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Spooked and Startled: How to Desensitize Your Dog to its Fears

Veterinarian Reviewed by Dr. Janice Huntingford, DVM on August 2, 2018
Posted in Behavior Management

In many ways, raising a dog is like raising a child. There’s more to it than giving your dog food, water and exercise each day—you also have to teach them and make sure they’re learning how to behave properly. This includes everything from house training them to making sure they don’t chew on things that don’t belong to them.

It’s also important to teach your dog not to be afraid of certain things. Depending on your pup’s personality, it may have an inclination to be timid or fearful by nature. Whippets and pugs, for example, tend to be skittish and flighty, while breeds like rottweilers and boxers may react defensively in fear or bark aggressively at something that intimidates them.

Understanding what provokes fear in your pooch and how they deal with it will help you teach them how to overcome their fears and behave appropriately.

Common fears for your pup

Like people, dogs can have all different types of fears that are largely dependent on their personality. For example, loud noises or sudden movements can cause us to jump and might startle our dogs equally as much. Similarly, things our dogs perceive to be threats can also scare them even if the threat is imagined—just like a person might be afraid of clowns or spiders. There are also natural fears a dog may have that are built in to their genetics, such as a fear of bigger dogs or a inclination to fear fire.

While the list of possible frights may be infinite, there are a few common fears that many dogs share. Take a look at a few of the most prevalent triggers that may send your dog into a panic:

  • Loud noises like fireworks, doors slamming or clapping
  • Weather anomalies, such as thunder, howling winds or torrential rain
  • Bigger animals or people that approach them aggressively
  • Separation from owners or unfamiliar places
  • Strangers or people the dog perceives as intimidating

Most of these common fears are rooted in your dog’s ‘fight or flight’ response. They cause fear and, depending on the breed, the dog will react naturally to protect itself—whether that means running away or standing up to fight.

Desensitization tactics

Some fears are good to have. It’s probably a good thing your dog is afraid of fire, for example, otherwise it might end up accidently burning itself at your next cookout! These fears exist for a reason.

Other fears aren’t always necessary, however, and they could provoke unwanted behavior from your dog. For example, if your dog is scared of strangers and snaps at them when they approach, your pup may be labelled as aggressive—even if that’s not their nature. This could mean not being able to take it to the dog park or worse, an incident where the dog nips at someone and accidently bites them.

To prevent these situations from arising, it’s important to desensitize your pup. By dulling their perception of a threat, you can instill better behaviors in them, helping them to react more appropriately in certain situations. Every unique fear will require a different approach to desensitization, but there are some common underlying themes that can prove useful for downplaying your dog’s phobias:

  • Overexposure is a great way to desensitize a dog. Through repeated exposure with no bad consequences, your dog will slowly learn that their fears aren’t warranted. An example would include taking your dog on lots of car rides, to show them that new places aren’t scary.
  • Comforting during times of fear can show your dog that everything is going to be okay. For example, having a safe space for your dog when a thunderstorm rolls in and staying with them during the storm will show them that even though they’re afraid, they’re going to be okay.
  • Positive reinforcement is a classic tactic for helping dogs transform their fears into routines. A great example of this is rewarding your dog for exhibiting good behavior even when they’re afraid, such as sitting and not snapping when meeting new people. Verbal praise is also a vital component of positive reinforcement.
  • Set the example for your dog to show them there’s no reason to be afraid. Dogs often learn through allelomimetic behavior, which means they imitate the behavior of a leader or authority figure. If you, their owner, don’t have fear and show them there’s no reason to be afraid, your dog may adopt this behavior themselves.

These tactics don’t work for every dog or every situation, but could be effective in helping to develop better behaviors for your pup when they’re afraid. You may not be able to get them totally over their fear of strangers, but you might be able to get them to stop growling or nipping, for example—and that could make all the difference.

Read also: If Your Cat Has Started Hiding, It’s Important to Understand Why

Our Expert

Dr. Janice Huntingford
Janice Huntingford, DVM, has been in veterinary practice for over 30 years and has founded two veterinary clinics since receiving her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. She has studied extensively in both conventional and holistic modalities. Ask Dr. Jan

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