Ginny was one of those dogs that grew to become fearful of everything after she was abused by a pet sitter. It got to the point where her own breath on a cold morning spooked her. Going out for walks, she’d almost crawl around every bush or car expecting something to jump out at her.
It became quite frustrating having this 130lb English Mastiff, terrified of everything in site. It was like tip toeing around, carefully planning outings or making sure the phone charger cable wasn’t too close to her. It didn’t matter how many times she was exposed to it, if by chance say the laundry basket was in a different spot she’d act terrified all over again.
Thankfully, even though dogs develop all kinds of different fears, they can be taught that those scary things are okay and learn to trust you in a situation and eventually those fears will diminish.
Common fears in dogs
- veterinary offices
- riding in the car and
- separation anxiety
Why do dogs develop these fears?
“Fear can come from two different sources, nature vs. nurture,”
The “nurture fear” develops through a pet’s environment and experiences, she said. This type of fear is usually easier to train through. Such as in Ginny’s circumstance, where the abuser caused her fear, which we eventually worked with her to rebuild her confidence.
“Natural fear,” on the other hand, is part of a dog’s DNA and can be linked to different breeds, she said. These kinds of fears can be more difficult to train through.
An example of natural fear in a dog would be how herding breeds tend to be high energy and prone to separation anxiety if they are placed in homes with owners who don’t allow the dogs to constructively vent their energy.
How to help a dog overcome her fear
Dogs often develop fears if they haven’t been exposed to them, or, in the case of thunderstorms or fireworks, they don’t like the loud noises. Most dog fears can be addressed and corrected but must be done in a calm safe manner.
What worked best for Ginny was repetitive positive exposure to her fears, which also meant building up her confidence. Praising her lots with love and treats during scary situations and keeping her focused on me versus whatever it was helped her learn and rebuild the trust that had been broken.
Somethings like her fear of men had to be worked on slowly in small increments, just allowing a man to speak to her and her not barking was a huge step. Or her allowing a man to even look at her without her diving between my legs. It took one incident with an abusive pet sitter, but over 3 years to allow a man to pet her.
One customer that frequently came into the pet store had a small dog who was rescued and was terrified of being touched. I shared with her these tips that worked for her, and hopefully gives you some ideas on the repetitive positive exposure method.
- Work with your dog when she is already calm and quiet
- With treats nearby, gently pet your dog’s head and body or areas she enjoys having touched.
- As she remains relaxed, offer a small treat.
- As you progress the touch to move toward areas she commonly resists, offer more treats as a distraction.
- Keep training sessions really short, but repeat the process several times a day.
They key is to slowly, safely, and calmly reintroduce/introduce the dog to face their fear, not forcefully or aggressive as that puts more stress into the environment. Another important step is to keep the same tone in your voice, a pleasant non-cooing tone. If you coo ‘everythings okay, come on baby’ your dog is going to read your body language of your uncertainty and not trust the situation.
Does your dog have a fear of something?