Okaw Veterinary Clinic LLC

140 West Sale Street
Tuscola, IL 61953



Scared Scary Dogs - How to Help Them and Yourself



Most dog bites, lunging and over barking is due to the dog being afraid not being dominant. Dogs tell us early that they are tense or afraid but we miss those signs. Knowing these signs will help you avoid getting hurt while you can then work out a plan to help your dog be less afraid.

Most of us know the signs of fear such as a tucked tail, ears back against the head or cowering. These are high anxiety or fear. It is very important to recognize the early, less fearful signs.  

Here are some as outlined in Dr. Sophia Yin's hand out "Body language of Fear in Dogs" www.drsophiayin.com

  • Licking lips - this happens when there is not any food nearby. Think of a nervous person with a dry mouth. That is what it looks like.
  • Panting - moderately fast when it is not hot. Similar to a person breathing shallow rapid breaths when nervous.
  • Frowning or "worried" look - the brow is furrowed and the ears are pointing sideways
  • Moving slowly - walking slowly - slinking. They are looking out for what may be around.
  • Acting sleepy or yawning - seems odd but this happens as a displacement behavior.
  • Looking around a lot - hyper vigilant - like a person walking down a dark alley late at night.
  • Pacing - following you from room to room constantly - or won't settle down.
  • Turing away or moving away from the activity - they want to get away so they leave
  • Suddenly won't eat - you have to feel good to eat. A pain or anxiety trigger will drop appetite fast.

So, now that you know the early signs look out for them. When you see them stop whatever you are doing and think of what is happening at this moment. Did the grandchild come running in the room? If so little people, noise, or running may trigger this dog. Is thunder rolling in? If so the noise may be triggering the fear.

Make note of the events to identify the triggers. Observe everything - the place, time, people, other animals involved. One change can be the trigger. Now that you have an idea what sets your dog off you can begin to help change your pet's mind about it. Rewarding or good things that gets your pet calm or happy when the trigger happens is called counter conditioning. The key to counter conditioning is keeping your dog in a calm, not fearful state as you offer the rewards. 

The basics of counter conditioning:

First find what your dog really loves - a super yummy treat - a ball - your "happy" voice. What ever gets their tail wagging. Use this reward at times when your pet is behaving well so they know when they are good. 

Next have your dog around the trigger - say children - but far enough away or with a barrier to keep your dog calm, or very low in agitation. This is where people start off wrong. They put the dog right in the scene that is upsetting them and it is overwhelming. So, with the fear of children example - you need a baby gate or dog in crate that helps the dog feel protected from the kids. Then a positive like a food treat tossed as the kids walk by, run or make noise. As long as the dog eats the food reward as the kids are there - now the counter conditioning is working. If the dog is too nervous, you have to increase the distance or make the triggers less intense - only hearing kids. When the dog is relaxed and happy for each step - hearing kids - hearing and seeing kids - then hearing and seeing kids running all the while taking treats behind the gate then you can move on to trying the dog in the area with a leash on to keep things safe. 

Counter conditioning is a step by step process that you want to do maybe 5-10 minutes max at a time, hopefully daily. It is like breaking an old habit and learning a new one. It often takes weeks to have it repeated so often it becomes habit. This is the second stage where training fails. People find it takes too long, rush the steps and fail or think the one time the pet did well - all was learned. 

There are tools and medications that speed learning by decreasing fear. These products are good to use. They are not a failure of your dog or you if you need them. It is far better to use a Thunder shirt, or Reconcile medication than to struggle with fear problems and be stuck with dangerous behaviors. Your dog is not happy or cute growling, lunging, or barking out of control. It is best to help them learn to be more calm and social.

 - written by Dr. Sally J. Foote

Okaw Veterinary Clinic
140 W. Sale
Tuscola, IL 61953
(217) 253-3221


Mon & Fri 8 am - 6 pm
Tues & Wed 8 am - 5 pm
Sat 8 am - noon
Closed Thurs & Sun

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