All dogs get scared at times, but if your dog is often particularly tense and wary in situations, it’s a good idea to address it early and help calm your dog before they develop a phobia.
Why do dogs get scared?
A number of things in the human world can be frightening to a dog. The ideal time to expose a dog to a wide range of people, places, situations, and other animals is when they’re a puppy. This early stage, known as the socialisation phase, lasts until around 16 weeks of age. During this time, a puppy is more sensitive to the effects of socialisation.
Why should I socialise my dog?
Puppies that are well socialised, and have positive experiences, generally grow into happy, confident dogs. Unfortunately, not all dogs receive the positive socialisation they needed as puppies and can develop phobias and fears later in life.
How do I socialise my dog as a puppy?
Socialising your dog involves introducing them to a wide range of new experiences, such as meeting different types of people, dogs, other animals, and introducing new places, smells, and noises. Dogs should be introduced to new situations gently and, in order to establish acceptable behaviours, be rewarded for their calm behaviour through positive reinforcement. This will help ensure new experiences are positive and your puppy or dog enjoys socialising. As your puppy grows up it’s important to remember that positive socialisation practices are still important to keep up throughout every dog’s life, even into their senior years. Here’s our top tips for helping to calm a dog that’s become more of a scaredy cat.
Top tips to help calm a frightened dog:
- Continually expose your dog to positive socialisation experiences to avoid developing a phobia.
- Get to know how your dog shows signs of stress. By identifying fearful behaviour in your dog early, you can help prevent the behaviour becoming entrenched and better support your dog’s emotional wellbeing.
- Some useful signs of stress to look out for in your dog include yawning (when not tired), pacing, whining, drooling and licking, as well as tense and tucked body posturing.
- Get to know the source of your dog's fear. If your dog is showing signs of fear, explore what may be causing it. By identifying what your dog is frightened of, you can then start to develop a plan to help build their confidence and manage the situation. For example, if your dog is frightened of storms, you can try to anticipate stormy weather events and bring them inside before the thunder starts.
- Create a safe space for your dog to relax. This safe space will provide your dog with the ability to take some time out whenever they need it and can be a refuge when they’re feeling stressed or fearful. Your dog’s safe space might be their crate, or a bed placed in a quiet location away from other human and pet traffic. Help train your dog to enjoy their safe space through positive reinforcement, and by providing toys and treats.
- Try introducing chew toys to your dog. Chew toys can be very helpful for calming an upset dog. The act of chewing releases endorphins which help to relax and calm. Calm toys can also help teach puppy’s how to self-soothe. Using a chew toy works best at the first signs of stress, before your dog becomes too distressed to interact with the toy.
- Teach your dog the skills of alone time early, as some dogs are fearful of being left alone. It’s important that all dogs are taught the skills they need to cope with ‘alone time’ from an early age. To get started, have your dog settle in their safe spot, provide interactive toys to keep them busy and slowly build up the amount of time they’re left alone. Practice coming and going for different periods of time. It can also help to initially ignore your dog when you return home and only interact with them when they’re displaying calm behaviour, to avoid inadvertently reinforcing any overly excitable behaviour.
- Explore a desensitisation program. Dogs with specific phobias may benefit from a desensitisation program, where they are exposed to the source of their fear in tiny increments and at a level so as not to incite a fear response. Programs of this nature are best managed with the help of a veterinary behaviourist or qualified dog trainer. Ask your veterinary team for a referral or recommendation.
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