How to Desensitize a Scared Dog

By Linda Cole

Dogs can show a fear of storms, fireworks or loud voices. Their fear can be mild to severe and when a storm is on the horizon, your dog may disappear or hunker down until the storm has passed. Fear of storms or loud noise adds stress to their life and yours. Sometimes it’s hard to understand dog behavior, but once we do, we can set up a program to desensitize a scared dog and teach him there’s nothing to fear from thunder or loud noises.

Fear of loud noises is only one type of fear dogs can show. Some become anxious around strangers or other dogs. I had a dog who didn’t like to be around men. Some dogs are scared of objects like vacuum cleaners or grooming combs, and some dogs don’t want their paws touched for any reason. Since dogs can’t tell us why something scared them, the only thing we can do is pay attention to our dogs during stressful times to figure out what is scaring them. Desensitization is one way to help change a dog’s behavior and help him get rid of his fear.

The last thing you should do when your dog is scared is tell him everything is alright, because you’re telling him it’s okay to be fearful. By ignoring his reaction to thunder or loud noises, he sees you remaining calm and nothing bad happened to you, so it must be okay.

When you desensitize a dog, you’re setting him up to succeed and rewarding him using positive reinforcement when he’s not showing any fear. To help a scared dog get over his fear of thunder or loud noises, you need to introduce him to low levels of sound using a recording of a thunderstorm or fireworks. Reward him throughout the process only when he stays calm. Gradually increase the sound to a level he will accept before moving on to the next level. Once he learns nothing bad is happening to him and he gets a treat when he stays calm, his fear will begin to diminish and he will begin to accept the noise as normal sounds.

Anytime throughout the desensitizing process when your dog reacts in a negative way, that tells you things are moving too fast. You will need to go back and repeat the exercise until your dog is completely comfortable listening to the sound that scares him. Have him focus on you by giving him simple commands like sit, lay down, etc. while playing the tape. Play games with him, read a book to him, groom him and talk quietly as you stroke his coat with a comb. Dogs react to pleasurable stimulus and when his mind is in a relaxed state and he sees you staying calm, those scary noises suddenly aren’t so bad. When he stays calm, always reward him with praise and a treat, like CANIDAE Snap-Bits™. If he becomes scared while you’re talking to him, playing with him or grooming him, stop what you’re doing until he calms down. Only reward the behavior you want your dog to learn.

Moving too fast can have a negative result that could allow the dog to become even more fearful. Let your patience control your every move when you’re trying to change dog behavior by desensitizing him. It can be a long process that can take months to help him get over his fear of loud noises.

If you have a dog who displays aggression when he’s scared, enlisting the help of an animal behaviorist is recommended. Aggression, especially if it’s severe, can be dangerous for you and for your dog. Sometimes it’s best to let a professional handle an aggressive dog issue. Ruthie Bently has a great article on “Medical and Behavioral Causes for Canine Aggression.”

Dogs will instinctively do one of three things when they’re scared. They will run, freeze or fight. When working with a dog to desensitize him, it’s important to take things slow and easy. Make sure he can succeed with each step you take and reward him every time. Positive reinforcement is a powerful training tool that can help a dog overcome his fear. There is no set time limit on when you’re done desensitizing your dog. It all depends on his level of fear and how long he’s been afraid.

Desensitization can also work for other dog behavior issues, such as being afraid of other dogs or people, dogs who don’t like their paws touched or those with grooming issues. Fear can cause a dog to become aggressive, and an aggressive dog is apt to bite. So take things nice and slow, stay patient and calm to help your dog learn there’s nothing to fear from loud noises.

Read more articles by Linda Cole

The personal opinions and/or use of trade, corporate or brand names, is for information and convenience only. Such use does not constitute an endorsement by CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods.

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