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Teach your dog to overcome, live with fears

Imagine going through life so fearful that it is nearly impossible to meet new people, go to unfamiliar places or try unique experiences. Your fears keep you from making friends or experiencing life.

Timid and fearful dogs lead lives just like that. The difference is that they can’t make their own choices about relationships and interactions and routinely are put in situations that they are unprepared to handle.

Walks in the park are not enjoyable excursions; they are tension-filled, fear-inducing marches. Meeting strangers, interacting with unknown dogs, thunder and even the sounds of nearby children can all be traumatic for the fearful dog.

It’s not surprising that fearful dogs learn quickly to use aggression as a coping tool to avoid the stress of meeting unfamiliar dogs or people. To compound the problem, it is not uncommon for fear-reactive dogs to be banished to the backyard for a lifetime devoid of interaction with the outside world. This serves to deepen the dog’s fears and often increases the level of aggression.

Building your dog’s confidence through socialization and desensitization to “scary” things or situations is fundamental to changing your dog’s view of the world and will help her remain calm (or at least calmer) in situations that traditionally have caused her fear.

Here are a few tried-and-true methods to help your dog cope with her fears:

Basic obedience – Obedience training is a great way to foster confidence and build trust between dog and owner. A dog that looks to her owner as the leader is more likely to respond to commands instead of reacting negatively to fearful situations.

The “check it out” game – As simple as this game is, it can have an amazing effect over time. Most fearful dogs retreat from or even bark at things that they are not comfortable with. The next time you see this reaction, consider it an opportunity to teach your dog to be brave and “check it out.”

Take note of the object, and then tell your dog to “check it out.” If she takes even one tentative step toward the scary thing, reward her with a great treat and let her know you are happy with her. Repeat the process a few times.

Your dog could choose to take another step toward the object, she could walk all the way up to it or she could decide to retreat. Reward her for any move in the right direction and just ignore attempts to retreat.

Remember, it doesn’t matter that you know the object is safe. If your dog considers it scary, it’s scary. By using this command faithfully and never pushing too hard or too fast, your dog will learn that she always is safe when she hears the words “check it out.” Sooner or later, you’ll begin to notice your dog making new efforts to cope with her fears.

Doggie day care – No one can teach a dog to interact well with other dogs like other dogs can. A good doggie day care can help integrate your dog into a group where she can work on her socialization skills. Choose a day care carefully; knowledge of dog behavior and willingness to supervise vary greatly from business to business.

Fear-reactive dogs are surrendered to shelters at an alarming rate. With training and patience, most dogs learn to cope with their fears and become confident, sociable members of the family.

Julie Winkelman is a certified pet dog trainer and a certified dog trainer. Reach her at www.alphacanineacademy.com.

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