Conquering fears and phobias... some dogs are fearful.
Is your dog afraid of things?
Some dogs are fearful, and others are phobic…and there’s a difference between fears and phobias. Fears can be worked with and possibly get better but phobias can only be managed. Canine fears and phobias vein out to feed so many underlying behavioral issues.
Domestic dogs have adapted quite well to life alongside human beings; however, dogs perceive the world differently than we do. The modern human world has the potential to be an unpredictable, scary place for the average dog! It is our responsibility to help our dogs develop the coping skills needed to deal with our world. Here are some socialization exercises you can start working on with your dog.
How to desensitize
The best treatment is systematic desensitization. Start by applying a very weak stimulus, then gradually increase the strength. For example, with a phobia or fear of fireworks or thunder, start by playing a tape recording of fireworks at a low volume and then gradually increase the volume. You can find online recordings of thunder, fireworks and other sounds to help desensitize your dog.
Another way of desensitizing is counter conditioning. It works by asking your dog to do an obedience command, for example, a down stay, then start the stimulus very weak and reward the dog with food for maintaining the down stay. Only reward the dog for the desired behavior. If a dog is doing one behavior, then they can’t do the undesirable behavior at the same time. Increase the stimulus slowly and do consistent exercises to help conquer the fear.
Fears usually develop from lack of socialization as a puppy. If a dog is not exposed to different sounds, surfaces, environments, objects and people, it’s easy for them to have a fear of the unknown. After your dog is fully vaccinated you should do an exercise called “7-7-7.”
The exercise slowly exposes your puppy to various objects and people. Everything is paired with positive motivation, whether it is food, toys or anything that is a positive motivator for your dog. You have to introduce your dog to 7 different sized humans, 7 different surfaces, 7 different environments and 7 sounds at different levels of loudness, 7 different objects and different types of movement.
The first “7” is seven different size humans. For example; have a small child just walk pass the puppy at a distance and toss some food at the puppy and keep going. Then repeat it. By the time the child is close enough to meet the puppy, it will have associated a child with good things. Pairing the child with food makes the child more desirable.
Allow your dog to meet as many different kinds of people as possible: young children, tall men with deep voices, elderly people with canes or walkers, people in wheelchairs, people of different ethnicities, people wearing large hats or long jackets, men with bushy beards, etc. If your dog shows any reluctance to greet someone, do not force him to greet them. Instead, ask the person to stand sideways, and toss treats to your dog. Your dog should be allowed to approach at his own pace.
The second “7” is seven different surfaces. If your puppy is not socialized to sand, then at age two when you visit the beach and he steps on this hot sinking surface he may think he is on a different planet and then might exhibit unwanted behavior. Besides having a dog get used to different surfaces, I also make them eliminate on different surfaces (except concrete or any flooring). The reason for that is a dog should be able to eliminate on bark, pine straw, sand, mud etc. so when you’re traveling your dog will eliminate on whatever surface is around.
This will keep you from having to travel with pine straw or a square of grass. Some dogs will imprint on one type of surface and only eliminate on that surface. You should allow your dog to walk on as many different kinds of surfaces as possible. Encourage your dog to walk on grass, gravel, pavement, wood and linoleum floors (shiny surfaces), warm sand, snow, pebbly brooks, puddles, etc.
The third set of “7” is different environments. I slowly take puppies (once fully immunized) to warehouses, dog parks, soccer games and other environments. If a dog is well-socialized to change and different environments, then in the future when they experience these environments it becomes no big deal.
When I take my dog or puppy to a new environment I do it slowly. When the dog is comfortable then I move forward into the environment. I pair new places with good treats and then once they are fully comfortable in the environment, I fade the food out and always keep the praise coming.
The fourth “7” is sound desensitization. Puppies and dogs who live inside all the time might build a fear to normal everyday sounds, including traffic noises, horns, rollerbladers, etc. Dogs can be sensitive to sounds, especially vibrational sounds (fireworks, thunder, large trucks, emergency vehicles, or trains going by).
Expose your dog to a variety of sounds, either by going online and finding videos or recordings of various sounds (children laughing, babies crying, cars honking, dogs barking, sounds of construction, etc.), or by randomly causing sound in your home by knocking on walls, dropping objects, ringing the doorbell. Take your dog to different environments that produces vibrational noises like (at a distance) a Harley motorcycle dealership and a FedEx docking station to desensitize to truck vibrational noises etc. Remember to do everything at a distance so you can systematically desensitize your dog.
The fifth “7” is objects. Acquaint your dog with a variety of strange objects like cardboard boxes stacked in the middle of a room, furniture turned on its side, blown-up balloons (they move very oddly), open umbrellas, mechanical toys that move or make noise, a wind-up toy placed in a plastic bag that will make rustling noises when it moves, orange safety cones on the street, bicycles, vacuum cleaners, flags blowing in the wind, etc. If your dog is hesitant to approach an object, surround the object with yummy treats, and encourage the dog to approach at his own pace.
The sixth “7” is movement. This is for dogs with different drives like herding drives, chase drives, play drives and prey drives. You have to teach a dog how to have coping skills in excitement and movement. You should place yourself strategically near a soccer game. The ball will move, people will move, banners will move. Keep your dog at a distance where he isn’t reactive then slowly bring him closer and closer to the movement. Every time he becomes comfortable at a distance, shorten the distance.
Remote control toys are great to teach dogs social skills to movement but be careful not to scare your dog! Flags make noise and move. Many dogs are reactive to flags and balloons blowing in the wind, especially if they are not socialized to that type of movement. There may be a large blow-up cylinder with arms moving in front of new businesses that might be having a grand opening. Have the dog see that at a distance and move closer once they are comfortable. This is a great tool but remember to do this ONLY at a distance.
You should continue these exercises throughout the life of the dog! A well-socialized dog has the coping skills and the confidence to deal with whatever life might throw at him and makes for a happier owner!
Fears and phobias can be frustrating, but with some smart tools, you can learn to manage them and make life easier for you and your dog.
Susie Aga, Atlanta Dog Trainer
Susie Aga is a Certified Canine Behavior & Training Specialist. She has 20 years’ experience and is recommended by over 45 veterinarians in the Metro Atlanta area. Susie has two rescue dogs of her own and donates much of her time to rescue organizations. You can truly say her life has gone to the dogs and that’s just the way she wants it!