I am in the middle of writing a book on dogs and dog behaviour. As I work through the chapters, I notice that a large part of my book is on handling different kinds of fears. Be it seemingly irrational fear of the painting of a Chinese man serving noodles, or be it the learned fear of other dogs or deep-rooted fears of trauma, the theme is the same -fear and how to help your dog overcome it.
It all boils down to these four steps: Learn to identify fear when your dog expresses it; identify the object of the fear; let your dog deal with it; and provide reassurance and choices.
Your dog may have different ways of expressing fear of something. He might cower in fear, bark, growl, try to avoid and walk away from it, etc. Watch your dog’s behavior at home, during walks, and in other environments. If your dog is afraid of anything, he will express it. For example, when on a walk, if your dog becomes afraid of other dogs, at the first sight of another dog, he may briefly freeze, keep looking at the other dog from the corner of his eyes, start growling or start sniffing the grass. The signs will be subtle, but learning to read it will pay off.
Next, identify what he is afraid of. If he freezes on walks, identify if it’s another dog, or perhaps someone carrying something on their head or a particular person or a sound. Sometimes, dogs can detect rain before it starts raining and start showing fear signs. Such a dog may be afraid of thunder.
You have identified the reason for fear. Now what? Just let him deal with it. Stay out of it. You might ask: What’s the point of identifying the fear and object of fear if I am not going to do anything about it? I am not saying `do nothing’.
I am saying `stay out of it’. And to stay out of it, you need to know what `it’ is. Then watch your dog closely on what he really wants to do. Oblige. Most times, when dogs are afraid of other dogs, their first choice is to go the other way. But we don’t realise that and continue to walk towards the other dog and realise the whole thing only after a fight erupts. So, at the first sign of fear walk your dog away or walk in a wide arc around the other dog.
The last part is to provide reassurance. That does not mean hug your dog. For example, in our crèche, we often have one puppy scared to socialise with other dogs and wants to stand behind me. I always allow that. When she is ready, she will step out and make friends and explore. But as long as she wants to stand behind me, she is welcome to do that and I will not let any other dog approach her. Another example would be when taking your dog for a walk and when passing another dog, your dog might want to move to the far side, putting you in between the two dogs. If your dog wants to hide behind you that’s ok.
As with all fears, only we know how to handle our fears.
Only your dog knows how to handle his fears. The best you can do is to let him take it at his pace, don’t force things on him, reassure him and when he is ready to take a step towards conquering his fear, and he turns to look at you, nod and smile. Let him know that he has the option of walking out.