You realize your dog is fearful. You want her to get better, but could you also be making the problem worse? Unfortunately, this situation is all too common. Here are five ways you could accidentally be making your dog’s fear worse.
Waiting to Treat It
You hope your dog will “outgrow” the problem. Fear doesn’t just evaporate, however. It can get worse as your dog gets older.
I once had a client whose Dachshund had a fear-aggression problem. Toby was 9 years old, but on assessment I learned he had been fearful since he was 8 weeks old. Over the years, he had bitten multiple family members. When people would visit, he would lunge, growl, and bark at them, often nipping at their ankles when they turned away.
The family had been dealing with this issue for years, so what made them finally call me? The dog bit their daughter’s friend. It was only then they decided to get help.
If they had called me when Toby was a puppy, the outcome could have been more promising. After nine years, Toby had developed entrenched opinions about what scared him. I ended up counseling the family on keeping Toby away from visitors behind multiple barriers for safety. I explained we could continue with behavior modification, but Toby now had habits that would be challenging to fix. They chose to keep Toby away from people and not pursue additional training.
Don’t wait. Get help as soon as you can!
Punishing Her for Telling You She’s Afraid
Your stressed dog can’t discuss her feelings with you. The only way she can tell you she’s afraid is through her behavior. If she growls due to fear, this is a good thing; she’s giving you a valuable warning.
I love a dog who growls at me. Thank you! Thank you for telling me you’re afraid and you want me to back off, rather than just biting me.
If you punish your dog for growling, you’re addressing the symptom, not the problem. If your dog is scared of men, and a man approaches her and she growls, don’t punish her for that. Respect her fear and help her be less afraid. Yelling at her for growling isn’t going to make her love men more.
Forcing Her to Confront Her Fears
Your dog fears other dogs, so you figure you’ll take her to a dog park so she can get used to them. This won’t help, because you’re putting her in an overwhelming situation. The technical term for this is “flooding,” and it can seriously backfire. Let’s say spiders give you the creeps. I pour a bucket of spiders all over you. Do you love them now? Not likely! You’re also not a big fan of me for doing that to you.
The best way for a dog to overcome fear is at her own pace, starting with easier situations and gradually working up to more challenging ones.
Pushing Her Too Fast
Just like you don’t want to flood your dog, you don’t want to try and speed up the process faster than your dog can adapt. Did she finally take a treat from a stranger? Great! Don’t expect that she is cured. If you try to accelerate the process, you could set your dog back farther.
Hiring the Wrong Person
Not every canine professional is well versed in dealing with fearful dogs. If you hear a trainer talk about how your dog is “dominant” and she’ll improve if you are “alpha,” look elsewhere. If the trainer wants to use a shock collar, prong collar, or choke chain on your dog, know that these tools can increase fear and reactivity. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior states: “Punishment has been shown to increase the likelihood of aggressive behavior in many species. Animals in which the punishment does not immediately suppress the behavior may escalate in their efforts to avoid the punishment to the point where they become aggressive. Those who already show aggressive behavior may exhibit more intense and injurious aggressive behaviors.”
Find an experienced, qualified, reward-based trainer to help you. Your veterinarian may also recommend you see a veterinary behaviorist.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.