Everybody’s afraid of something. It may not be the level of a phobia, but we’ve all got them. So do most dogs. What scares your dog?
Torque, Hope’s French Bulldog, is afraid of stairs. He’s also afraid of being upside-down. No tummy rubs for Torque – ever! She freely admits most of it’s her own fault. She didn’t carry Torque around much when he was a puppy, because she carried her older Frenchie around too much. Teddy always wanted to be “uppy!”
Torque was more than six months old before he’d even attempt stairs. He also didn’t jump up on furniture for at least that long. And then his Auntie Pam and her very-attractive Frenchie girl Lily came over. And sat on the couch. Torque got the hang of it quickly that day. And he’s been a regular couch-potato ever since.
Dealing with dog fears
If there’s something that frightens your dog, how should you deal with it? Most people’s natural inclination is to make soothing sounds and pet their dogs. Unfortunately, it’s probably not the best thing to do.
To dogs, being sympathetic and rewarding them (petting is a reward) reinforces that the thing is, in fact, something to be scared of. It validates their feelings as accurate, and cements it as something to be wary of.
Instead, it’s a better idea to encourage your dog to try it, check it out, sniff it, and become familiar with the object. “Let’s go see!” is a better response than “Oh, poor baby!” If your dog is reluctant to approach the object, don’t force them. Instead, go over to it yourself and look at it, showing interest. You can even give your dog a treat for taking a step closer, and each closer approach.
If your dog is startled or afraid of something that’s heard and not seen, like thunder, you can still help them overcome the fear. The next time there’s a thunderstorm, have a bowl of your dog’s favorite snacks handy. Whenever you hear a peal of thunder, calmly hand your dog a treat. You don’t even have to say anything. Just associating the sound with the “cookie” will do the job.
Most dogs are pretty quick at “transferring the value.” If thunder means “I get a treat” instead of “the world is ending,” pretty soon thunderstorms won’t be a problem. It may take a few storms to figure it out, but you may be able to speed the process. If you can find a video or audio recording of thunder on your phone, you can “schedule” a storm to happen whenever you have a few minutes to train your dog.
Rewarding your dog for overcoming fear is a promise made. Hope has little bowls of treats at both ends of the stairs. Torque still isn’t crazy about them, but he’ll trundle up the stairs for that guaranteed treat that’s waiting for him.
He’s still afraid of rolling over on his back. We haven’t really tried to train him differently.
Torque had to learn to climb stairs by himself. At 28 pounds, there was no way we were going to carry him up and down forever. But aside from “roll over” being a cute trick, it’s not really a necessity.
Whatever scares your dog, your best option is to treat it casually. If it’s something to overcome, find a way to familiarize your dog with the frightening thing. We’ve all heard the old saw “familiarity breeds contempt.” And that’s just fine. We’d rather our dogs ignored stuff than were scared by them.