How to Help a Dog With Fear or Anxiety Issues

Try these positive-reinforcement training methods to desensitize her to various triggers.

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Shelter and rescue groups are sure to share any fear or anxiety issues an adoptable dog may have. But what if the pup didn’t seem scared while in their care? And during the first thunderstorm, your new dog trembles in fear? Or bolts when the biggest dog in the neighborhood comes down the street?

Now what do you do?

Start by never punishing your dog for being scared or anxious, no matter how silly the trigger may seem to you. To your dog, the “threat” is real. That’s why we recommend positive reinforcement strategies that will build your dog’s confidence and strengthen the bond between you while gradually desensitizing him to whatever might be so scary.

Some trainers believe that forcing a dog to face a fear will result in her “getting over it,” but that’s called flooding and will likely make your dog shut down. For example, this column by Annie Phenix explains that if you are terrified of spiders and are put in a room full of spiders, that won’t make you any less afraid of spiders. It’s more likely that you will curl up into a little ball and cry.

The next important step is to figure out what is triggering your dog’s fear or anxiety. Is it just big dogs? Or is it big dogs, men, leaves blowing the wind, thunder, the UPS truck, etc.? If there are only a couple triggers, then it’s likely fear, but if your dog is afraid of many things, it may be more generalized anxiety (and you will want to consult a trainer or behaviorist). Once you determine what the triggers are, you can work on desensitizing your dog to become more comfortable with them.

Desensitization involves (more or less) gradually exposing your dog to the trigger until she can handle being near it. My favorite activity for this is called Look at That. Start by taking your dog near the trigger, but not so close that she panics (keep an eye on her body language for signs of being nervous or uncomfortable). With this training exercise, don’t worry about your dog keeping her attention only on you — instead, reward her for looking at the scary thing and then back at you.

Great Dane and Chihuahua by Shutterstock.
Great Dane and Chihuahua by Shutterstock.

Remember the spider analogy? Now imagine that I tell you there is a GIANT spider on the wall behind you, but you can’t look at it and must keep staring at me. That is likely to increase your anxiety. What if instead, I let you stand away from the spider, and if you looked at me, I gave you chocolate? I guarantee that you’re going to feel a lot better. While you shouldn’t give your dog chocolate, a tasty treat like chicken will encourage him to check in with you.

You may need to make kissy noises or stick the treat in front of your dog’s nose to get her attention, but most dogs catch on pretty quickly. If you do have to lure your dog with a treat the first few times, make sure you take the treat from her nose around and up to your eyes so that she makes that eye contact. You can read exactly how I did this with my own dog, Sadie, for her fear of other dogs, in this article.

While you are working on your dog’s fear and anxiety, it’s important to try to control the environment. Obviously, this isn’t always possible, but if your dog is scared of big dogs, avoid the dog park while working on this. If your dog is afraid of men, avoid getting your dog close to new men on walks.

For something like thunder or fireworks, which you obviously can’t control, you can work on desensitization by using a CD of the sounds. Gradually make the sounds louder (over weeks or months) as your dog becomes more comfortable. Victoria Stilwell also has a great article about fireworks anxiety.

Can CBD Help?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about CBD and dogs. From the possibility of CBD helping aggressive dogs, to CBD’s ability to calm anxious dogs, and more, many owners are finding luck with this natural supplement. Buyer beware, however, as the products are not regulated and the quality differs greatly.

These suggestions are intended to get you started, and might be enough for some dogs and pet parents, but if you feel like your dog’s fear and anxiety are more extreme or you are feeling overwhelmed, look for a positive reinforcement trainer to involve as well.

Top photo: Scared dog by Shutterstock.

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Abbie Mood, Dip. CBST

Abbie lives in Colorado with her dogs Daisy, Sadie, and Buster, and can usually be found outside with one of them. She is a dog trainer and freelance writer who loves to explore environmental and animal rights issues. Find out more about her at abbiemood.com and lifediscoveryproject.com. Follow her on Twitter @abbiemood and Instagram @abbiemood.

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