Does your dog run from the vacuum, growl at the new puppy, try to bite when you trim their nails, or have some other overreaction to a harmless thing? What’s up with that? You know that the vacuum isn’t a monster, that the puppy is just trying to play, and that nail trims are not actually torture. Why can’t your dog see that? When will they just get over being scared or fighting you?
“Getting Over” Fear
So often it can seem like your dog is irrationally scared. After all, as humans we can see when a situation clearly isn’t dangerous. It can help to take a moment to think about it from your dog’s point of view. They are smaller than us and many things can seem large and intimidating. Just like you might be extra cautious when in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language or understand the customs, adult animals tend to be wary of new situations. Finally, dogs often have little control over their lives and homes, which can make them feel vulnerable.
It feels like your dog should just “get over” their fear once they’ve experienced something and seen that they didn’t get hurt. Unfortunately this theory typically doesn’t hold up. If your dog feels fearful in the presence of something or someone, that feeling is what they will remember. Try this: imagine you are fearful of snakes and see one while walking on a trail. Maybe you stop and hold your breath while the snake moves away. Or you turn and run in the opposite direction. Did this situation make you less afraid of snakes? Or do you just feel lucky that nothing bad happened? And you will probably be on high alert for the rest of your walk. You might even stop using that trail in the future, now that you know snakes live there.
Rather than continuing to expose your dog to something that frightens them and hoping they will give up their fear, it’s better to give them a reason to feel safe. This process involves managing the scary situation so your dog only has to deal with a tiny bit at a time, at a level that isn’t scary. If your dog is scared of the vacuum, the first step might be to leave it sitting, unplugged, in a room where the dog can investigate it at their own pace, but where they don’t have to go too close, too quickly.
To further build up their new positive feelings about the situation, pair it with something extra fun or delicious. In the above example, you might sprinkle your dog’s favorite treats around the vacuum while it is turned off and not moving. The key is to always keep the “scary” thing at a non-scary level. Slowly your dog can learn to connect a new emotion to the vacuum. It can be a tricky process to get right without experienced help, but you can read more about it here.
“Giving In” to Handling
Fighting against handling, like nail trims or grooming, is another area where it can help to look at it through your dog’s eyes. Imagine someone grabbed you, held you tight enough that you couldn’t move, and gave you a haircut. Even if that person was a friend and the haircut didn’t hurt, you’d probably be extremely upset. If this happened every month, would you start feeling better about it? Or would you start avoiding that person or even getting violent toward them?
Having choice and control over our bodies is just as important to us as being able to get food and water when we need it. The same goes for dogs. As (presumably well-adjusted adult) humans, we have learned to tolerate awkward, uncomfortable, or even painful situations, because we can control when they happen. And, like the above discussion about fear, we’ve learned to associate positive emotions and outcomes with those situations.
Dogs can learn to voluntarily take part in handling as well. By working in small steps, at their comfort level, and pairing the activity with positives like treats, your dog can become a relaxed and willing participant. Forcing the issue and hoping they will “get over it” is more likely to lead to bigger struggles in the future, and bites.
A Dog Being A Dog
At the end of the day, there are some things your dog will never get over. Seeking food, avoiding stressful or scary things, and wanting choice and control over their day are natural behaviors and needs for most (all?) living creatures. When it comes to decisions around these things, your dog won’t just “get over” their behavior, unless they learn another way to get what they need.
Don’t think of your dog as needing to “get over” a fear or “give up” their resistance. Instead you can help them “recover” from fear and “learn” to accept and enjoy things. From there both you and your dog are on your way to a happier, healthier life.
If your dog isn’t “getting over” behavior issue, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.