When a dog is frightened and whimpering or cowering, most people instinctually jump to soothe and comfort the scared pooch. However, if you fuss over a fearful Fido, you might be doing him a disservice. Then again, in certain situations, comfort is appropriate. Here’s how to tell the difference.
Frightened puppies during socialization should be ignored when they display fearful behaviors. That’s not to say you should force a pup into an uncomfortable situation, or flood it with new stimuli when it’s scared. However, if your puppy shies away from a stranger on a walk, instead of making a fuss over the “poor startled puppy,” greet the scary stranger in a friendly way and then wait quietly until your pup shows signs of curiosity. As soon as the puppy makes a brave choice and approaches the stranger or continues on the walk, offer praise and petting or treats.
Dogs take their cues from you. In most situations where a dog is encountering something new, the best thing you can do to cure fear is to ignore it and interact happily with whatever is frightening the dog. Do not force a dog to approach something that scares it. That’s a good way to get bitten. However, you can offer the dog a choice between staying as far away as possible and coming a little closer, and consistently reward the braver choice.
In most cases, fear is a behavior that is reinforced when it receives attention. If you make a big deal out of a dog’s fear, it will conclude that there really must be something to be frightened about, because you are getting all worked up. If you instead project confidence and happiness with your body language, and reward brave behavior while ignoring fear, you will rarely go wrong.
Of course, there are exceptions to the “don’t comfort and reward fear” rule. One of these is a true phobia. No, you shouldn’t call your dog and coddle and praise it for fearful reactions due to phobias like thunderstorm phobia. However, you also shouldn’t ignore the fear. Phobic dogs can become so stressed by forcible exposure to things that trigger their phobias that they may lose hair and become more nervous overall. If you have a dog with a phobia, start a desensitization program as soon as possible. In the meantime, when phobias are triggered, try to calmly remove the dog from the situation, and encourage him or her to perform a constructive and fun activity like chewing a bone or fetching a ball.
Another exception is in the case of dogs that were rescued from abusers. Again, coddling and fussing over these dogs won’t help them, but some accomodations for their fears can be made. Instead of ignoring abused dogs’ fears, give people meeting the dog a treat for him or her, and try to always set the dog up for success. In other words, know his or her boundaries regarding fear, and stay within the lines in order to give yourself lots of opportunities to reward the dog.