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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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It’s Real for Them

It’s very common to see and read about pets being punished for trying to let their owners know they are uncomfortable. It’s as though we’re so fixed on what we’re trying to get done, or what we think our pets should be doing, that we forget to  look at the picture that’s right in front of us.

When your dog barks or growls at an approaching dog or person, your cat hides when visitors enter the room, or your parrot lunges or bites when you reach into their cage, stop what you are doing and review the situation. Don’t pop the leash, drag your cat out, or flick your parrot’s beak. They are telling you they’re worried. Listen.

I recently read a light hearted news article that got me thinking. A postman in Canada was unable to deliver a parcel. On the delivery notice he ticked “Other” as the reason for failing to deliver the parcel, and he elaborated with “Bear at door” as the reason. I wouldn’t have delivered that parcel either! But what if his boss told him to stop being silly and just do it? Or told him he was being unreasonable, the bear wasn’t going to hurt him? That wouldn’t seem fair would it?

Bear

When it comes to things humans are afraid of (or cautious of) we can often empathise easily, because chances are that we might be afraid of something similar. Our pets, on the other hand, are often scared of things that we perceive as being benign. This makes it harder for us to take their fears seriously and even harder when it might mean we have to put in actual time and effort to help them come around.

Next time your pet tells you they are worried about something in their environment, don’t punish them, and don’t try to move them closer. They are telling you they are not ok. Help them to increase their distance, help them to feel more comfortable, and set them up better next time so they can feel safe from the start. What they’re experiencing may seem silly to you, but it is real for them.

Not sure how to help your pet? Consult with a trainer! That’s what we’re here for.  Train smart, not tough!

My Baby, My Child, My Shadow

Recently i was doing my weekly groceries, and i was first amused but then concerned by the new packaging on a popular supermarket dog food. They now advertise in large print sentiments like “My Baby” and “My Shadow”. While i’m sure the marketing division means no harm, i’m worried by the underlying attitude that is being fed by such advertising.

my child my baby

I’ll start by being upfront in admitting that i utterly 100% adore my own dog. I often call him my “baby” and i refer to myself as “Mummy”. I hug him and kiss him all the time, and he loves the social attention. But i also exercise him, provide him with as much enrichment as i am able to, and i train him to succeed in our home. He might be my “baby”, but he is also a dog and he is treated in such a way that allows him to be the best dog he can be.

So why am i so worried about these dog food labels?

Too many dogs that i visit are suffering from very real behavioural problems that stem from them being treated like a human baby. They receive all the cuddling and love in the world, but no training or mental stimulation that is appropriate and necessary for a dog to have. They eat human food, and they follow their owners everywhere (even to the bathroom). It is in our nature as humans to love this sort of attachment to another living creature, but then we wonder why our dogs are behaving in ways we don’t like. They could be fearful of anyone new to the home, fearful of other dogs, terrified of being left home alone, and otherwise incapable of coping in our world.

My fear is that labeling popular brands of dog food in such a way is both supporting owners who treat their pets in such a manner, but also encouraging it. Wouldn’t it be great if the influential companies in the pet industry were instead promoting responsible dog ownership, nutritious feeding options, dog-friendly training options, etc. We need to help people learn how to raise their dog to be the best dog they can be, not a substitute child who will never quite cope. Prevention goes miles to avoiding common behavioural problems, and we want to help people to learn to train smart so they can love their pet – not just as their “baby”, but because they are an awesome dog!

Little Dog Syndrome

off the leash cartoon

I saw this cartoon on one of my favourite Facebook pages, Off The Leash, and it got me thinking. Small dogs often have a bad reputation in the pet industry. We hear people describe them as dominant, spoilt, snappy, rude, uncontrolled, and a whole range of other unsavoury things. So what leads to this “little dog syndrome” that people talk about?

Look at the above cartoon, and imagine that Alexander is a Labrador or a German Shepherd. Suddenly things get a whole lot scarier, and the cartoon is much less of a joke! Small breed dogs often miss out on very important training and socialisation, simply because their size makes their behaviour less annoying or destructive. If your 30kg dog is pulling, barking, lunging, and growling on walks, that is more than just embarrassing! You get physically tired, and passers by get frightened. If you lose control of the lead, then things get quite dangerous. When your dog weighs just 5kg you might feel embarrassed, but you won’t lose control of the lead, and you might even laugh at how “tough” Alexander is trying to be.

Unfortunately for 5kg Alexander, what he is experiencing is just as real for him as for his larger doggy friends. It is just as important to figure out why your small dog is behaving a certain way, and looking for ways to help him behave differently, as it would be if your dog weighed 3-4 times as much. Often when small (or large) dogs are acting really tough and aggressive, they are actually very scared and are simply trying to increase the distance between themselves and the scary thing by going on the offensive. Most people would rather their pet not experience life as something to be scared off!

Positive reinforcement and other force-free training methods can be used with any small dog to help them to adapt and cope better in a world where everything is bigger than they are, and some extra training can really help create a happier bond between canine and human family members.