Do you like haunted houses and monster masks? It’s fun to be a little bit scared, but real fear is nothing to joke about. Last week, we covered how to recognize fear in your dog’s body language. Now we’ll begin to explore how to help your dog.
The cause of real fear varies for people and dogs. Your dog may be genetically more sensitive to new things. He may have a health issue that causes discomfort or pain, which makes him more worried about things which heretofore haven’t bothered him. He may have had a bad experience with a particular type of person or object.
Know that caring for your dog and helping him work through his fear is a unique process. It might be offering simple comfort, or as complicated as addressing the root cause of the fear.
Watch for health issues
If your dog has a sudden behavior change, the first thing I’m going to recommend is a trip to the veterinarian. Health affects behavior. Where new fearful behavior is concerned, pain or illness are often the causes. Usually we see this when the dog is generally showing signs of fear in a broad variety of contexts. He may be overall more sensitive than usual—reacting at noises, startling easily, growling or barking more frequently. Aren’t you more worried and grouchy when you don’t feel well? In addition, if your dog is elderly or has been injured, pain may well increase fear.
When your pup suddenly becomes fearful, do a careful and thorough nose to tail assessment. Take a gentle, but analytical look into his eyes. Peek at his teeth and gums. Sniff his mouth and ears. Run your hands through his fur and check carefully for sensitive areas. Watch your dog’s face all the while for indications of pain. Check his belly, back, legs, feet and tail.
If you do this on a daily basis, you’ll quickly ascertain changes when they happen. If there is no obvious physical reason for discomfort, your veterinarian may want to do bloodwork to check on invisible health conditions. Behavior always has a reason and a sudden change is most often a health issue unless there is a particular incident to explain the change.
Observe and track your dog’s behavior
Perhaps your dog’s fears are more specific and not an indication of any health concern. Now that you can read your dog’s body language, consider keeping a journal. When do you most observe the fear? Can you see a pattern? Are there many triggers or just one?
If there are a few triggers, take some time to think back from your dog’s perspective. Did a particular experience surrounding that trigger occur? Generalized fears with many triggers can be more complicated to change than fears toward a specific trigger, but knowing what the fears are caused by is a necessary step.
If your dog had a scary experience that resulted in a particular trigger, then you may be able to manage the environment. Say your dog once had a child trap him in a corner. Regardless of whether the child had good intentions or not, your dog could still fear children. If you notice any of the body language signs of fear in the presence of children, you could decide to keep your dog away from kids to avoid the fear. That means you walk the other way when children approach. You put your dog in a crate when the grandkids come to visit.
Here’s another example: Perhaps your dog is scared of men in hats and you are a woman who never wears hats. To prevent this trigger, you could ask all visitors to leave their hats on a rack outside your door. You could avoid places where your dog will see people in hats.
And this time of year, you would most certainly not let your dog welcome trick-or-treaters. You could instead put your dog in another room with a pile of packed, frozen kongs.
Sometimes you can avoid the fear-producing stimulus and sometimes you can’t. You may choose to keep your dog calm and comfortable simply by avoiding very scary things.
If you decide that they are unavoidable or you would like to work on your dog’s fears, we’ll cover some specific exercises in the next two weeks. Or you can contact us at behavior@whs4pets and I’ll design a custom plan to help you change your dog’s behavior. Meanwhile, I do hope you are planning on attending the WHS fundraiser, Bowser’s Boo Bash – the best Halloween party in Oregon (and not scary at all!)
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