Balloons. Life-size talking robots. Remote-controlled drones and cars. When new toys join the household during the holidays and see action months later, they’re all fun and games for adults and children. For dogs, it’s another story. Here’s how to help them stay calm amid the buzzing sounds and flashing lights.
Action Figure Fright
While some dogs take the clatter of a skateboard careening down the sidewalk, the crash of a hydraulic mini-truck falling to the floor, or the skitter of an electronic pet dancing across the room all in stride, others may not feel as relaxed.
Fast-moving toys and robotics for children, as well as for some adults, won’t go away any time soon. Schools teach STEM activities (science, technology, engineering, and math skills), and kids want to engage with them at home.
For dogs who lack exposure to objects that light up, screech odd sounds, or make sudden movements, encountering such toys can be a nerve-racking and scary experience. It’s possible, though, to defuse your dog’s toy terror and keeping her from diving under a table, shaking with fear, barking uncontrollably, or aggressively grabbing at toys.
The following tips will ease the tension and help your dog feel safe when electronic, pop-up, and other toys come out for playtime.
From Fear To Relief
Depending on the level of your dog’s fear of noisy, moving toys, getting her to realize they won’t hurt her can take some time and patience. As much as you would like your dog to stop growling or shaking and to feel okay with the ruckus, you can’t rush her feelings. You may need to repeat the ways you calm your dog several times before her reaction changes.
Resist the urge to panic yourself, as this only intensifies your dog’s sense of worry. Dogs pick up cues from their owners about scary situations.
Instead, try to respond the way you normally interact with her. Comfort her and let her know she’s not in danger. If you normally use petting or massage to calm your dog and it works, try repeating these activities–but with caution. If the only time you tell your dog, “It’s okay,” and try to soothe her nerves is when in her mind it is not okay, your change in behavior might intensify her fear.
Avoid shoving toys at your dog or letting the kids prank her with toys popping up in front of her. These attempts will only frighten her more.
Low And Slow
Try asking children to keep their play action on the quieter side. While no one expects kids to interact with their toys without making any noise at all, it’s reasonable to request they don’t scream or yell at the same time, as these sounds rev up a dog’s sense of fear.
“When your dog reacts negatively to toys, avoid yelling, scolding, or punishing,” says Bonnie Beaver, DVM, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist and professor at Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine. Dr. Beaver recommends using reward-based training and desensitization.
“Keep your reaction neutral and when no one is playing with the toys let your dog slowly explore them,” says Dr. Beaver. “Let her sniff, walk around them, and discover on her own what they’re all about.”
Teach your dog how to remain calm on cue. Use a calm tone and ask her to sit. This helps her to focus on you, rather than on the toys that trigger her fear reaction. Use this cue before the kids bring the toys out to play with them.
Once she sits, tell her a word or a short phrase such as “settle” or “okay,” and give her a small food treat. This gives her a way to relax when she hears this word or phrase and helps her associate receiving a positive response with the word or short phrase.
Remember to be consistent about using the same word or phrase and giving the reward. You’re giving her a treat for focusing on you rather than on the toys. Repeat this training often. The more practice sessions you put in, the better your dog’s chances of developing her own coping mechanism when she feels uneasy.