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03 Sep How to help your dog overcome their fears

Many dogs have fears of things in their environment – they might be frightened of fireworks, strangers, or other dogs for example. For owners having to cope with fearful dogs, life can be difficult. 

Finding a way to help your dog overcome their fears can be a minefield, with lots of conflicting information. And sometimes, it seems like no matter what you try, they just can’t get over their fear.

There are some clear steps that most dog trainers agree need to be addressed in order to help your dog overcome their phobias. We’ve collated them here in one post so that you can take your first steps towards helping your dog be calm and relaxed around their fears.

Remove the trigger

It sounds obvious, but it’s probably the most important thing you can do – as much as possible, you need to remove your dog’s trigger- the thing they are fearful of. 

This can be more or less difficult depending on the type of fear your dog experiences. For example, if your dog is afraid of the vacuum cleaner, keep them secured in another room while you vacuum. If your dog is afraid of strangers, try your best to reduce encounters with strangers. This can be achieved by not inviting people round the house too often and walking your dog in less frequented places. You’ll be able to work on reintroducing the trigger calmly at a later date.

Tri-colour Border Collie wearing a PitPat

Avoid comforting your dog

Comforting your dog when they display fearful behaviour encourages that behaviour, leading them to display the response again in the future. If this happens, just ignore it and distract them from their trigger. Remember, never punish your dog for fearful behaviour, even if it manifests as aggression.

It’s also important not to share in your dog’s fear. This is especially important if your dog fears other dogs or strangers. Instead of panicking, remain calm, ignore their behaviour and distract them with treats or play.

Establish a close bond

Your bond with your dog is always important, but especially so if your dog has fears or anxiety. When you establish a strong bond with your dog, they will become more confident and be more focused on you than the trigger for their fear.

One of the best ways to establish a close bond with your pooch is through regular, consistent training and play. Try your best to dedicate an hour at least every day to your dog’s training, and use fun play sessions as a great reward after you’ve finished. 

Don’t forget, training isn’t just about show-off tricks – use training sessions to teach your dog when to be calm and lie on their bed, when to let a groomer or vet touch them to check their paws, teeth, eyes and ears, and much more.

King Charles Cavalier Spaniel sat on a doorstep next to a handbag

Control exposure to your dog’s trigger

Once your dog has built confidence with you, it’s time to expose them to their trigger in a controlled environment. This is always best done with a qualified dog trainer, to avoid making the problem worse.

Arm yourself with a bag of their favourite treats or an enticing toy and start with a very small exposure to their trigger.

For example, if your dog is afraid of plastic bags, you could hold the bag in your hand, and treat them with the other, repeating until they are able to manage having the bag touch them whilst receiving treats – this way, they will start to associate the bag with treats and good things.

If they are afraid of strangers or other dogs, you’ll need to go even slower. For example, you could start by introducing your dog to their trigger by smell alone at first, treating calm behaviour. This can be followed by seeing their trigger with a barrier in between for safety, again treating calm behaviour. Don’t progress onto the next step until your dog is consistently demonstrating that they are comfortable and non-confrontational around their particular trigger.

Visit your vet

If you’ve exhausted all options, including speaking to a dog behaviourist, it may be time to discuss the issues with your vet. They will be able to rule out any medical issues that could be causing, or contributing to, your dog’s fearfulness. They may be able to prescribe appropriate medication and make recommendations for coping with your dog’s fear.

Dalmatian wearing a PitPat

What are dogs afraid of?

Dogs can be afraid of all sorts of things – from vacuum cleaners to strangers. Their fear usually stems from poor socialisation and habituation and can develop at any time in their life. Common fears include:

  • Strangers
  • Other dogs
  • Loud noises (such as fireworks and vacuum cleaners)
  • Fear of the vets and veterinary treatment
  • Separation anxiety

How can I tell if my dog is afraid of something?

Fear in dogs can manifest in a few different ways. This can include:

  • Tucking their tail between their legs
  • Pulling their ears back
  • Licking their lips or nose
  • Yawning
  • Whale eyeing (wide eyes showing the whites of their eyes)
  • Snarling
  • Seeking you out for comfort
  • Hiding
  • Pacing
  • Panting
  • Trembling
  • Bolting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Salivation
  • Barking
  • Aggression
  • Urination
  • Defecation
  • Stiff or frozen posture

Should you use a muzzle for dogs that display fear aggression?

If your dog displays aggression related to fear or anxiety a muzzle can be an excellent tool that will keep them safe. However, you absolutely need to undertake muzzle training – your dog needs to associate their muzzle with positive experiences and this needs regular reinforcement. Contact your local qualified dog behaviourist to get started with muzzle training so you can use it properly and safely. 

Does exercise help with fear?

Exercise may be a relief from anxiety and fear in many dogs. Try to ensure your dog gets plenty of exercise every day by using a PitPat dog activity monitor to measure how much they are getting. When exercising them, take them to areas without too many of their triggers to ensure it’s an enjoyable experience. Dog’s that have had enough exercise tend to be more responsive to training, so after a walk is a good time to work on their skills.

If you’re ready to help your dog on their way to a happier life, make a start by getting them a PitPat dog activity monitor for just £39. With the clear benefits of exercise for frightened dogs, knowing your dog is getting their fair share is a key tool in your arsenal, and will help keep them healthy.

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