Sharon Eliot from Wagga Wagga NSW writes: ‘We recently had some electrical thunderstorms and my two Beagles were terrified of the thunder. They’re normally not bothered by thunder, but this time it really affected them, and now any loud noises sends them under the bed or cupboard hiding. How can I help them get past these fears?’
There is nothing more heart-wrenching than seeing your beloved dog quivering with fear, especially when they are afraid of things you know cannot hurt them. No matter how much you try to help them, or talk them out of it (yes I know you have tried to reason with your animals!) they seem to still be scared. Sometimes these fears can be easily managed, but there are some animals that have such deep fears it can cause a lot of disruption in your life and theirs. It can change their personality, make them aggressive around people or even cause injury to themselves. There is no shortcut way of helping your animals overcome their fears, but there certainly is a process that you can use to desensitise your animal so they feel more comfortable and confident no matter what happens around them.
The most common fears I have seen with my clients’ dogs are fear of loud noises such as fireworks or thunderstorms, strangers that visit the house, particularly men. Whilst their fears don’t make much sense to us, they make sense to our animals. For them, the fear is very real. Their instincts tell them it could be the difference between life and death. It may seem dramatic, but our furry companions are still hard wired with wild instincts that protect them in all situations. A dog that is afraid of loud noises is using the same instincts he would have if he was being hunted by predators in the wild. But our animals are living domestically in a human world, so they adapt to our environment. Some dogs grow up always being afraid of loud noises or people, and for some it takes one incident for them to change. No dog wants to be in fear all the time, and the stress is not good for their health. This is where we can help them move past that fear and become more relaxed, even when we are not around.
So how do we begin the desensitising process? Where do you start? By talking their language of course.
COMMUNICATION: Counselling Your Dog
To understand your pet’s fear, we must talk to them about it. When we are afraid, we can confide in a friend or a therapist. Animals cannot speak verbally, so this is where an animal whisperer comes in handy. An animal whisperer can telepathically communicate with your pet and help them through their fears. It gives your animals a chance to talk about their traumas, and also share how they developed their fears in the first place. Discovering how your pet feels and seeing their perspective is so important for your relationship with them. My client named Georgette came to me about her rescue spaniel Molly. Her and Molly had been together for 15 months, and whilst Molly loved Georgette, she was constantly peeing around the house. Georgette had tried many different tricks and had her checked by the vet. When I connected with Molly, she told me when she was a young pup her owners used to yell a lot in the house. It used to make her very frightened and nervous that she would wet herself. As a result, Molly had become sensitive to yelling and tension. Whether a person was calling out or having an argument, Molly would quiver and wet herself.
After speaking about this with Georgette, she was relieved to know there wasn’t anything wrong with Molly’s health. To help Molly feel safer and less afraid of raised voices, I told Georgette to use some Flower essences to ease Molly’s anxiety. Whilst that helped ease her anxiety, I taught Georgette our ‘Just Being’ technique which involves Georgette sitting with Molly in a calm space. This would help both Georgette and Molly understand each other’s energy, teaching each other how to be calm and present in the moment. I also added to Georgette to teach the family to either call each other on the phone or walk over and talk to each other while Molly gets used to the different levels of energy. It has been a few months, and Molly has shown great improvement. She only sometimes pees inside the house and she feels more comfortable around the whole family.
TRAINING – Training You First
The most important part of helping your dog overcome their fear, is learning the right training methods to implement with your dog. Using the wrong method can cause more damage and possibly worsen the situation. Positive reinforcement is truly the best way to get your animal comfortable and relaxed in a fearful situation. By rewarding their relaxed behaviour when they hear loud noises or approached by strange people they will associate positivity with those situations.
For example, a client of mine named Alicia had a dog named Charlie whom was afraid of men. Being a rescue, it wasn’t a surprise that Charlie had a quirk like this. When Charlie met strange men for the first time he would shake and whine, trying to get behind whomever he felt safe with. It took Alicia’s husband Nick 6 months to be able to get close to Charlie. Now, Charlie trusts Nick, but they had to do a lot of reinforcement training in the beginning. Even though Charlie trusted Nick, they noticed he still had an intense fear of strange men, especially if they came close to them on the street. I connected in with Charlie, and he showed flashes of his past where he was yelled at and a tall man was towering over him and shooing him away with his boots.
I explained to Alicia and Nick, that Charlie didn’t feel safe when they were going for outings together, and to help him overcome this, we had to come up with a safe command that they could practice at home so when they go for outings, they can help Charlie calm down around men. So they resumed their positive reinforcement training at home, using the word ‘Relax’. Nick used different disguises at home to look like strange men so they could practice in a controlled setting, and also asked their neighbours to visit as well. It has been a couple of months, and Alicia emailed me to let me know that Charlie is doing so much better. He is still wary of men on the street, but he is no longer shaking or whining. He looks to his parents to keep him safe and feels more confident too.
Positive reinforcement training can be used with food treats, praise or toys. There are many great dog trainers out there that can give you the tools to begin. It is worth having a session with a trainer so you use the correct techniques for your dog. Then figure out which reward is going to work with your animal. If your pet isn’t responding to food treats, but they usually love them, then you need to increase your food game. Try using a treat that they wouldn’t normally get such as roasted chicken, cheese sticks or any type of safe human food. When an animal is in fear, their usual behaviours go out the window. Using extra tasty treats will distract them from the situation and increase their motivation. It also helps you to see how deep the fear is for your animal. If you are using praise as the reward, then make sure you praise your dog at the exact moment your dog does something good. You don’t want to encourage any undesired behaviour or reinforce the fear. If your dog loves toys, then using a favourite or a new toy will help to distract them when you are desensitising them.
PATIENCE & CONSISTENCY – Set Your Dog Up for Success
We feel bad every time we see our dog in fear. We want to protect them and reassure them that it’s all ok. Sometimes we are too eager and may rush our animals to ‘get over it’ because we can see that all is well and safe. Especially if it affects your lifestyle or work and you need to accommodate their behaviour daily. But rushing your animal to move forward can be damaging to your pet and may cause the issues to get worse. Patience and consistency are key when helping your animals move past their fears.
Practice your positive reinforcement training daily for 10 minutes. Take it step by step. If you are working with loud noises, use thunderstorm or firework sounds and start at a very soft level. Once your animal is comfortable and relaxed at this level, keep it for one or two sessions. Then increase it on the next session, giving your animal time to get comfortable and confident with those sounds. If you are working with strange people, start with people from a distance. This could be at a park or on the streets. As soon as your dog calms down, treat them or praise them. As they progress, you can ask your friends or neighbours to join your sessions. Always finish your training on a high. If they did something really great, then finish the session. You want your dog to know there is no pressure and they will enjoy these sessions too. This will build up your success.
If you feel like you are not helping your dog get past their fears, then you need to stop and think – are my methods working? Am I going too fast? Has my dog gotten too comfortable at one level? Are you consistent enough? Essentially you can talk to an animal whisperer again and ask what does your dog think of the situation. You can check in with them, and see if they are on board with your training or do they have some ideas of their own? You won’t know unless you ask your dog!
Some animals never completely overcome their fears. Particularly for animals that have had traumatizing experiences, they may get to a certain level of comfort and stay there. As long as your animal is still loving aspects of life, then you can manage their fearful quirks quite easily. After all, we have own quirks and fears that we would avoid at all costs. Putting yourself in your dog’s paws helps to understand their life with us, and how they view the world.