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Health & Grooming: Calming Dog Anxiety and Fears by Paula Felps

All of us have things that scare us, but for our four-legged friends, loud noises, new situations, and changes in the weather can be daunting. Unable to communicate exactly what's causing their fears, dogs depend upon us to decipher their concerns, and most importantly, make them feel safe and secure. After all, no dog wants to be a 'fraidy cat'.

"Fears can occur with the strangest set of stimuli," says Peter L. Borchelt, Ph.D., of Animal Behaviorist Consultants in Brooklyn, N.Y. "It can be everything from the sound of bubblegum popping to thunder. But there are so many components within that stimuli that you have to deal with all of the elements surrounding that sound."

For example, a dog who appears to be afraid of garbage trucks is probably actually frightened by the crushing sound the vehicle makes—not the truck itself.

To minimize fears, Dr. Borchelt says that desensitization is something that can be done at home—but it must be done consistently and compassionately."

The good thing about desensitization is that you always move forward if it's done right," he says.

Music to the Ears Using nature CDs that include sounds of storms often can cure the common fear of thunder. (Make sure you don't use CDs with music in the background.) Sitting with your dog while the CD plays softly helps him feel safe and allows him to grow accustomed to the sound. Once he's comfortable with the sound, you can gradually increase the volume.

Dog photo City dogs are often fearful of garbage trucks, so Dr. Borchelt recommends walking with your dog as the truck makes its morning route. Keep a safe distance—start by trailing a block or two behind the truck—and then gradually get closer to allow him to become more familiar with the sounds.

How Fear Happens

A fear can be created from a single incident—just as with humans.

Extremely loud noises—like bursting balloons and firecrackers—are common triggers for fear in dogs, and in those cases, you may simply avoid exposing your canine companion to those experiences.

Household items such as phones, vacuum cleaners, and even flashlights can be a source of trepidation, but fortunately those fears can usually be relieved with gentle introductions to the object in question."

You can make [him] associate that object with a pleasurable experience, like receiving a treat," Dr. Borchelt says. "Give [him] limited exposure to whatever it is that frightens [him], and then reward [him]."

Keep in mind that overcoming a fear will take patience and persistence, but it can be done."It's usually not a huge investment of money, but it does take a lot of time," Dr. Borchelt says. "It's the same as having a child who is shy. You work on it gradually but continuously. It's just something you and your dog get to work on together."

Relaxing Together

Fixing fear with fun times The easiest way to head off fears is, of course, to stop them from occurring in the first place.

"It's best if you can start when they're puppies," says Dr. Peter L. Borchelt, Ph.D. "You've got to take them outdoors and expose them to the world. The later in life that you begin to do that, the longer it will take and the harder it is for them to adjust."

Fortunately, his prescription for fending off fear is one that's fun to follow, whether you've got two legs or four.

"Go on play dates, go to the park together," he says. "Go for walks around different sounds. The biggest thing is just to get them used to the world around them so it isn't something that is frightening."

Tips

Dogs depend upon us to make them feel secure. The keys to overcoming fears are patience and persistence.

Keep desensitization events very positive and fun. Make a game out of it with your dog to ensure that they are having a very positive experience with a lot of praise and some treats when they show positive behavior towards the things that they are afraid of. Never force your dog to interact with the things of which he is afraid; back off if the dog becomes nervous or anxious. Short frequent sessions with a lot of praise and some treats here and there are best.

About the Author Paula Felps is owned by two Boston Terriers named Simon and Zoe.