Your Dog’s Fear Is No Joke

There is no denying that sometimes our canine companions appear to be afraid of some rather strange things. Many things that cause our dogs to startle, flee, or growl can seem trivial to us, such as images or videos of other dogs, their reflection in a mirror, statues, balloons, kites, costumes, etc. For some dogs any novel item, particularly one that moves or makes noise, can be scary. It is easy to laugh when our dog jumps or growls at something silly, but is that the most helpful thing we can do to calm our friend?

Many of us spend so much time with our dogs that we think of them as part of the family. We talk to them, play with them, and care for them. It’s no wonder we sometimes expect them to understand the same things we do! But, by laughing at your dog’s fearful behaviour, putting them in a situation you know will startle them, or trying to take them up to their “bogeyman” to show them it’s ok, we are failing to acknowledge what is really going on. Your dog is scared. He doesn’t know that the object or situation isn’t dangerous, and he certainly isn’t “in on the joke” if you have set him up.

Rather than laughing and forcing your dog to approach or stay close to something he is scared of, allow him to move away to a distance he feels safe. For some dogs being able to review the situation from a distance will be enough to discover that the object that startled them isn’t scary at all. Other dogs might require some help.

Giving Wilbur distance allowed him to watch the giant motorised snail and decide it was safe

When Wilbur was approximately 6 months old he began to startle and growl at statues. This included garden gnomes, animal-shaped garden ornaments, and artistic sculptures in public places. Are statues safe? Yes! Of course they are! Are they scary? To Wilbur they were. Rather than drag him up to a statue that he was trying to move away from, we started to play a game. I’ve seen this game called “look at that” or “touch the goblin”, and it simply involves rewarding your dog each time they look at or approach something they find spooky. We played this game with the scary sea turtle statue at The Strand (Townsville). After we had retreated to a distance where Wilbur was no longer growling at the statue, i began to mark (“yes”) and reward (with pieces of chicken) each time Wilbur glanced at the statue to make sure it hadn’t moved. Pretty quickly he clicked onto the fact that looking at the statue was making good things happen, and he started to take longer peeks, and then took one step, two steps, etc until he was walking all around the statue and sniffing it all over. By turning the situation into a game, Wilbur conquered his initial fear within a minute or so.

After a game of “touch the goblin” Wilbur was happy to investigate and sit beside the sea turtle statue

Why didn’t i just take him up to the statue to show him it was safe? It’s simple, fear doesn’t work that way! I know plenty of people who are scared of snakes. On the other hand i love them. If i was to plonk a snake on one of my snake-phobic friends they would freak out, regardless of if i was telling them “it’s ok, he won’t bite”. Chances are they would lose all trust in me and be forever suspicious that i might put them in another scary situation! That’s not what we want for our dogs. We want to be the giver of all good things, the person they can look to when they are unsure, and the person who will help them feel safe.

A quick look on social media shows us that many dog owners fail to consider their dogs when posting and viewing “funny” videos. Before you hit “like” or upload the video of your dog jumping in fright at a dancing teddy bear, stop and consider how that experience was for the dog. Dogs don’t act! If they are behaving like they are scared then they are scared. They may recover quickly from being startled, or their fear may be prolonged, but either way that is not the role we should aim to have in our dog’s life.

Thanks to force-free training methods, Wilbur is no longer worried about statues we find on walks

Next time something spooks your dog, put down the camera and find ways to help your dog feel more confident. If they are fearful of a range of different things in a number of situations, or if their fear is persistent or severe, then you may need some help from a trainer or vet behaviourist to assist you and your dog on the way to a fear-free life.

Your Dog Is Barking For A Reason

Barking is a common behavioural problem for modern dog owners. More than ever before, we live close to our neighbours and we are gone from the home for many hours each day. A barking dog can cause headaches, neighbourhood disputes, and can even lead to the family dog being surrendered or rehomed.

