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How to Compassionately Deal With Fear and Anxiety in Dogs

When a dog is feeling anxious and fearful, it can be both heartbreaking and difficult for their owner to deal with. A fearful and anxious dog not only usurps the attention of his owner, but he can also become a major problem–biting individuals out of fear.

Fear and Anxiety in Dogs

The experience of fear is actually considered a normal dog behavior that is essential for survival. It is an instinctual feeling–most often resulting from a situation, person or object that causes the dog to prepare for freezing, fighting or fleeing in order to survive. However, when and how the dog experiences and shows their fear can determine if it is normal or entirely inappropriate. Many common dog fears involve sudden and loud noises, while many common dog anxieties involve the anticipation of future dangers, such as abandonment. Dogs can react to fear and anxiety in a variety of ways, including through sudden elimination of bladder or bowels, destruction and excessive vocalization. In the case of inappropriate fear and anxieties, a dog’s reactions can often be unlearned, but it takes time and patience.

Fears and anxieties normally develop in dogs that are between twelve and thirty-six months of age, but they can occur at any time at all. Some symptoms of mild fear and anxiety include trembling, tucked tail, withdrawal, hiding, reduced activity and even some passive escape behaviors. Some symptoms of panic include more active escape behaviors and increased, apparently erratic motor activity. Some symptoms of anxiety include behaviors such as licking and biting oneself. Fears and anxieties can develop as a result of illnesses, painful physical conditions, terrifying experiences, social deprivation, a feeling of imprisonment, abandonment and more.

Handling Fear and Anxiety in Dogs

When trying to handle fear and anxiety in a dog, one must first determine whether there are any other physical conditions that may be contributing to it. Your dog’s veterinarian can determine whether he has a brain or thyroid disease, or whether he has ingested a toxic substance like lead. Once it has been determined that there are no other physical conditions contributing to your dog’s fear or anxiety issues, your veterinarian can help you learn how to deal with and resolve them. In some cases, they may prescribe medications for your dog to take, but it is much better to try and locate the specific triggers and then use training techniques to permanently resolve them.

The first step for handling fear and anxiety in your dog is to eliminate stressors from their environment, and keep them as calm as possible. It is vitally important not to speak or act comfortingly when your dog is behaving in a fearful or anxious manner, as this will essentially reward and reinforce this behavior. Instead, you need to encourage them to remain calm by using a calm voice, taking them for quiet, calming walks, and not playing with them in a rough manner. Rewarding them with a treat, a verbal acknowledgement and a friendly pat when they are being calm can also reinforce more positive behavior.

Once you have established a generally calmer environment for your dog, you can begin to desensitize them and counter-condition them to whatever is causing fear and anxiety. With desensitization, you control your dog’s exposure to whatever it is that is triggering their negative response so that they recognize the trigger but do not respond in a negative way. This may be a one second exposure at first, but can grow to a much longer exposure over time. With counter-conditioning, you train the dog to replace their negative behavior with positive behavior by looking for the signs of oncoming fear or anxiety and diverting the dog’s attention to something positive before they react. Both desensitizing and counter-conditioning can help to improve your dog’s overall demeanor and mannerisms, and it can greatly reduce their fears and anxieties. It can take time and patience to deal with your dog’s fears and anxieties, but it will be well worth it when they become the happy, healthy canine companion you adore.

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