Friday, August 5, 2011

Dogs and fear: How to help when your dog develops a phobia

Liam the pug resting in his bed
Liam has most of this house mapped out. He can get around the house when it's pitch dark, and he can run at high speeds around the living room without touching anything but the floor.

I used to think this was a good thing.

Now I am not so sure.

Liam has, it seems, developed an irrational fear of anything that's out of place. Let's say that his urge to map the house has gone into overdrive. So if anything is in an unusual place, he gets worried.

Case in point: I moved a candle from the dining room table to the low sideboard we keep in the dining room. In the middle of the meal, Liam suddenly started producing these low woof-woof noises. He was holding his tail straight down, and had his hackles up in a row. He was extremely upset about this candle being on a different table.

This isn't a one-off reaction. Liam has also struggled with my husband's guitar (doesn't belong in the living room), my laundry basket (shouldn't be in the kitchen) and the ironing board (shouldn't be set up in the bedroom). He takes his rules about placement very seriously. When objects are in the wrong places, Liam gets scared.

It's not unusual for dogs to develop fear. High-strung dogs like Liam, in particular, are at risk for fear because they like to be in control of their surroundings and reduce the possibility of surprise. But there are a lot of things you can do to help.

When Liam becomes panicked about an object, I move into training mode. Here's what I do:
  1. I move the item onto the floor (if it isn't there already).
  2. I sit by the object. 
  3. I praise Liam for approaching the object.
  4. I touch the object myself and then I touch Liam. 
  5. I put treats around the object and encourage him to eat those treats.
It usually takes about 15 minutes for Liam to get over his fear and walk off. But it can take a lot longer. (The candle took him a full half-hour to overcome, for some reason.) The key is to move slowly and be patient. Rushing things can make a nervous pet yet more nervous. So it pays to be patient.

With your patience and training, you can help your fearful dog to overcome these phobias. You can do it!