Photo by Liz Brimson

Due to the level of disruption a barking dog can create, both at home and with neighbours, many people look to solve the problem as quickly as possible. This often results in training devices, such as bark collars, being used. These devices fail to address the reason your dog is barking, which means you might succeed in temporarily stopping the barking, but without addressing the underlying cause you won’t see lasting change. More importantly such devices can have negative effects on your dogs stress levels, and can lead to more severe behavioural problems developing.

So what can you do to reduce your dogs barking? To answer this we need to understand that barking can be a symptom of a wide variety of problems that may be affecting your dog. Let’s have a look at some of the more common reasons for excessive barking, and how you can help your dog learn to cope better in those situations.

Passing Triggers

It is very common for dogs to bark at people, vehicles, and animals that pass the house. This is usually their response to a perceived threat, and your dog is saying “go away”. Unfortunately for us, the trigger usually does go away. From your dogs perspective, they bark in a menacing way and that yellow-bellied trigger (mailman, dog walker, etc) moves away with their tail between their legs. Barking in this context works! If you don’t alter this situation your dogs barking will become worse, because thanks to their barking the household is safe from those pesky passersby.

One of the most effective steps you can take to reduce this barking is to limit visual access that your dog has to these triggers. This could mean using weed-mat to block out the view through the fence, window film to prevent your dog seeing through to the street, or perhaps leaving your dog in a different part of the house or a smaller yard where they don’t have access to a view of the street when you’re not home. It is not good exercise or enrichment for your dog to be on guard all day, watching for someone to bark at. They will appreciate the opportunity to relax away from their “duties”.


When you consider the hours spent alone at home, it is a wonder that more dogs aren’t going stir-crazy. Dogs that bark at the slightest movement around the yard (leaves, birds, etc) may be engaging in the most interesting option available.

Food puzzles can provide excellent mental stimulation for a bored dog

Rather than yelling for your dog to “shut up”, give your dog something more appropriate to do. Provide them for an outlet for all that energy! A combination of physical activity (walks, play) and mental stimulation (food toys, puzzles, nose work) is your best bet. If your dog is busy, active, and mentally stimulated they will have less time and inclination to make their own (noisy) games when you are busy or away from home.

Learned Barking

If your dog is barking at you to demand attention/play/food then you have probably inadvertently taught them that barking works. Humans are masters at ignoring something until it is creating a problem for us. If you’re sitting on the couch, engaged in a book or something on your computer, your dog is probably nearby and somewhat bored. If they bark, do you look at them? Talk? Tell them off? Compared to the dull monotony of you sitting idle on the couch, many dogs find that kind of engagement rewarding.

Instead of fussing when your dog is noisy, pay attention to the situations where he is likely to bark at you. Find ways to engage with your dog before he starts barking, and reward him for quieter behaviour. At first you might only have very brief windows of opportunity to reward your dog, but with practise the brief moments will get longer. You can also redirect your dog to a more appropriate activity. If you’re settling in for a long and boring couch session, perhaps you could give your dog a stuffed Kong or chew to keep busy with.

Separation Anxiety

Of all the causes of barking this can be the most heart-breaking and challenging to deal with. Sometimes the first hint a person has that their dog is having problems when home alone is a letter in the mailbox from an unhappy neighbour. It can be overwhelming to learn that your dog might be barking for extended periods when you are not home. Barking as a symptom of separation anxiety is often prolonged in nature and starts shortly after you have left home. It may not be every time you leave either. Some dogs have learned to cope with you daily departure to work, but when you go out for dinner their world falls apart. Setting up a webcam can confirm whether your dog is barking non-stop when you leave, or if they are barking at specific times (e.g. when the mailman drives up the street).

If you suspect that your dog is suffering from separation anxiety you should contact a trainer or veterinary behaviourist promptly. There are some very effective protocols for helping your dog to cope when you are not home, but you will need help and encouragement to be successful. You can also find some great resources online, such as Malena DeMartini’s website.

Dogs can bark for a great number of reasons, but they never bark for no reason at all. Rather than jumping straight to yelling at your dog or punishing them for barking, take a moment to try to understand why they are making so much noise, and get help to find a solution that addresses the cause rather than the symptom. Quick fixes, such as bark collars, may provide you with immediate relief, but what about your dog? He will appreciate you taking the time to help him to cope more effectively with the day-to-day reality of modern life with dogs.

