Recently a dog owner asked how she could help her dog who was fearful of strange noises such as fireworks or thunder.
Research this problem on the internet and you'll come across a lot of different views on the best way to combat fear, which range from distracting your dog, to using sedatives, but while you need to be able to cope with your dog while they are in a fearful state, what seems to be missing is long-term strategies that will reduce their fear or getting rid of it altogether. Here we look at both approaches.
What Triggers Dog Fear?
We don't always need to know where a fear came from to be able to deal with it effectively. Sometimes the socialization (or lack of it) of very young puppies can create nervous dogs and a lack of exposure to noise at this early age may also incline them to be fearful of sounds that are loud or unnatural.
Dog owners report that their dogs are afraid of lots of things we consider completely innocuous, from the sound of our phones ringing to the noise of our vacuum cleaner. The difference between us and our dogs is that we understand them and they don't. In fact our dogs live in a world full of noisy gadgets they don't understand and if you add to that a naturally nervous disposition you can start to understand why your dog panics at the noises they don't understand.
Dogs live by their instincts and become fearful when they interpret a noise as potentially dangerous or threatening to their safety. A dog responds to danger in one of three ways; flight, freeze or fight and they will use them in that order.
So their first reaction will be to try to get away - which explains why a dog will hide under the bed at the first sound of thunder. The second reaction is to stay very still to see if the danger will go away without them taking any further action and the third is to use aggression and force it to go away.
Short-Term Coping Strategies
When your dog is in a fearful state, the best thing you can do is stay calm. If you are nervous too (not because of the noise but perhaps because you're worrying about the way your dog is going to react) your dog will be able to sense that and will take it as proof that they were right to be afraid in the first place. This can actually increase your dog's fear response and make it more likely that they will react in the same way the next time it happens.
Be very matter-of-fact with your dog and don't try to comfort them as too much attention will again make a big thing of the situation. You also risk reinforcing their behaviour as the right response to the noise if your dog interprets your attention as a reward for being fearful.
Never make your dog face their fears head on as if they feel they are left with no other option to get away from it, they could turn their aggression on you and you risk getting bitten.
A Long-Term Solution
A fearful dog needs you to take on being the pack leader. Many dogs assume this position themselves, but struggle to cope with feeling responsible for the rest of the pack's safety because they don't understand so much of our world.
When you take the lead your dog will learn to trust you to make the decisions, which means if you are not scared by something then they do not need to worry about it either. This will help your dog relax and you should see their fears start to disappear.