8 Common Dog Fears—and How to Ease Them

woman petting husky dogwoman petting husky dogBy Alexandra Gekas

Calm Those Nerves

They may be called scaredy-cats, but many dogs have serious anxieties. Whether your canine cowers at the sight of a stranger or runs for cover during a thunderstorm, your pooch is far from the only fraidy-pup. "Some dogs are born with certain fears, while others have scary experiences," says Kristen Collins, Director of Anti-Cruelty Behavior Services at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Luckily, no matter how the fear developed, desensitizing your dog to triggers and teaching him to associate them with something positive can neutralize the problem. Read on for ideas for soothing the most common canine anxieties. Photo: Thinkstock

Separation Anxiety

Heartbreaking, but true: When you head out the door, your dog may act out because he fears you'll never return. "It's like a child who's lost his mom at the mall-he just panics," says Marty Becker, DVM, pet expert at VetStreet.com. So why does it happen? "When people bring home adopted dogs over a weekend, the pet sees his new family all the time," explains Collins. "When the work week begins, he has to deal with hours of isolation, a stressful change." Though signs that you're leaving, like grabbing your keys and putting on your shoes, can cause your dog to chew the door, self-mutilate and more, don't respond to your pet-it'll only reinforce the fear. "The wrong thing to do is go, 'Don't worry, I'll be right back,'" explains Dr. Becker. Instead, pretend your dog's invisible. Then, at a time when you're not actually leaving, "grab your bag and then put it away. Or go out, start your car and then turn it off and come back in," recommends Dr. Becker. This should desensitize your dog to your comings and goings. You can up the ante by giving your pet a treat when you pick up your bag or leave, so your dog associates you leaving with something positive. But if your dog just won't calm down when you leave the house, speak with your vet. A prescription for Xanax may help, says Dr. Becker.
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Fear of Thunderstorms

Stormy weather can make your dog uneasy for lots of reasons. He could've been left outside in a thundershower as a puppy, which would've been frightening. Or booming thunder and flashes of lightning could scare him. If you suspect noise is the problem, try playing a CD of thunderstorm sounds, says Debbie McKnight, a PetSmart Pet Training expert. "Start it at a low level, so he barely hears it and isn't afraid. Then, do something fun, like giving treats or playing, while you gradually increase the volume," says McKnight. To desensitize your dog to lightning, try setting off your camera's flash while a sheet's draped over it so the light isn't as intense, suggests Collins. Then, work up to flashes without anything obstructing the light. Finally, combine the thunderstorm sounds and flashing lights, starting with low volume and obscured light. But these tactics won't work if thunder and lightning aren't the only problems. "Changes in barometric pressure, which predict a storm is coming, can set off your dog," says McKnight. In that case, focus on helping your dog relax. Try a pheromone collar, which gives off a synthetic form of a pooch-appeasing pheromone mother dogs secrete, or a new item called the Thundershirt , which swaddles your dog so he feels more secure. "Those tools will at least make thunderstorms more tolerable," says McKnight.

Fear of Strangers

One of the more common canine phobias, Collins says it often stems from one puppyhood problem: "Dogs who don't meet lots of people between three weeks and three months of age are more likely to develop this fear," she notes. But lack of socialization isn't always the issue. "It can also happen if the dog was mistreated or someone accidentally scared it during that same period of time," says Mary Burch, Ph.D., a certified applied animal behaviorist who directs programs for the American Kennel Club (AKC). And it's extra-important to address this anxiety: "Dogs can become biters or so fearful that owners don't want to take them into the community," says Dr. Burch. For a short-term solution, keep your dog somewhere he feels safe when you have a visitor in your home. "Then, if you think he's ready and can be calm, bring him out on a leash," suggests McKnight. Keep him at a distance from your guest, who shouldn't look at or touch your dog. Next, slowly bring your pet closer to your visitor when he seems comfortable with the current distance. And always make sure your dog feels like he has an exit. Just don't force interaction, warns McKnight-your dog will lose trust in you.
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Fear of Other Dogs