Pyramid Pan Dog Treats

When we saw this idea on Eileen and Dogs blog, we knew we had to try it for ourselves. We quickly located the Pyramid Pan on eBay and waited patiently for it to arrive in the mail. Apparently they are also available from Woolworths, and probably other homeware-type stores too (though we have been keeping our eyes peeled, and haven’t seen it in Woolworths, Coles, or Spotlight). The Pyramid Pan’s actual use is for low-fat roasting, so the meat doesn’t sit in the fat.

The Pyramid Pan

To make my treat batter i used a fairly unscientific recipe of approximately the following ingredients:

1c cooked chicken (chopped) OR 1/2c cooked bacon (chopped)

2-3tbsp light cream cheese spread

1/2 egg

1/2 – 1c tapioca flour

Water to reach desired consistency

The stages of mixing

Put the meat and cheese spread in a food processor and blitz until it looks disgusting (like creamy cat food or tuna). Then add the egg and tapioca flour and blitz a little more. At this point it will either form a dough-like ball or it will look quite sticky and pasty. Finally, add some water to achieve a…smooth, yoghurt-like consistency. Smooth is MUCH easier to work into the Pyramid Pan than a thicker/stickier batter.

Dump the batter onto the Pyramid Pan, and use your spatula to work it into all the little holes. By some reports from other people who have tried this, spreading the batter can be quite time consuming. I found that with the smoother batter and my flexible silicone spatula that it was very easy and quick. When all the holes are filled with batter, scrape any excess off with your spatula.

Dump the batter onto the Pyramid Pan
The batter is evenly spread over the holes and the excess scraped away

Now we made two batches, and concluded that our second attempt was best. The first we baked in a fan-forced oven at 180C for 7-8 minutes. The treats around the outer rows were well cooked, but the inner ones were a little squishier (maybe your dog would prefer this). The second batch we baked at a lower temperature of 160C for about 15 minutes, and the treats were more evenly cooked and crispy.

Comparison of batch one (left) and batch two (right)

Once baked let the tray cool enough to touch, and then lift the corners so that all the treats fall into the centre (it’s really satisfying to do this part).

Cheap thrills…
Lots and lots of chicken/cheese and bacon/cheese dog treats

We’ve tried a few different storage methods (sandwich bag, plastic container, fridge, freezer, cupboard), though as they are preservative free your best bet for storing large quantities of these treats would be the freezer (just pull out a small amount as required). The drier you bake them the better they would last outside of the freezer (we’re guessing).

The Pyramid Pan itself was a piece of cake to clean. It was pretty much clean once the treats fell out, but a quick shake off and a rinse did the job just fine. It is also dishwasher safe if you would prefer to pop it through for a thorough clean.

Finally, of course, we had to check if Wilbur liked our baking…though frankly his judgement can’t be trusted, he’ll eat just about anything! He gave them two paws up! We will probably be back in the kitchen tomorrow to finish off the ingredients we bought, and we might try some peanut butter flavoured ones too.

*edited to add* Both the humans in the house can confirm that the bacon/cheese recipe tastes just fine, but Wilbur wondered why we were tasting his treats!

Wilbur says the Pyramid Pan Treats are GREAT!

What’s my goal?

I want to pose a question that i don’t think we ask ourselves enough when we interact with our pets, especially when we are trying to get them to do (or stop) something. It’s too easy to behave reactively to a situation, without regard to whether we are behaving in a way that will make things better next time. When we are stuck in the moment, we may not consider the consequences. We need to ask ourselves “What am I trying to achieve?”, and then act in ways that will help us reach those goals with our pets.

It is common to see people acting in extremely counter-productive ways with their pets. Perhaps someone wants their dog to not lunge at other dogs on lead, so when they see another dog they start shortening the lead and restricting the dogs movement and choice. Or it could be that they approach their bird and chase it away when it lands somewhere it shouldn’t. What the owner wants, and what they will get, are completely opposite in these cases. Our behaviour influences our pet’s behaviour, so we need to get smarter.

