash bag that's "chasing" him)?

What you can (almost) always do is be the wall, be the safe place, and run interference between him and the scary situation (which is actually a calming signal - a dog can get between two other creatures in an effort to try to calm a situation down), truly showing the dog that he can count on you when the chips are down and stuff starts getting rough (remember, it's his point of view that matters. A stray 7-Eleven bag blowing in the wind is 'ho hum' to us but if it's utter terror to your dog, that's what counts).

What a fearful dog needs more than leadership is someone to "save" him from his fears. And by that I don't mean baby-talking or anything of that nature, but instead deal with the situation. Grab that bag and make it disappear. Stop the kids (even if it feels mean). Handle the stray dog as safely as possible. These will show true "leadership" to him and also let him see that you'll step in and protect him.

Slices of Heaven: The Benefits

Giving these little bits of what he loves during fearful events does several good things:

  1. Shows him that you're concerned for him and that he can come to you for comfort and good things.
  2. It can build a positive association. Remember, everything a dog does is in context, so he might not be thinking about the storms or the fireworks, he can hear them as he's enjoying whatever it is and a connection between the event and the good things can form.
  3. It uses up that pent up energy, either mentally or physically, or both. 
  4. It's just plain fun and good times for the dog! :)

It's best to try this (or any method) when he's under threshold, meaning he's not so gripped with fear and panic that he is unresponsive to anything else. If he's at this level, the best thing to do is to try to soften the exposure as much as possible. Then, when he calms enough, you can do the method of your choice and his mind will be at least a bit more receptive.

Slices of Heaven: When the Hell just won't go away.

Of course, there are some things you just can't do anything about. If your dog hates thunderstorms, there's not a lot you can do to deal with that situation. In those situations, what you can do is give your dog a slice of what he would consider heaven. If it's a nice dark place to hide, let him have it. If it's a game of tug - play it. If you want to do some training he enjoys, go for it.

If there's ways to help minimize the 'threat', do those as well. You can't silence the thunderclouds, but can you take him to a quieter room? No chance of stopping fireworks on the 4th of July, but maybe you could take him some place where there's nothing going on? Any little thing you can ease him with helps in more ways than one.

This method is also can make the handler feel like he or she is really doing something to ease the dog. It seems more helpful to distract or interact with someone who's scared and this can be the same for dogs as well. That's always a good thing because when someone feels good about a method and feels like he or she is helping his/her dog, the person will be more apt to use the method again. A bit of positive reinforcement for the handler!

Being "Base"

Remember games like "tag" or "hide-n-seek"? Heck, even baseball/softball/kickball has the concept of bases, i.e. places where you are safe from "harm" and protected.

I feel this is the ultimate goal with me and Wally. I want to be "base", the place where he can come to and feel like he is untouchable by anything. I want to be the place he seeks out when he's getting that feeling.

I want this more than his respect or his acknowledgment that I'm his leader or anything else. To me, it is his true expression of trust and all those other things anyway. Fear is a VERY powerful motivator and driver of behavior and one of the worst emotions to feel. If he will trust and rely on me in that situation, I will feel like I have succeeded in a LOT in developing our relationship.


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