Oreo

Is your dog deathly afraid of anything? If so, what?

I posted that very question on Facebook recently, and the responses I received were all over the place — fireworks, baby wipes, balloons, the basement, lobsters, ear ointment, tall men, books, belts, firearms, antlers and bird feeders.

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To dog owners, these fears seem silly and inexplicable, but sometimes, they can cause big problems. Not only is fear stressful, it can be the root of shy or aggressive behavior.

To learn more about this puzzling topic, I called Don Hanson, co-owner of Green Acres Kennel Shop in Bangor. As a certified dog behavior consultant, Hanson has vast experience in detecting and managing dog fears.

The first thing Hanson said: “It’s not as simple as most people think it is.”

In other words, I can’t possibly cover such an enormous topic in one blog post. Nevertheless, I think dog owners will be interested in some of the insights Hanson shared during the conversation.

Hanson said a variety of things can create fear in your dog.

First of all, some fears (and personality traits in general) can be hereditary, Hanson said.

“If either parent is shy or timid, odds are the puppy will be shy or timid as well,” Hanson said. “Genetics plays a huge role.”

Oreo and I playing in Triplet Park.
Oreo and I playing in Triplet Park.

Furthermore, during the first eight weeks of a dog’s life, it learns behaviors from its mothers and siblings. Dogs with no siblings, also known as “singleton puppies,” are much more likely to have fear issues, especially when it comes to fearing other dogs, Hanson said.

Another key time dogs develop certain phobias is between 8 and 16 weeks — the key socialization period for dogs.

“Most of the dogs I see for fear and fear aggression were not well socialized,” Hanson said. “It’s not just about meeting a couple people and meeting a couple dogs, if you’re going to do it right, you’re going to be spending a lot of time with your dog over those 8 weeks.”

Hanson suggests dog owners introduce their puppy to a minimum of 15 new people every week during that time period. He also suggests introducing the puppy to a few new dogs each week and visiting new places that aren’t too overwhelming.

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That’s not all. Socialization is also about introducing your puppy to objects and activities. And it’s important to keep in mind that if a puppy is being socialized during the summer months, it’s missing out on winter experiences. Down the road, the owners might find their dog is fearful of snow, shovels or people dressed in winter clothes, Hanson said.

“We put them in a lot of situations that we haven’t prepared them well for,” Hanson said. “We have very high, unrealistic expectations based on a lot of myths — for example, the myth that all dogs like other dogs.”

Then there’s the reality that many dog owners — such as myself — didn’t have the opportunity to socialize their dog during that critical period of 8-16 weeks of age.

Oreo afraid simply because I grabbed his collar to make him sit in a certain spot for a photo! Last time I grabbed his collar, he had a flea bath. So I guess it makes sense.
Oreo afraid simply because I grabbed his collar to make him sit in a certain spot for a photo! Last time I grabbed his collar, he had a flea bath. So I guess it makes sense.

I adopted Oreo from an animal shelter when he was 7 months old, and I have no idea what his upbringing was like. Therefore, I keep running into peculiar fears: fear of the vacuum, the broom, bottles and cans, other dogs, the lawn mower and of course, the flea comb.

When it comes to fear, anxiety or behavioral issues, each dog is a unique case, said Hanson. That’s why he suggests consulting someone trained in dog behavior rather than asking “Dr. Google.” Even a fear that appears simple — for example, a fear of thunderstorms — can be complex.

“The thing that makes storms really complicated is we don’t know what the dog is actually reacting to,” Hanson said. “Is it the sound? Seeing the lightning? Changes in air pressure? Changes in how the air smells? Changes in different electrostatic energy? It can be all of those things, one of those things, or none of those things. And we can’t ask the dog.”

That being said, the typical dog owner isn’t going to visit a dog behavior consultant unless the fear is negatively impacting their dog’s life. Some fears are minor, and quite frankly, they seem a bit silly.

For example, the other day, I approached my dog Oreo with a tiny, plastic flea comb (to check if he had fleas). Straight away, I could tell he was uncomfortable. He averted his eyes, crouched, then sprinted to the back door. While I’m no expert on dog body language, I’m confident Oreo was saying, “Get me out of here.”

In these minor cases, there are a few things owners can do (and not do).

First of all, when dealing with a dog’s fear, it’s important understand dog body language called “calming signals,” Hanson said, signs that your dog is experiencing discomfort or a low level of fear. Some of these signals are yawning, scratching, breaking eye contact, turning their head and turning their whole body. To learn more about dog body language, visit the articles provided on www.greenacreskennel.com.

Even if the fear seems silly — for example, fear of a balloon — Hanson suggests taking baby steps towards the particular fear, not confronting it outright.

“Forcing them to confront the fear is a great way of locking it in for life,” Hanson said.

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One method to help a dog overcome fear is positive reinforcement, such as high quality treats, Hanson said. But this doesn’t always work because many dogs lose their appetite when anxious.

If a dog cowers, runs away, growls, whines or shakes, these are often reactions to a strong fear. First, remove your dog from the situation, Hanson said. Then, because fear is a stress reaction, your dog needs 24-72 hours to calm down before doing anything that addresses that fear.

While some fears are deep-seated and recurring, there’s also a seemingly inexplicable but common occurrence called a “fear event,” when a dog suddenly becomes afraid of something it was previously comfortable with, Hanson said.

“Never use punishment of any form [in response to fear],” advised Hanson. “Even looking at them cross-eyed is counterproductive. Even if they’re growling. People need to recognize a growl for what it is, which is something that is very good. It’s a dog’s way of saying, ‘I’m uncomfortable in this situation. Do something about it.’”

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For dogs with serious fear issues, Hanson sometimes turns to using Bach Flower Remedies, tonics made of wildflowers that help pets dispel negative emotions.

Often, a dog will express fears through aggression (growling, lunging and biting). If this is the case, Hanson suggests working with a behavior consultant and veterinarian immediately to develop a “behavior modification plan,” a type of treatment also used for humans dealing with phobias and unhealthy behaviors.

To learn more about pet behavior counseling at Green Acres Kennel Shop, visit www.greenacreskennel.com, and to learn more about the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, visit iaabc.org.

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...