How to help your fearful dog

How to help your fearful dog
(File Photo)

By Kim Gilliam

Do you have a nervous or shy dog? This could be due to genetics, life history or your own anxiety levels when you are with them.

No matter the cause, the fact that 95 percent of all reported dog bites are fear related makes it important that you work on building your dog’s confidence from the time they are a puppy.

Experiments done in the 1960s demonstrated that you can breed for fearfulness in dogs. Researchers bred two lines of Pointers, purposely breeding one line that was “normal” — friendly, outgoing and capable of typical learning and training — and another that was extremely fearful — the so called “nervous Pointers,” reacting to people and new sounds by freezing to the point of catatonia.

Fearfulness proved to be a hereditary trait in this experiment. Additionally, many dogs that are fearful have littermates or other relatives with this problem, which suggests a genetic predisposition.

Fearfulness can also be rooted in a lack of early socialization, which is happening more frequently as breeders and owners keep puppies isolated until they have completed their vaccinations.

The most important timeframe for socialization is from birth through 16 weeks. Your puppy should have been handled by a minimum of 100 people during that time, including children, adults and seniors, and they should frequently interact with other vaccinated dogs, especially other puppies, to help them learn canine communication and body language.

This can be accomplished through puppy socialization classes, meet-ups or finding young dogs in your neighborhood. Also be sure to expose them to a variety of places and experiences.

Psychology Today recently tackled the question, “Do nervous dog owners have nervous dogs?” based on a study of 132 dog owners and their pets. They measured the amount of stress hormones present as dogs were exposed to a variety of mildly anxiety-provoking situations then compared the results to the owner’s personality.

The first dimension considered was the owner’s neuroticism, i.e. the tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily. Dogs with highly neurotic owners were less able to deal with pressure and stress.

The second dimension was agreeableness, i.e. the tendency to be cooperative and friendly. Dogs with highly agreeable owners were found better able to cope with situations involving tension and strain. This suggests that the dog owner’s response to situations shapes the personality and behaviors of their dog.

The good news is that dogs can overcome their fears, but it takes a lot of work and patience as these problems rarely resolve on their own. First, visit your vet to see if health problems are playing a role in their behavior — are they in pain, do they have a loss of sight or hearing, etc.? You then need to recognize your dog’s fear triggers and manage their environment. Never force your dog to approach something that scares them. This should be their decision.

Help your dog develop confidence to overcome their fearfulness. Allow them to experience successes, such as through obedience exercises or performing tricks where they can be rewarded for a job well done. Engaging in happy, stress-free play also helps.

You can then move on to practicing desensitization and counter-conditioning where you do something they fear, but start at a low level so that fear is not induced. Then, gradually increase the intensity and get it used to each level in small, slow steps.

You then pair the thing that frightens your dog with something they love more, e.g. their favorite treat or toy, so eventually the dog sees the scary thing as predicting a positive.

This exercise requires you to recognize the signs of fear: muscles tensing up, weight shifting backwards, tail tucked, body held in a crouch, closed mouth, licking, yawning and ears and lips back.

If you have a fearful dog, just remember to be patient, commit the time and effort needed to help them, don’t force them into scary situations, be open to a variety of techniques, be gentle and positive and accept that they may never be happy-go-lucky. Love them for who they are.

The writer is the co-owner of Frolick Dogs, an indoor dog gym in the Eisenhower Valley