By Linda Cole
Fear can be paralyzing to any living thing. Most animals and people who have gone through a fearful situation will remember it and react accordingly the next time they encounter anything that reminds them of it. As much as you want to help your scared dog or cat, there is a right way and wrong way to go about it. The last thing you want to do is reinforce their fear. I’m not talking about a scared pet who has a severe reaction to thunderstorms, fireworks, a neighborhood dog or cat, other pets in the home, or other situations that cause them to overreact with fear. This article is concerning mild to moderate cases of fear with no aggression issues associated with it.
When a scared dog or cat can’t tell us what scared them, we have to try to figure out where their fear came from. Sometimes the reason is easy to determine, but we may not always know why a dog or cat is showing signs of fear. As a responsible pet owner, you want to help a scared dog or cat by comforting them and reassuring them everything is alright. Your first reaction is to pick them up or sit beside them and gently stroke their coat and tell them, “It’s alright,” but this only reinforces their fear. To your pet, you’re saying it’s OK for them to be fearful. The next time the fearful situation comes up, the cat or dog remembers how you reacted, and the positive feedback they received during the stressful situation can reinforce their fearful reaction to it.
When you attempt to comfort a scared dog or cat, you’re teaching the pet to be dependent on you, but pets need to be able to work through occasional periods of fear themselves. No pet owner wants their dog or cat to be upset or frightened, but they need to be given an opportunity to learn how to be confident and brave during scary situations, because you can’t always be around to reassure them.
The best thing to do when your dog or cat reacts to something they believe as threatening is to ignore their reaction completely, unless it was warranted and your pet reacted to a potentially dangerous situation. Dogs and cats look to us to help them understand things that happen in their world. When they see you reacting as if there’s nothing to worry about and the situation poses no threat, they will adopt your lead. Once a frightened pet learns nothing bad happens during their episodes of being scared, they begin to relax and calm down on their own. The next time they encounter the scary moment, they will remember how you reacted to it and their fear will gradually be forgotten.
Keep in mind, however, that not all pets can get over their fears this easily. Ignoring more severe cases can put other pets or people at risk. When a pet, especially a dog, reacts aggressively to a scary situation each time they’re scared, then it’s time to talk to a vet or animal behaviorist who can help your pet deal with their fear. Some scared dogs or cats have phobias that are a mystery to us, especially an adopted pet from a shelter or one you may have found wandering lost on the street. There are times when ignoring their fears could cause them more harm. Responsible pet owners need to be able to distinguish between a severe phobia that may require help from a professional animal behaviorist, over a scared reaction from a one-time event or even a mild case of fear that can be dealt with by ignoring the reaction and showing them there’s no reason to be scared.
Most owners think of their pets as members of their family. You want to protect them and help them be as confident as they can be. Watching a scared dog or cat can be heartbreaking and our first reaction is to coddle them. I know from experience how difficult it is to ignore them when all you want to do is comfort them by reassuring them it’s alright. But I know the best way to help is to ignore their fear, as long as it’s not a serious or aggressive overreaction that could escalate, harming others or themselves. Be patient and stay consistent and over time, their fear will subside once they learn nothing bad happened when they were scared. A self confident dog or cat is a happy and well balanced pet.
If you have a dog who has a fear of water, Ruthie Bently recently wrote an article on how to help them overcome their fear of water.
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® Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® Pet Foods.