Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Irrational dog fear strikes again: How to help a fearful dog

Liam the pug is afraid of an exercise ball
Liam eyes the new enemy (note how snug he is to the wall).
Liam the pug has a confession to make: He's afraid of new things in new places. And right now, he has a lot to be afraid of. 

A few months back, I had surgery for my shoulder. Recovery is no picnic. My therapists ask me to do all sorts of wild exercises several times per day, and since my left side is so weak, I often have to use tools in my therapy. Since I can't hold my arm out to the left side, for example, I hold a stick in my right hand and shove my left arm out to the side. These therapies are awkward for me, but I think they're even more difficult for small and fearful Liam.

Liam is afraid of almost every tool I've used in my physical therapy. Bands and sticks have been particularly troubling in the past, and when I brought home this large exercise ball yesterday, I thought he might have an actual mental breakdown. He absolutely refused to be in the same room with the exercise ball, so he stood in the hallway, shivering.

Today, he will stay in the room when the ball is out, but as you can see in the photograph, he remains convinced that the ball is going to do him some sort of harm, and he gives it a wide margin. When I start rolling the ball for my exercises, he hides under the desk. If a stationary ball is scary, a ball on the move must be simply terrifying.

In a few days, with some coaxing and plenty of cookies, he should be clear of these fears. Then, we'll both wait to see what new tools the therapists will give me in my next session. I hope his heart can hold out.

If your dog is fearful like this, conditioning can help. Placing treats near the scary thing gives the dog a very specific reminder that new can be good. But the key is to go slowly. Dogs must approach their fears alone, without you pushing them to do so.

For Liam, it takes about an hour to approach something new. Some dogs can make the leap quicker. Some dogs need even more time. Just remember: Don't push. Let them decide, and soon, that new thing will be scary no more.