Sometimes no matter how well you treat your dog they develop a bit of a neurotic personality. Occasionally it can be a full blown case and the dog is afraid of its own shadow, sometimes little things set off an episode of fear.
There are natural points in a dog’s development where fear stages will probably occur. One of my Labs took offense to a fluttering Grocery sack on a tree when she was 6 mos. old. We needed to have a full session with her to reintroduce her to Grocery sacks in a non-threatening way. Another of my dogs that was being trained for Search and Rescue, was startled by a subject concealed in a blue tarp. To this day she is very unsure of blue tarps. She has no problems with Green, Orange or Silver tarps just blue ones. These natural fear stages typically will occur at 6 months, 12 months and 18 months old. These are not hard and fast as some dogs will develop at slightly faster or slightly slower rates.
The most pronounced fear issues that I have faced with my dogs happened several years ago with a hound mix that we owned. Shannon was a sweet and wonderful pup of about 30 pounds. She was a mix of Dachshund and White Shepard. When the litter was about 6 weeks old, there was a lightning strike within 10 feet of the whelping pen. Shannon developed an aggressive fear of thunder.
This fear showed up every time the barometer dropped. We didn’t even need to hear thunder and the dog would start to pace and drool. Several times she climbed into the bathtub and shivered. Most of the time,she would find me, crawl under my legs and drool on my socks. This was the worst case of fear behavior that I have ever seen. The 4th of July was always traumatic for her too. The distant fireworks were almost more than she could stand.
The most important thing that you can do is to recognize what is happening to your dog and treat it in an appropriate way so that the fear reaction does not get reinforced. Telling your dog that it’s reaction is OK and coddling the dog is not the right handler response. If possible you should confront the fearsome object in a non-threatening way. You should reinforce inquisitive behavior with good treats and a positive voice.
If there is a way to introduce the fearsome object in a non-threatening way this is how you would start to de-escalate the the fear reaction. In the case of the fluttering grocery sack, I laid out several bags around the room. Each time the dog checked them out I tossed a treat to her so that it landed on the bags. After a few minutes she was moving from bag to bag and pouncing on each one for a treat. Then I hung several of the bags fro doorknobs and treated her when she touched them with her nose. Finally, I took the bags outside to the dog pen where there was a breeze and hung the bags where they would flutter in the wind. She had no problem going over to the bags and touching them for a treat. Problem solved.
In the case of my thunder shy dog.
We didn’t want to reinforce her fear reaction so we just ignored her behavior until she seemed to relax a bit during a rainstorm. She got a treat for this. In the last several years there is a product that would have been a godsend for this dog. From what I have seen, this product, called the Thundershirt,
, calms the nerves of dogs while they wear it. It is amazing how well it works. I would have purchased this for my Shannon if it had been available for her.