Tackling common canine phobias
Sarah Whitehead, one of the UK’s leading pet behaviourists, celebrated author and founder of the Clever Dog Company, gives us her advice to pass on to clients:
1. Fear of fireworks/ loud noises
One way to help dogs scared by sounds is by desensitisation. This is a process that gives dogs experience of the ‘scary’ sounds on a regular basis in the safe environment of home using a soundtrack of fireworks and bangs. This can work well, but it’s important to always work ‘sub-threshold’ - which means the behavioural programme takes time and needs to be progressed in very tiny increments. In the moment though, I tend to find that giving dogs a safe haven where they can hide can work wonders, so creating a cosy ‘den’ using blankets or a duvet under the bed, or behind the sofa can really help.
2. Fear of the car
Many dogs are fearful of car travel because it makes them feel poorly. Feeding the dog in the car while it’s stationary can help because it starts to create positive associations with the vehicle itself, and altering how or where the dog travels in the car is important too. Many dogs are better if they are unable to see out, and keeping them still also helps to prevent queasiness building up. Some owners swear by herbal remedies, but just like children, little and often travel to fun places is essential to build their ‘sea legs’.
3. Fear of the vets
How many of us really like visiting the dentist? Not many - and you would have to offer me some very large incentives before I really felt better about it. Without doubt the best strategy owners can use is to make sure that all the handling aspects of the visit are well accepted by the dog before even reaching the surgery. Owners should practice handling their dog at home, building up to using gentle restraint, and giving lots of rewards for tolerance of this. Then, as a vet, you will be able to examine the dog without trauma – even if this has to be in the car park rather than on the examination table!
4. Separation anxiety
Firstly, it’s essential that the dog’s separation problem is correctly diagnosed. Videoing the dog while the owner’s out and having the footage assessed by a professional behaviourist is important to rule out other conditions which can look very similar - such as separation frustration and separation fun! Quite clearly, these would need to be treated very differently.
Dogs with true separation anxiety typically follow their owners around from room to room when they are home, so intervention must start here. Putting up baby gates or managing the environment so that the dog cannot be a little shadow is a good first step, but for severe cases, professional advice is always recommended.
5. Fear of objects
Most dogs are sensibly wary of certain objects, particularly if they are new. They tend to become used to the item over time as long as no one in the household creates a drama by paying attention to it – for example by trying to lure the dog towards it with food or persuasion. This is the worst thing owners can do, as it confirms in the dog’s mind that the object is somehow ‘suspicious’.
Unless the dog has widespread or generalised fears or phobias, then it is possible to help them make new associations with a specific object by rewarding them for confident behaviour in the object’s presence.
For example, my own rescue dog was scared when I first got out a pair of metal stepladders. So, I got out my clicker and some treats and rewarded her every time she voluntarily just looked in their direction. The following day I clicked and treated her for taking steps towards the ladder. In less than a week, I trained her to put her paws on the step ladder and then climb it step by step – and in doing so completely eradicated her fear. I also have a new party trick with which to impress my trainer friends!
Overall, fears and phobias in dogs tend to either improve or deteriorate – they rarely stay the same. Because of this, my recommendation is to recommend professional behavioural help early, rather than leave it to chance. Your clients’ dogs will thank you for it!
For dogs that would benefit help from a qualified behaviourist, Kennel Club Pet Insurance policies include cover for Behavioural Therapy, so you can help them access the expert help they need.
About Sarah Whitehead, BA (Hons), MSc, Full Member of the APBC, APDT, and Certified Clinical Animal Behaviourist (CCAB), Animal Behaviour Training Council (ABTC) Registered Clinical Animal Behaviourist
Sarah specialises in aggression in dogs and weird and wonderful behaviour problems in cats. She runs the Clever Dog Company – with 15 branches of puppy and dog training classes in the South of England.
She is an accredited education provider (www.thinkdog.org) and an inspirational speaker on all things dog and cat.
Her absolute passion is canine body language and her new online programme – ‘LearnToTalkDog.com’ – has received fabulous reviews.
Sarah is the author of 25 books. Her latest – ‘Clever Dog’ has 5 stars on Amazon (over 65 reviews!).
Sarah lives in Windsor, with three dogs – all rescues of course!
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