In today’s podcast, I’d like to discuss how to help your dog get over fear and anxiety, and the other barriers that sometimes set them back.
Today, I was working with a great client who came in with some of her teenage kids. She told me that the dog we were working with was the first dog she had ever picked up. As a baby, she’d been around a dog once or twice, but was so allergic that she’d gone the next thirty years without interacting with dogs at all. This was actually the first dog she’d picked up in her entire life.
I was truly fascinated by that. I know not everyone comes from a dog family—in fact, I didn’t come from a dog family—and that not everyone wants to be around dogs. But to meet someone who hadn’t touched a dog in so many years seemed strange and unique to me. Because this client was so allergic and hadn’t been able to be around dogs, she had developed a fear of them. She was from an area that is very dog-friendly, so there were always dogs everywhere. That was scary for her. So she overcome this fear with her dog had been tough. Her puppy was sweet, but very nippy. That just fed her fear even more.
This owner has done a great job, and I think that her family is in good shape with this dog. But this interaction reminded me of the fear that we see in dogs, which typically comes from inappropriate exposure or lack of exposure. Most dogs are afraid of other dogs because they haven’t had enough exposure, or because they exposure they did have involved being bullied or beaten up. Often a dog is afraid of loud noises because they haven’t heard them frequently. Lack of good exposure causes these fears and anxieties to set in. From there, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: the dog gets scared, so he runs away or barks and lunges, and then he doesn’t need to be afraid anymore. That’s how dogs learn to be fearful or aggressive. Dogs very rarely learn how to deal with fear and anxiety on their own. They need us to be a catalyst to help them work through this problems. There is a simple term that I use to discuss this issue: structured exposure.
A lot of people think that they should address their dog’s fears by forcing him to be around them. They take a dog that’s afraid of dogs to the park, a dog that’s afraid of kids to a play date, and so on. That’s exposure, but exposure by itself will usually set the dog backwards and make them more afraid of that thing. The dog didn’t have the tools to deal with their fear to begin with, and exposing him to more doesn’t magically give him those tools. Very rarely a dog will pop out of it through sheer adrenaline, but not often. It’s unlikely that your dog will develop those tools on his own.
It’s far better to expose your dog to the thing that he is afraid of in a structured way. That structure comes from two areas: the dog and the environment. The first thing you need is a good level of obedience in your dog, such that he will listen to you rather than his fear. You want obedience that will lead him to think, “I am afraid of people. That’s a person. But I’m respectful enough of your commands that I’m going to sit anyway.” This allows our dog to be under control, pay attention, and look to you for guidance.
On the other end, you also want the environment to be structured as well. If your dog is afraid of kids, then don’t let them manhandle your dog! Instead, set your dog up for success by showing the kids to stop and hold out their hands and let the dog sniff them. If you need structured exposure to other dogs, don’t go to the dog park. Go to your neighbor’s dog who is friendly and calm. You can build upon these first foundations later, but always remember that structured exposure is the key to properly socializing your dog and to getting rid of fear.