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Dealing with a Fearful Dog

By: Dr. Ilana Reisner

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It's heartbreaking to see an anxious dog respond to everyday events by trembling, cowering, balking on his leash – or even biting. If your dog seems generally uneasy, or is frightened by specific places or events, you'll be happy to hear that he can learn to become more confident.

Fear Can Be Good

Fear can be a useful emotion for your dog. It warns him that something potentially painful, threatening, or dangerous is on the horizon, which may motivate him to escape. Or, if some ominous creature is approaching, his fear may lead to self-defense, perhaps causing the threat to withdraw.

Learned or Innate?

Fear may be a learned behavior, or it may be an intrinsic part of your dog's personality. Some dogs are simply predisposed to be anxious and jumpy, just as others are stoic and resilient. The former may react with fear even to ordinary situations. For example, if your dog's last veterinary visit was a little upsetting, you may have to carry him in for his next visit. Alternatively, a relatively resilient dog may acquire his fear because of an overwhelming, unforgettable adverse circumstance or event. Some important reasons for learned fear (and its exaggerated partner, phobia) include physical punishment, improper crating or other close confinements, and loud noises. If pushed far enough, your fearful or anxious dog may attempt to escape (sometimes frantically), submissively urinate, or even bite.

Treatment of Fearful Behavior

Regardless of its specific roots, there are some common denominators in treating fearful dogs. First, because fear is stressful, and because stress and anxiety interfere with behavior modification, some veterinarians believe anti-anxiety medication may sometimes be helpful. Medication can be used for short-term or long-term management of the problem.

Second, and especially if the cause of your dog's fear is known, it helps to expose your dog to the feared situation incrementally while rewarding his calm behavior (a technique known as desensitization). For example, if your dog panics when a rollerblader whizzes by while you're in the park, take him home and rehearse the basic commands "sit" and "stay," using small food rewards. Then, take him back to the park and, working at a distance from the rollerbladers, rehearse the commands again there. Slowly inch toward the place where people are skating and continue to repeat the sit-stays at intervals, rewarding calm behavior and not catering to any mild apprehension. Your dog should never be allowed to become overtly fearful during the desensitization process. If he does, you have approached too quickly and should back off before starting again. As long as progress is made at each exposure, and your rewards are well timed, your dog will eventually be able to remain calm even when close to the skaters.

Dealing with a Biter

Biting can be a troublesome outcome of fear. If your dog is aggressive through fear, your veterinarian can refer you to a behavior specialist for help with retraining. With patience and consistent effort, your dog may once again - or for the first time - become confident and calm in the face of what once was perceived by him as danger.

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