We all appreciate how delightful it is to watch a dog waltz confidently through life, with bad experiences bouncing off as if it was wearing body armour. These resilient dogs are trustworthy, easy going and a joy to have around. But for those whose puppy quivers at the sound of a truck coming down the road, balks at rubbish bags on the street and runs a mile at every loud noise, life can be very stressful indeed.
While there are many influences that shape a dog the biggest is the dog's environment, followed by complex combination of genetics and socialisation to make up your dog’s behaviour.
When it comes to dog training, we’re firm advocates of prevention being better than cure! Therefore, the best option is to expose your dog to a range of different situations as young as possible. In doing this, potential scare factors, such as a person in a large floppy hat, will become the norm. If you see fearful behaviour in your dog this should be an excuse to expose your pup to more situations, not less. Don’t fall into the trap of avoiding things your dog is frightened of. The behaviour won’t go away on its own – you need to actively work on rectifying the problem.
Don’t get too hung up on the big ‘why’ question. ‘Why is my dog scared of sirens?’ or ‘why is my dog afraid of skateboards?’ The answer is often that we don’t really know. We can certainly hypothesise about the causes of behaviour, but focusing on changing the behaviour is far more effective in helping your dog to overcome their fears.
We often use affection to give confidence to our loved ones, but if you cuddle your dog, pat it, or even talk to it when it’s scared, you will reward the behaviour and reinforce its fear – the exact opposite of what you want! A better way to deal with your dog’s fear is to recognise fearful behaviour and remain tight-lipped and keep your hands at your side. Watch your dog carefully and when it begins to relax, then give it praise telling it what a wonderful dog it is.
For those dogs displaying fearful behaviour, we strongly recommend using the technique of Classical Conditioning. This method retrains a dog to have positive feelings towards a feared item or situation. The easiest way to create this positive association is by using food. Avoid giving your dog food unless in the presence of the feared environment or object. For example, if your dog is scared of children, only feed it in their presence. When children go away, so does the food. You’ll need to arrange exposure to lots of children as you don’t want to starve your dog!
If your dog won’t take any food at all when in these circumstances, this indicates how stressed they are. Small steps are the key to success, so start off with the feared object far away and slowly decrease the distance as your dog shows more confidence. A little training every day will ensure your dog progresses in leaps and bounds, looking forward to the very things that once had it running for cover.
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