As with strangers, your pooch could fear other four-legged creatures because he wasn't exposed to enough as a puppy or because he had a bad experience with one. But if your dog lunges or barks at fellow pets while on his leash, he could be like 80% of dogs who act aggressively when they want to greet other dogs, something called barrier frustration, says certified professional dog trainer and VetStreet.com expert Mikkel Becker. To remedy this, Becker recommends turning your pup's back to other dogs you encounter. Then, give your pet a treat, which serves as both a distraction and a reward for keeping cool, and make him stay until the other pooch has passed. Or do practice sessions with a friend's well-trained dog, one who will remain neutral even with your nervous or aggressive pet, adds McKnight.

Fear of Stairs

Like many phobias, this one usually starts during puppyhood. "He likely wasn't taught to use stairs, or he fell down stairs or was forced by a pet parent to go down when he was afraid," says Becker. Start small with training steps instead of on open stairs (where you can see the floor below) or slippery steps (such as wood), or at least practice on a staircase your dog doesn't have a prior association with, recommends Becker. Place treats on the edge of the bottom few steps. Once your dog climbs the stairs for his treats, praise him in a calm, soothing voice to keep the mood upbeat, suggests Becker. You can also hold a treat in front of your dog's nose and encourage him to follow it up the stairs-and down. Repeat the process introducing another stair every couple of days. "As your pet gains confidence you can start training him to use various types of stairs," says Becker.
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Fear of the Vet or Groomer

There are many triggers at the vet's office or groomer's. After all, "your dog may smell weird scents or hate the unpleasant things vets [and groomers] do," says Dr. Burch. Or he may notice that other dogs in the waiting room are afraid from their body language and barking, says Collins. So show your dog that not every trip to the vet or groomer will be uncomfortable. "Take him when you don't have an appointment, reward him and leave," advises McKnight. And get your dog used to being handled. "At home, practice anything the vet or groomer might do. For example, restrain a certain body part and give your dog a treat, so he doesn't view being held down as horrible." Your dog may also fear the instruments used during his visits. "Get a pair of clippers, for instance, and teach your dog that the sight and sound of them means delivery of a treat or a game."

Fear of Vacuums

Vacuums are big and loud to small breeds and can come off as menacing to large breeds. "Sometimes, it's better to give your dog something tasty at the other end of the house so he's not exposed to the vacuum," says Collins. But if you want to train your dog out of hating the hoover, Collins recommends dealing with the noise first. Play a CD of vacuum sounds at a volume your dog can handle, and give him his favorite treat or play his favorite game with him. "Do this for 10 or 15 minutes; then, when the sound stops, the fun stops," she says. Do this repeatedly over the course of a week, slowly turning up the volume each time. But watch your dog's body language. "If you see signs of anxiety, he's not ready for you to turn it up." Collins also suggests keeping the vacuum in the room, so your dog gets used to its presence without it being turned on. Once your dog is comfortable with the sight of the vacuum and the separate sound, turn it on and keep your dog back while you give him treats. Taking it at his pace, slowly bring him closer to the turned-on vacuum while you treat him at every stage. "Now when you use your vacuum, your dog will think something fun is going to happen, not something scary," says Collins.
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Fear of the Car

Your pooch may not fear your vehicle so much as where you're going, especially if your dog hops in the car only to visit the vet or the groomer. Or he may not like being jostled around, as bumpy roads can do. Another possible fear-inducer: the darkness inside your auto. In any case, start by getting your dog more comfortable in your vehicle. "I pulled my car into a fenced area, opened all the doors and let my dog off-leash," says McKnight. "I threw toys into the car and through it." If your pup has a pooch pal who doesn't mind getting in the car, invite him along; your pet may follow his friend in. One more tactic: "Give your dog a few meals in the car when you're not going anywhere scary," adds McKnight.

Original article appeared on WomansDay.com.

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