If your dog is anything like our family pet, he loves to show off and be the center of attention especially when it comes to people. He’ll come right up to you, put his head in your lap and just stare into your eyes while you read a book or watch television.
You may find yourself feeling warm and fuzzy as well. But what if that isn’t enough to calm his nerves? What if he gets distracted by another person coming down the hall and starts barking anxiously? Or worse yet, what if there’s an emergency and he panics?
Fortunately, there are ways to help your dog get more comfortable around new people and situations without traumatizing him or her. There are also things you can try to teach him before you arrive at the vet so he feels less uncomfortable during visits, which we’ll talk about later in this article.
First, let’s take a look at what makes dogs tick. They’re actually very similar to humans in terms of their personalities and behavior. We both enjoy being with others (even though one of us doesn’t have anyone to go out with), and even if we don’t know someone personally, we tend to gravitate toward those who we think share our interests and beliefs.
This tendency is called neophobia, and it can cause all kinds of problems for your pooch. For example, if you live in an area where there’s a lot of traffic, your dog might start to grow anxious whenever you leave home because he associates car horns with danger. And if your dog lives in a neighborhood full of other pets, he could become aggressive if he sees another animal approaching.
On top of these issues, many dogs suffer from phobias related to specific objects or scenes, such as heights, loud noises, open spaces, darkness and thunderstorms. Some dogs’ fears run in packs, too, meaning they may be afraid of everything except food.
Your dog may be scared of people, cars, fireworks, trains, elevators, cats, dogs, noise, snakes, flying insects, crowds, balloons, water, fire, lightning, storms, tunnels, fireworks, loud sounds, tight places, ghosts, rats, mice, dark rooms and certain smells. The list goes on!
With proper care and training, however, most dogs can learn to manage their fears. In fact, experts say that therapy can help alleviate phobia-related anxiety, as long as the treatment focuses on desensitization techniques rather than avoiding situations altogether. Once you’ve figured out which areas of life your dog needs to work on, you can begin teaching him positive coping skills.
Now that we’ve covered what causes stress in dogs, let’s discuss why your dog should socialize with everyone from the mailman to your veterinarian. Next we’ll examine some tips to help ease discomfort when he meets new people or situations.
The Basics of Socializing Your Dog
Most dogs need lots of love and interaction with their owners to thrive. These interactions should include play sessions, walks, trips to the park and spending time around other animals and children. However, if your dog is shy or timid, interacting with strangers and unfamiliar situations can be difficult.
Experts recommend breaking any bad habits your dog has developed over time by gradually exposing him to new experiences. One way to accomplish this is by taking him to local parks or walking trails near your house, where he won’t encounter strange faces. Another strategy is to bring your dog along on short errands around town.
After he becomes accustomed to the routine, ask friends or neighbors to introduce themselves to him. It’s also important to make sure your dog learns to trust your judgment and safety. Whenever you set off alone somewhere with him, keep your cell phone close by. That way, if something happens, you can call for help.
When you take your dog to a new place, pay attention to which behaviors he shows interest in and which ones he avoids. Is he interested in playing fetch, chasing squirrels or sleeping under trees?
Does he bark at passing cars or avoid going inside buildings? Try to identify patterns in his behavior so you can figure out what he likes. Then reward him for doing what he enjoys and ignore his unwanted behaviors. Gradually increase the amount of time spent away from familiar settings and environments until he’s ready to spend more time around strangers.
Although your dog may seem happy to see you every day, he probably hasn’t experienced much variety since birth. When you take your dog to new places, he may experience fear, confusion or excitement. To understand whether your dog will feel comfortable around new people or situations, you must first assess his personality traits. Are you dealing with a high-energy dog or a laid-back pup? Each breed tends to react differently to changes in environment.
Behavioral Strategies for Dogs with Traumatic Past Experiences
Some dogs have traumatic past experiences that cause them to be terrified of strangers. Common examples of traumatic events are distressing sights or sounds, such as seeing blood, hearing screams or smelling smoke. Other potential traumas can involve separation from their mothers, bullying, abuse or neglect. Dogs may also associate pain or illness with being left alone or with a stranger. Unfortunately, these memories often stay with your pooch long after the event itself fades into oblivion.
One way to help your dog cope with past trauma is to use relaxation methods. First, consult with your vet about medication that would benefit your dog. Second, give your dog plenty of praise and reassurance whenever he behaves calmly. This practice helps reinforce good behavior and reduces tension in your dog.
Third, if necessary, confide in a trusted friend or loved one, who can provide comfort and support to your dog. Fourth, encourage your dog to participate in activities that require handling, such as obedience classes or agility training. Finally, remember that although you want to help your dog heal emotionally, you shouldn’t force him to face frightening situations against his will. Any situation involving physical harm or danger should be avoided at all costs.
Once your dog feels more comfortable around strangers, you can incorporate him into daily routines. Consider enrolling him in classes such as agility training or obedience school. These types of activities can help your dog feel safe and secure, and they also boost self-confidence. Since your dog may still be apprehensive about meeting new people, you can help him get used to people he already knows by using the following tips.
Take Your Dog for Treats
Many people offer treats to calm their dogs when they’re nervous or stressed. Although it seems counterintuitive to approach your dog with treats, offering him a treat can help reduce feelings of anxiety in your furry pal. Many professional trainers recommend giving your dog a treat before introducing him to a new person or object to lessen anxiety. Just make sure you aren’t reinforcing inappropriate behavior by rewarding your dog for acting fearful or submissive.
Avoid Using Food to Calm Your Dog
While giving treats can help calm your dog in stressful situations, experts warn against using food to pacify your dog during times of fear or discomfort. Giving your dog treats during tense moments only teaches him that getting treats leads to relief from distress. Instead, when your dog begins to act anxious, remain calm and reassure him that everything will be okay.
Use Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement involves praising your dog for appropriate behavior. Experts suggest using verbal commands, such as “sit,” “stay” and “good boy.” Praising your dog for calming behavior immediately follows a negative behavior. By using positive reinforcement, your dog understands that you’re pleased with his progress and responds accordingly.
Acknowledge Your Dog’s Anxiety. Just because your dog is anxious doesn’t mean he won’t ever learn to behave appropriately around strangers. Keep in mind that your dog may never completely forget the fearful experiences he had in the past, but he can learn to relax around new people and situations. Be patient and kind with your dog. Remember that no matter how old or young he is, your dog was once just like you were frightened and unsure of himself.
Remember, the best thing you can do for your dog is to be upbeat and reassuring. Make sure your tone conveys confidence, optimism and patience. Above all, keep your cool. Don’t freak out or yell at your dog. A calm attitude speaks volumes.
Finally, we’ll take a look at some tips on how to get the most out of your next visit to the doctor’s office.
If your dog displays aggression toward other animals or people, it’s likely due to painful experiences he endured in his youth. People, including parents, siblings, caregivers and veterinarians, may have hurt or neglected your dog. If you suspect your dog was abused, contact a domestic violence hotline. Also, consider consulting with a psychologist or a trained counselor. Treatment programs can help your dog overcome trauma and possibly prevent future incidents.