If we are trying to help our pet feel less wary, afraid, or stressed by a stimulus (like other dogs) then we have to make sure our handling isn’t adding to their stress. Restrictive or sudden movements with the lead and collar do little to help our dog make good associations, and plenty to increase their stress in that situation. Instead we could try working at a greater distance, and rewarding calm behaviour with something our pet likes (treats, toys, play, petting). How do we know if it’s working? Things will start getting better! How do we know it’s not? Things will get worse. We need to keep reviewing what our goal is, and making adjustments so we are steadily working towards success.

If our pet is not afraid, but rather engaging in annoying behaviours in an attempt to stay entertained, then we need to get proactive and set them up to interact with their environment in more appropriate ways. That parrot who keeps flying to the bench to throw your worldly possessions to the floor? Rather than adding to his fun with a game of chase, start setting his play areas up with new toys, foraging games, and browse (leaves/branches/flowers) to investigate. Provide social contact and play when you notice him hanging out on approved parrot-stations. Reward the behaviour you want to see more of, not the behaviour you’re trying to extinguish. And while you’re at it, clear the bench of all those enticing parrot toys (e.g. coffee mugs, car keys, can you tell i’m speaking from experience….).

parrots on the bench

As owners and trainers, we should always be thinking about how we can help our pets succeed in our homes. If something goes wrong and you find your pet engaging in unwanted behaviours, stop and think about how you can change the behaviour for good rather than how you can interrupt it just for the moment. Long term plans and smart training lead to long term results, which is what we all want! Train smart, not tough.

Are we having fun yet?

These days there are so many awesome things that we can do with our dogs. In most cities you will find off-leash dog areas, dog beaches, social dog walks, fenced dog parks, and a host of other activities. There are also numerous events that aren’t specifically organised for dogs, but where dogs and other on-leash pets are welcome too. This could include local markets, pet stores, community events, etc.

It can be so much fun getting out and socialising with other dog people, checking out the breeds that people own, introducing your dog to other people and puppy friends. We love our dogs so much, so why wouldn’t we want to show them off?

Check what’s going on at the other end of the leash – is your dog having fun too?

million paws walk townsville 2014
Wilbur at the Townsville Million Paws Walk 2014 – checking out the sights

Often event organisers and dog owners are well-meaning when they take their dog out and about, but for many dogs these social experiences can be overwhelming for them, especially if they are really only used to quiet walks around the neighbourhood.

Signs that your dog may be unhappy or too stressed in a certain situation could include inactivity and hanging close to you all the time, hyperactivity or hyper vigilance, pulling at other dogs and people beyond the point of being able to be redirected, barking or growling at other people or dogs, or showing stress signs such as trembling, yawning, licking his lips a lot, keeping his ears tucked back, and sniffing or pacing a lot. These are just some examples. Go to any heavily populated dog area and you will see plenty of dogs who would prefer a good game at home or a walk in a quieter area.

If you dog is showing signs of stress, what should you do? Remove your dog from the situation as soon as possible, and work on a plan to make that sort of outing something enjoyable. Depending on your dog you may just need to work on some basic manners training, or perhaps get help to develop a plan to change the way your dog views these things altogether. Or maybe these social outings aren’t actually important to you and your dog. There is a widely held belief that all dogs should be social butterflies and love any dog we set them up to play with. This just isn’t the case. Your dog may prefer to play with just a select few canine friends, or maybe none at all. So long as you help teach him not to feel afraid, and help him to pass on by without stress, there is no reason why you have to visit social dog locations.

Part of our responsibility as dog owners is to help our dogs be well socialised, confident, and happy members of society. They should be able to go out and about by our side without feeling afraid of day-to-day activities, sights, and sounds. Beyond that, if we want to get involved with our dogs at community events, it is important that we look out for our dogs and help them to enjoy the experience too! We are doing it for the dogs after all!