Dealing with Fear, Discomfort, and All The Bad “Feels”

Next Steps

Dogs can experience many of the same bad feelings as humans. A dog that is shy, fearful, or wary may also have other behavior issues such as aggression, handling issues, or conflict with other pets. Plus, they aren’t living their happiest life. Dogs don’t “get over” fear and other negative emotions by being forced to repeatedly experience them. They need your help to change their emotional reactions. 

Before You Begin

Dealing with a dog who feels unsafe or who dislikes a situation can be both challenging and dangerous. The process of helping them requires that they not be pushed past their comfort level. If you are working with them properly, your dog should never feel the need to run away or become aggressive. However, this can be tricky if you’ve never done it before. If there is any risk that your dog could hurt you, another person, or another animal, it is important to consult a professional with experience handling these cases. A qualified professional will not advise you to punish the behavior and should emphasize preventing the behavior from occurring during training. 

Be safe and don’t go it alone!

Familiarize yourself with dog body language so you can determine if your dog is relaxed and comfortable or if they are beginning to get tense or stressed. It is important to recognize small signs of stress early for this process to be successful. The website http://www.ispeakdog.org/ is an excellent resource for learning more. 

Little Steps: Desensitization

In order to change their emotions, a dog needs to be able to think and learn. When they are very fearful or reacting strongly, they aren’t able to do this. For your dog to learn that something is safe, they need to be protected from being overwhelmed or scared by it. Each time your dog reacts negatively, they are further cementing their fear or dislike of that person, pet, or situation. 

Desensitization is the process of slowly exposing your dog to something that would normally scare them but at a level that doesn’t cause that fearful reaction. For example, if your dog is scared to get into the car, you would start with the dog walking around the outside of the car. As your dog becomes comfortable at this level, you very slowly increase the intensity of the experience, always letting your dog adjust and learn without fear or negative emotions. 

Takeaways about Desensitization:

  • Start with a mild form of the scary thing: a quiet noise, a lot of distance, a short time, etc. 
  • Your dog should never have a negative reaction. Watch their body language for subtle signs.
  • Slowly increase the intensity of the scary thing while staying under the dog’s threshold for reacting.
Small dog displays fearful body language including tucked tail, raised paw, and whites of eyes.
This dog is displaying some fearful body language: tucked tail, raised paw, and showing the whites of his eyes.
Photo Credit: Jessica Char

Make It Good: Counterconditioning

Desensitization by itself can be a very slow process; adding “counterconditioning” can speed things up. Counterconditioning is pairing a scary or uncomfortable thing with something that your dog really loves and anticipates getting. This could be food, special treats, play time, or attention from a favorite person. Every time your dog is around the person, pet, or situation that could cause them to react, they receive their “good thing.” Over time, the scary thing starts to mean the good thing is coming. This causes the positive emotions associated with the good thing to become linked to the (previously) scary thing as well. 

The food or play isn’t a distraction or bribe. In order to teach your dog a new emotional response, it must come after your dog becomes aware of the scary or uncomfortable situation, not before. For example, if you clip one of your dog’s nails and then give a treat, you are counterconditioning them to nail trims. If you instead try to give them treats to distract them while you trim their nails, you aren’t. While distraction may work for some dogs, if your dog is very uncomfortable with something, a distraction won’t help. They may actually learn to avoid you when those treats come out because they now connect them to scary nail trims (they’ve been counter-conditioned in the opposite way). 

Takeaways about Counterconditioning:

  • Identify something that your dog really loves and will anticipate (food, play, attention, etc.).
  • Pair every experience with that good thing, while controlling the intensity of the scary thing. 
  • Order matters - make sure the good thing always comes AFTER the scary thing.

Troubleshooting

Changing your dog’s emotional reactions can be a tricky process as there are several key points that have to be done correctly. You will likely benefit from having a professional help you create and implement a plan. If you are trying to work on the situation by yourself and having issues, these are the most common challenges:

Your Dog Won’t Take the Treat or Play

If your dog won’t accept their “good thing,” there could be a couple of issues. First, the treat or toy may not be good enough for the dog in this situation. Try hot dogs, cheese, or meat-flavored baby food to really get them excited for their treat (just avoid foods with onions, garlic, or artificial sweetener). 

Additionally the scary or uncomfortable thing may be too close, too intense, or in some way too much for your dog. If a dog is fearful or stressed, they won’t be able to enjoy their good thing and the counterconditioning won’t work. Look for a way to decrease the intensity of the scary thing so your dog can relax a bit. 

Your Dog Continues to Have a Fearful or Aggressive Reaction

If your dog is having a negative reaction during your counterconditioning sessions, slow down. They can’t learn if they are reacting so you need to make the situation less scary or less uncomfortable in some way. Also make sure you are offering the good thing after the dog notices the thing that scares them. If the treat comes first, they might be distracted but won’t be learning anything.

Alternatively, if your dog is reacting at times outside your training sessions, you need to use management to protect them from the thing that is scaring them. If they are continuing to be confronted with something that is causing a negative emotional response, they will never be able to let go of that fear. Keep other pets or kids away, create safe zones with hiding places, or otherwise help your dog feel safe.

Your Dog is Okay Only to a Certain Point

During this process you are trying to slowly build your dog up so they can handle the person, pet, or situation that they are scared of. It is likely that you will come to a point where you have trouble getting closer, staying longer, or otherwise making the situation more intense. In this case, try to break the steps down further so things are only getting a tiny bit harder. Also consider how a combination of different factors like distance, time, or other conditions can interact. For example, your dog is ok with children walking 10 feet away but barks at children playing on the playground at 20 feet. Distance isn’t the only factor, the children’s energy is also making your dog nervous. In that case, you would need to start further away again when children are playing or making noise.

Seriously, Don’t Go It Alone

The process of changing an emotional reaction to something is both very simple (little steps paired with great things) and very complex (doing that while living in the real world). It requires close observation and a thorough understanding of how to build up over time. While some situations are very possible for a dog owner to take on by themselves (fear of the vacuum can be overcome!), some cases are much more difficult and important to do right (biting guests who visit your home). A Certified Professional Dog Trainer or Certified Dog Behavior Consultant could be the difference between a happy, safe dog and serious consequences for both you and your dog. 

Your dog can feel safer and be safer. It just takes time and the right plan.

If your dog has a behavior problem that you need help solving, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.