Tag Archives: fearful dogs

Fearful dogs and how to help them

When you have a fearful dog, it’s awful to feel powerless to help. For the Fourth of July this year we sent a wish on social media hoping that all of your neighborhoods would be calm and quiet. We’ve seen too many friends post about how awful the fireworks were this year to believe that wish came true.

So we’re looking at some of the most-mentioned dog fears hoping it will help. If your dog struggles with loud noises, like fireworks and thunder, there’s plenty of time before the next Independence Day to work on it.

Make it rewarding

Sound seems to be the number one fear most people mention when it comes to their dogs. Both thunder and fireworks are enough to send some dogs running down to the basement. 

One tactic is to pay a visit to your dog’s vet and get some calming medications and/or supplements to help your dog deal with the noises. While you know July 4th will be loud, thunderstorms aren’t quite as predictable, so plan ahead. Discuss it with your veterinarian, listen to the forecasts, and get the soothers into your dog ahead of time.

If your dog’s noise phobia isn’t severe enough to medicate, try making a game out of noise. Have a stash of treats on hand and give one to your dog whenever there’s a particularly loud “Boom!” In time, your dog will associate treats with loud noises and may not mind so much. 

If there are no storms in the forecast, you can simulate them with sounds on your phone, or a loud action movie. This may not work as well. Dogs seem to know the real thing from the fakes, but it may be worth a try.

Car quakes

Getting into, out of, and riding in the car is also high on the list of dog fears. That’s a shame, because going places with your dog opens up so many possibilities.

Picture of a small brown dog in a car window to illustrate Fearful dogs

If your dog won’t get in the car, practice when you don’t actually have to go anywhere. Get as close to the car as your dog is still comfortable. Talk to them in the vicinity, every once in a while giving them a treat. Gradually work your way closer. The most successful training is taken at your dog’s pace. 

Over the course of a few days or even weeks, accustom your dog to walking around the car, getting treats, and being calm. Do it with the doors open and shut, and only for a couple of minutes at a time. If your dog is fine around the car, but still won’t get in, move ahead.

With the door open, put a treat in the car. Put it on the door frame, on the floor, or on the seat. Let the dog get the treat and get right back out if they want to. Do it a couple of times, then be done for that day. When your dog is comfortable getting in and out, move on.

The next step, again working at the dog’s level of comfort, is to get the dog hooked up to their seatbelt leash or car seat. At first, just hook them up, then unhook and let them get out of the car. After a couple times, be done for the day.

The next steps will look similar. Take it slowly, only try a couple of times per session, and don’’t force the dog. You’ll go at your dog’s pace. Make each step a different session: hook them up, shut the door, you get in, turn the car on and off, move the car a little, go around the block, etc. 

Step by step

Most dogs will get over their fears if given the chance to get used to the circumstances. This even holds true for dogs who actually do get car sick. It’s not fear of getting sick that makes your dog hate the car. It’s the intense fear of the car making them sick. 

The old adage “familiarity breeds contempt” may not be exactly applicable, but it’s close. Familiarity will let your dog sail through these formerly-trying situations. Fran’s Boston Terrier Simon used to get terribly car sick. That put a damper on going to classes, trialing, and neighborhood jaunts. It took a few weeks, but now he jumps right into his place in the car and is a perfect travel companion. 

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Changing your dog’s mind

Changing your dog’s mind about something can be challenging. Lots of people are convinced that their dogs are “stubborn,” or uncooperative, or obstinate.

“My dog hates the sound of Velcro.”

“She won’t tolerate anything going over her head.”

“He wiggles too much to step into a harness.”

We get it. Dogs have definite likes and dislikes. But you can change their mind. All it takes is a little patience and a lot of treats. 

Why not let your dog choose?

Just last week we talked about how much fun it was to let our dogs be “in charge” of an outing. And it is, on occasion, a great idea. But just as you wouldn’t let a human toddler choose all aspects of life, the dog doesn’t get to decide, either. 

If you want, or need, your dog to wear a certain type of harness, you may need to train them to accept it. If you’d really like your dog to wear the no-escape Wrap-N-Go, but your dog is afraid of hook-and-loop tape, what do you do?

Get accustomed

Dogs love routine. They love schedules. They don’t tend to like what’s new and different. So the first step in changing your dog’s mind about anything is to make it a normal part of life. 

Say your dog is an eager eater and loves nothing better than meals. While your dog is eating, play with some hook-and-loop tape. The sound will be associated with something your dog loves, rather than something scary. If your dog is so scared of the sound that he/she stops eating, move farther away. As your dog gets used to the sound and is able to ignore it, move gradually closer. In time your dog will realize there’s no threat.

Changing your dog's mind about hook-and-loop tape

If your dog isn’t crazy about meals, you do have other options for training your dog to get used to the sound. Think of something that your dog values highly – whether it’s a toy, or a chewie, or a particular treat. If you open the hook-and-loop tape while your dog is playing with a favorite toy, you’ll change your dog’s opinion. Just as if every time you rip the hook-and-loop tape open a little, you give your dog a special treat. Premium treats (Chicken Heart Treats, pieces of cheese or hot dog) will make it a sound your dog loves, rather than a source of fear.

