When I first got a puppy, it was really important to me that I did absolutely everything right in raising her.
Needless to say, despite my good intentions, I did not do a perfect job of it. I tried. I researched a LOT and could rattle off all the “periods” a puppy goes through, how to handle each period, what needs to be done, what critical socialization has to happen…
I won’t say I did a totally terrible job. In fact, I might go so far to say that I did a very good job, especially for a first-time dog owner, and I constantly learned more and got better. But I didn’t know “it all” right from the start, and from what I’ve been told, every savvy dog owner says to themselves, “With my NEXT dog, I’ll do xyz and avoid what I did wrong with my last dog.” But of course, there’s always more to learn, and your new dog may be very different and present all-new challenges you hadn’t even thought of, so every dog will have to deal with our learning curve 🙂
I’m sorry to say that I don’t have any pictures of Betsy looking very scared, so here’s a few of her looking sassy instead.
The trickiest part as a dog owner is that there are a lot of conflicting opinions on the best way to raise a dog, both on the Internet and also just between trainers. I have trained with several different trainers, and while they all have a love of dogs and tend follow some common basic dog training principles, their methods and philosophies have also varied, sometimes to a huge degree. So as a dog owner, you have to navigate through all these philosophies and try to figure out what’s best.
An example of something that no one seems to agree on? What to do when your dog is scared.
Most commonly I hear these tips:
- Don’t comfort your dog, just ignore them
- Don’t comfort your dog, punish them (if you’re just skimming this article and not reading all the context: DO NOT DO THIS, THIS IS AN EXAMPLE OF A BAD THING TO DO)
- Don’t comfort your dog, distract them by playing with them and act like the scary thing is no big deal.
I hope we can agree that punishing your dog when they’re scared is inhumane and stupid and whoever thought that one up is a jerk. But what about the rest? And is “do not comfort your dog” really always the right approach?
Most of what I’m going to cover here is a mix of things I have read/heard from well-respected trainers, things I have read/heard from other dog owners whose opinions I respect, and my own personal experience. There’s not a lot of hard facts; no peer-reviewed studies to cite. I’m sorry. I’m hoping that you read this post and take from it what you will, read what others have to say, and make an educated decision about what’s right and what’s wrong.
To Start: Can we agree that there are different kinds of fears? A dog that pees itself in terror when a man comes to the door is different from a ten month old puppy in the middle of a fear period that jumps backwards nervously when it sees a recycling bin. A dog that is so scared of other dogs that it is severely leash reactive is different from a dog that is terrified of thunder and lightning. And so I think it makes sense that, depending on the fear, the approach might vary.
So what kind of approaches should we take?
The comforting approach
First of all: I do not think it is always wrong to comfort your dog when it’s scared. I think sometimes comforting your dog might be useless (if a dog is having a full blown leash reactivity session, I don’t think cuddling it sympathetically is really going to help) but I also think that it can help under the right circumstances.
I read a lot about the “do not comfort” rule and was told “do not comfort” by a lot of trainers, but I came around to the “comforting is ok” way of thinking thanks to the writing of some very excellent people: You can’t reinforce fear and Reducing fear in your dog are both written by Patricia McConnell, PhD, and attack the popular theory that comforting your dog is telling them that they are being good for being afraid. Suzanne Clothier, another well-respected dog trainer, agrees with Patricia. Stanley Coren, another dog trainer, talks here about a study done on dogs and the “safe haven effect” – granted, not about comforting your dog specifically, but about the comforting presence of an owner. Eileen, a prolific dog blogger who does her research and whose opinions I respect immensely has talked about this a few times as well.
When might I comfort my dog?
Here’s a real-life example that I would classify as comforting: Betsy used to be a bit nervous of horses. She hadn’t been around them much, but we had started doing agility training at a barn that had horses in it. I wouldn’t say her fear was extreme – she would watch them from a distance, clearly worried, but she never panicked. If we got too close for her liking, her tail would tuck and she’d start to look a bit more freaked out.
However, she was clearly much more comfortable around horses when she had me as a solid base. She would sit on my foot and watch them while I gently scratched her chest. She watched other humans come over to the horses and pet them, all while comfortably leaning on me, her safe person. I never forced her to interact with them, just let her watch and slowly decide for herself that they were nothing to worry about. She now mostly ignores horses, and I think she just needed time to get used to them, and I helped her with this by making her feel a bit safer when they were nearby.
Here’s another: Sometimes Betsy, who is very active, tweaks something when she’s running around having a good time. Her knee-jerk reaction is to come running over to me, bury her head in my lap, and let me rub the back of her neck gently in comfort. There’s no question that this comfort makes her feel better, and she’s usually happy to run off again and have fun a few minutes later. She just needed a bit of fussing over.
The jolly dog approach
A trainer I know had a fun example for this: If you’re a swim instructor and a child goes underwater accidentally and resurfaces close to panicked tears, a good way to “fix” it is, instead of fussing and potentially triggering the tears, play it up as no big deal by saying something like, “Woah that was awesome! You were totally underwater!! Nice job!!!” Which tends to pump them up and make them realize it wasn’t such a big deal after all.
When would this work for a dog? I’m not sure! I’ve tried it a few times in situations where something unpleasant happened to Betsy and I wanted to help her forget about it. Did it help? I couldn’t really tell. Possibly! I think it’s worth mentioning here, but I don’t have any solid examples of when it definitely worked for me.
Showing your dog it’s no big deal
This worked out really well for me when Betsy was a growing puppy. She was scared of all sorts of silly things – recycling bins, garbage bags, any unexpected strange object on the road would make her balk nervously.
I found the best way to help her through this was to bravely approach all scary objects and playfully kick/poke/walk all around them. At first, Betsy would cautiously approach the scary thing as well and slowly feel it out until she was sure it was safe. As time went on, Betsy became more and more quick to enjoy this as a game – she’d see a scary thing, I’d stride over and touch it confidently, then she’d rush over and poke it with her nose, not scared at all anymore.
As an adult nothing like this ever bugs her, so we never get to play this game anymore. Obviously I’m glad she’s more confident now, but I do miss seeing her expression of delight after overcoming a bit of nervousness.
Dealing with full-blown phobias
If your dog is really really scared of something, and not just a little unsure or rattled, these approaches are probably not going to do much for you on their own. Eileen has a ton of writing on helping fearful dogs feel safe so I’d like to link you to a few: Helping a Fearful Dog Feel Safe, You Can’t Cure MY Fear with Cookies (spoiler: you can), Successful Desensitization and Counterconditioning … and there’s even more similar posts on her blog if you’re interested. The Fenzi Dog Sports Academy also has a course called Dealing with the Bogeyman for dealing with fears in dogs 🙂
The key to helping a dog overcome big fears is patience, baby steps, and finding a professional to give you a hand.
So! That has been my experience with dealing with fears in dogs. I’m sure there’s so much more that could be said, so I’d love to hear from other people about their experiences 🙂