Fear & Anxiety: Be the change your dog needs

Scott McGuinness

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Today is Halloween, an occasion which is becoming increasingly popular here in Australia and arguably the spookiest day of the year. So we thought, what a perfect opportunity to discuss ‘fear’ & ‘anxiety’ in our dogs.

Fear & anxiety are natural feelings we all go through, whether human or canine. These feelings are necessary and are what helps us to grow and flourish as individuals. The problem we want to talk about today is that upon showing signs of fear, too many dogs are then no longer exposed to what stresses or scares them.

Did your dog have a bad experience last time they went to the beach? The common solution is to simply not go back to the beach, but while this may be the easiest way to resolve the issue, is it the best way? When owners do this they remove the dog’s ability to build confidence and develop emotionally. In turn this creates more fear and anxiety based behaviours, resulting in the owner and dog’s quality of life together not being as fulfilling as it should be. By not resolving the issue with your dog you are setting a precedent, not only does your dog not resolve that specific issue, they also don’t develop the ability to cope with future anxiety causing situations.

You might have some friends that can’t have guests at their house, or have to stay at home if a thunderstorm is forecast. This could be a sign that their dog has existing fear or anxiety based behaviours, and is not a healthy way to live for the owner or the dog

Avoidance is not the answer

Stress and fear behaviours should not be ignored and they should not be masked. Rather, they should be faced so that the dog can conquer it’s fears and lead a happier and more stable life.

It can often be argued that some dogs do not suffer from anxiety issues, anxiety just being a label the owner has put on their dog’s terrible manners and behaviour. We often have highly stressed and nervous owners dropping their dog off for boarding and this rubs off on the dog, making them feel the same. Once the owner leaves the dog comes out of its shell and has the opportunity to flourish, explore and be the dog they want to be. We need to give our dogs much more credit for their intelligence and ability to adapt.

It is important to remember that there are, of course, some extreme cases of dogs suffering from crippling fear and anxiety, however, in most cases, these are still treatable with education, compassion, and time. Instead of spending our dog’s lives labelling, misdiagnosing or being disappointed with their behavioural conditions, be proactive and give your pooch a better life by seeking professional advice from a dog behaviour specialist. (like us 😉 )

How do you react?

How do you know if your dog has fear or anxiety based issues? Well try these questions, and if you answer yes then think about what you are doing to help resolve these issues.

  • Is your dog scared of thunder? – What are you doing to resolve this?
  • Is your dog terrified of the vet clinic or groomers? – How can you help relieve this fear?
  • Does your dog not like men? Hats? People with beards? – What active steps are you taking to ignite change?
  • Does your dog freak out each New Years Eve due to fireworks? – what are you doing over the next 364 days of the year to prepare?

We are in an age where some amazing technologies and techniques are around to assist us with these issues. Have you downloaded the Sound Proof Puppy Training app (Apple or Android) yet? Why not play the sound of fireworks at a low level as your dog enjoys its dinner, plays a game with you or performs some training? Why not try to slowly increase the volume or proximity of the sound to the dog?

What can you do?

Here are some quick points on dealing with your dogs ‘fear’ and ‘anxiety’…

  1. Seek the assistance of a qualified and experienced dog trainer/ behaviour expert.
  2. Have a clear understanding of your training program, follow it closely and train frequently
  3. Research and understand key elements of dealing with fear, such as ‘critical distance’ & ‘counter conditioning’. Ask your trainer/ behaviour expert. If they do not know what this is, find another.
  4. Take your time, this is not a race and trying to push your animals too far too quick can be detrimental if it goes wrong.
  5. Medication should ONLY be used in conjunction with an appropriate training program. Medication alone only masks behaviour rather than helping to change it, your dog will only spend its time on medication not feeling itself and possibly making the behaviours worse.
  6. You must remain calm and confident, and need to stop labelling your pet with a medical condition – Be the change your dog needs.
  7. Work on your relationship with your dog. Focus on engagement, growing your bond with your dog is the first step to them learning to trust you enough to work on their anxiety issue with you. Start by teaching a simple and fun trick to kickstart the process.

Fear and anxiety can be treated through training and behaviour modification programs. Allowing your dog to suffer from even the lowest of anxiety or fearful behaviour is unfair on your dog and those around you. Take the first step in changing your dogs behaviours, address it now, it is never ‘too late’, call your trainer.

Below is a short video of Betty the Cairn Terrier, one of our recent ‘board and train’ guests. Betty stayed with us to work on some unwanted behaviours, confidence issues and some underlying anxiety. We spent a lot of time working on Bettys confidence and ability to maintain her composure during uncertain times.