Over the head

The same thing goes if your dog is afraid of something going over his/her head. Taking it slowly, rewarding heavily, and changing the experience into a good time makes all the difference. Just show the dog the harness and reward for looking at it, sniffing it, any interaction. Then put the harness over your arm and use that hand to give a treat. When the dog is okay with that, bring the harness closer, eventually over your hand. When your dog is okay with touching the harness to get the treat, you can gradually move it closer so it’s touching your dog. In time, it will become normal and routine.

No surprises

Dogs are adaptable and their love for you will get them to try anything you want. As long as you introduce new or scary things gradually, and never try to fool them, your dog will keep trying. 

French Bulldog Teddy learning "high five"

Dog Tip – Change your life in two minutes with PRT

I (Hope) was on the phone with a customer this morning and she said something that really surprised me. I don’t remember her exact words, but the gist was her dog couldn’t be trained. And she really believed it!

To back up a couple of steps, we were talking about choosing the best harness for her dog, a young Miniature Pinscher that’s a bit wild, fearful, and uncomfortable around other dogs.

We decided that the best harness would be the Wrap-N-Go – it’s the one we recommend for dogs who try to escape. In addition to other issues, her dog is also an extreme wiggler. Her only hesitation was that her dog is also afraid of the sound hook-and-loop closures (trade name Velcro) make. It’s not an uncommon problem, so I said “well, you can train her to get used to the velcro.”

I was completely taken aback by her “I can’t train her. It wouldn’t work. She’s untrainable.”

We know that no healthy dog is untrainable. And we need a new word for “train.”

Whenever we think about it – the word “training” has some unfortunate baggage attached. When I think about training, I equate it with exercise and working out. Which I loathe.

So do people think of “dog training” the same way? Unpleasant, frustrating, hard work that accomplishes nothing quickly?

If that’s the case – we absolutely, positively, definitely need a new word to use instead of training.

Especially since, when I explained what I meant by “training her dog” to get used to Velcro, she turned right around and said, “Oh, I can do that! That’s easy!”

Dog training is easy. And fun. And doesn’t take long – just a couple minutes at a time. How long results take depend on the dog and how consistent you are – but if it’s not pretty fun, you’re doing it wrong.

To train your dog to get used to Velcro:
Put on your dog’s collar (or harness) and leash
Grab a handful of treats
Sit on the floor with a velcro something – it doesn’t matter what
Give the dog the entire length of the leash – don’t “make” him/her do anything
Start playing with the velcro. Every time it makes a noise, give the dog a cookie.
If the dog isn’t in arm’s reach, toss the treat to him/her
Keep doing it.
If the dog approaches, give even more treats.
When you’re out of treats, the session is over.

Don’t say anything to the dog. Nothing. Not “come here.” Not “it’s okay, sweetie.” Nothing.
Soon your dog will decide that only good things happen when he/she hears Velcro.

It’s almost miraculous how quickly dogs will learn how to get treats. And in the process, you’re both having a little bit of fun (it’s incredibly fun to watch your dog figure things out), you’re spending time with your dog, and your dog is learning to trust you and figuring out how to get what he/she wants.

The same technique can be used to teach your dog just about anything. Give them the opportunity to figure stuff out. Your dog is smart – he/she will get it! And that’s Positive Reinforcement training (PRT)!

Dog Tip Tuesday – Turn up the noise! Desensitize your dog to any sound

The world can be a scary, noisy place. Especially if you don’t understand what’s going on.

New puppy owners tend to “Shhhh! The puppy’s sleeping!”

Don’t give in to the temptation! Keep household noises at maximum! Let the puppy get used to everyday noises. Puppies
will look at other family members (both human and canine) to decide how to react. If they see that nobody’s bothered by
the vacuum, or the leaf blower outside, or the dishwasher, or even the Dremel tool – they’ll learn to relax, too.

If you have a dog that’s already hesitant or fearful of certain noises, the next part of the equation is to associate the sound with something pleasant. One of the most common fears we hear about is the sound of Velcro. Many dog coats and harnesses use hook-and-loop (trade name Velcro) fastenings, and dogs may be afraid of the sound.

Treats or toys can really help. Have some treats on hand and anything with a Velcro fastener. Pull on the Velcro and give the dog a treat. If your pup is hesitant, give it some distance. If another person is with you, have that person step back a bit and make the Velcro sound again. Give the dog a treat. If you don’t have anyone else around, you step back and toss the tidbit to your dog as you make the sound. If your dog prefers toys to treats – toss a ball, or play tug while you’re making noise with the Velcro material.

Don’t attempt to put anything on the dog, or “make” him go near the thing that frightens him. Give the dog the distance he needs to be comfortable. Forcing a dog into proximity with something that scares him/her won’t help, it magnifies the issue.

Also resist the temptation to coddle the dog or sympathize with his fear. It’s time for your pup to “put on his big boy pants,” even if it’s just a little bit at a time.

After about five repetitions with the Velcro noise, or any other noise sensitivity that needs to be overcome, put it away and try again another time.

Push your dog’s tolerance each session, a little bit at a time. Come a bit closer. Make the sound a few extra times. Eventually you should be able to make the sound right next to the dog, or even hide that toy inside a Velcro pouch. That’s what happened with one dog I know – a complete turnaround. Instead of being afraid of Velcro, he thinks it’s the greatest sound in the world, because it means he gets his favorite toy!