What Determines Your Dog’s Phobias: Nature Vs. Nurture
There are a variety of reasons why your dog has developed his or her phobias in the first place. One of the most frequent causes of dog phobias and fear stems back to their puppyhood – if dogs aren’t exposed to a wide range of stimuli when they’re young (including a variety of people, places and things), they can suffer from a lack of socialization, and in turn, develop certain forms of anxiety or fear.
Therefore, if you’re fortunate to raise a dog from his earliest years, it’s highly beneficial to socialize him as much as possible so he can adapt and become familiar with his surroundings and the world around him.
However, there are also predetermined sets of behaviors for certain breeds – in other words, nature versus nurture. Genetics do indeed factor into your dog’s set of behaviors and social responses to certain situations, people and other stimuli.
For example, herding dogs – such as border collies, German shepherds, and shelties are ‘hard-wired’ a bit differently, since they’ve been trained and bred for thousands of years to become protective of their surroundings, other animals and their owners. As a result, they’re hypersensitive to their environments, and are more prone to anxiety and phobias.
Ultimately, every dog is unique and their breed won’t necessarily determine their anxieties – it really comes down to a combination of your dog’s upbringing, predispositions, and how well you can help your pet cope with any phobias he or she may have.
How Can I Help My Dog Cope with His Anxiety?
According to experts at the ASPCA, some dogs are actually born with certain types of anxiety or phobias, while others suffer anxiety disorders similar to humans, a condition known as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), or fears based on past traumatic experiences.
While it may take some time, patience and even professional assistance, you can help your fur babies overcome their phobias and anxiety. Here are a list of common dog fears and phobias, along with helpful tips to work through them with your four-legged friend:
You’re Driving Me Crazy! Dogs Afraid of Car Rides
For many dog owners, it’s all too common for our beloved pooches to have a deep-seated fear of riding in the family car. Unfortunately, road trips are usually associated with unpleasant destinations, such as a trip to the vet or the groomer. Worse yet, for rescue dogs, a ride in our SUV may stir up fears of possible abandonment.
As pup parents, it’s our job to make our dogs a bit more comfortable, both figuratively as well as literally. The key to success is to redefine car outings: help your dog associate it with a positive experience rather than a negative one. Your dog may actually benefit from crating during car trips; in addition to keeping him safe, it also creates a feeling of calm for many pets.
Bring a snuggly blanket or a favorite chew toy along for the ride to further ease his anxiety, as well as treats (unless he is experience car sickness). Always carry a portable water dish and bottle – keeping your pooch hydrated is of utmost importance on any trip, especially during the warmer months.
Tip: Retrain your dog’s association with car rides by bringing him to a ‘fun’ destination, such as his favorite dog park, beach, or anywhere he enjoys playing outside. Before you know it, he’ll be looking forward to (not loathing) road trips!
Please Don’t Leave Me! Dogs Who Fear Being Left Alone
Another common cause of distress in our pooches is separation anxiety, which can result in a range of behaviors, from pacing and crying to an all-out destruction of our home and its interiors. When left alone for more than several hours, some dogs grow increasingly anxious awaiting our return, and are not emotionally equipped to handle our departure.
So what’s a dog owner to do? Depending on the severity of your pup’s anxiety woes, there are a number of different approaches:
- Go Fetch: Before you leave your dog, tire him out with a bit of exercise – a brisk walk, a game of fetch in the yard or another favorite game can help ease the transition (and possibly help him relax – he might take a nap after your ‘work-out’).
- Hide & Treat: Hide your pooch’s favorite tasty treats around the house so he can ‘hunt’ for snacks while you’re gone. Not only will this tactic keep him distracted for several hours (depending on how well you hide them), but it will create a game-like mentality for your dog, retraining his association of being left alone from something negative to something positive.
- Music Soothes The Savage Beast: Some dogs actually respond to noise therapy – either music or voices can help ease their anxiety. Leave your TV or radio on for your distressed doggie while you’re out and about.
Tip: In the case of severe separation anxiety, you may need to consult with the experts. First, meet with your veterinarian to rule out any underlying medical conditions. Once you’ve determined it’s a behavioral issue, you may wish to seek a certified dog trainer to assist you with the next steps.
Keep It Down! Dogs Who Hate Loud Noises
One of the most common phobias seen in our canine companions is the fear of loud noises. Many pet owners are unsure how to calm their pooches during a thunderstorm, the Fourth of July firework celebration down the block or even a quick encounter with a vacuum.
Whether your pup had a bad experience when he was young or is simply terrified of loud noises, one of the best things you can do is to NOT coddle him or her – studies show that overreacting can actually reinforce this frightened behavior. Instead, try desensitization techniques. Is Fido afraid of thunder? Try playing a pre-recorded storm at a low volume while playing games with him and feeding him treats, gradually turning up the volume over the course of a few days until he’s used to it.
Distract your dog as much as possible in the event of the loud noise so as to keep his mind off of it – the key is to redirect his thinking in a positive manner. Be reassuring and let him know you’re there for him, but try not to feed into his fear – when you create a stable and nurturing environment, it will help him overcome his anxiety.
Tip: Try and remain as detached and low-key as possible during the noise-causing incident: by remaining calm and not showing a reaction to the loud noises, you can help to desensitize your dog to the stress-inducing situation. Some dogs prefer to be in a dark, quiet place if it’s available, such as a basement or closet; other dogs will take to crating during stressful moments when the volume or stimuli are too much.
What Are They Wearing? Dogs Who Mistrust Hats & Sunglasses
One particular phobia your dog may deal with is the topic of ‘disguise’ – yes, those elusive folks in hats, sunglasses or other garb concealing their identity or altering their silhouette may send your four-legged friend over the edge. For some canines, if they can’t see someone’s face clearly, they may not trust that person, and reactions can vary from barking to nipping or even lunging.
While this can be bothersome while walking your dog in a public place, what can be even more problematic is if said person wants to interact with your pet. It’s therefore up to you to explain to the person that they need to remove their sunglasses, hat, backpack, hoodie etc. in order for your dog to relax. In most cases, once they’ve done so, most dogs will calm down enough to interact with that person.
You can help out your pooch with a variety of desensitization methods, including wearing a hat around him – or better yet, encouraging friends to wear a hat around him and feed him treats, so he has a positive association with hats (or whatever removable object that sets him off). In extreme cases, you may want to consult a licensed dog trainer if this behavior becomes an ongoing issue.
Did You Know? This particular phobia is usually linked to the ‘imprint’ phase of puppies, between ages 4 weeks – 4 months. If they’re not properly socialized and exposed to as many situations/people as possible during this crucial time frame, dogs may be easily frightened by certain triggers as they mature.