Most dogs live in a very predictable world. They know what to expect from you and their surroundings on a day to day basis, which is very comforting. Even humans enjoy a certain amount of predictability! Fears seem to pop up out of nowhere, but it’s often time the result of surprises or irregularities.
Counterconditioning can be a very successful way to help your pet cope with the things that scare them. This process takes time and there are a few steps that you’ll need to work out on your own, before working with your dog or cat (this can help any animal, humans too 🙂 )
Identify Fear or Anxiety
I recently wrote an article explaining common fearful body language in dogs. I also have a graphic in this post explaining stressed out body language in cats. Armed with this knowledge, you should be a pro at recognizing when your pet is stressed or afraid (it’s usually not too cryptic!)
Identify The Cause
This next step is vital. You should do your best to identify the source of their fear. Sometimes what scares our pets has a few layers to it. Let’s consider vacuuming, since it’s a pretty common fear.
There’s the vacuum itself, the noise it makes, the motion of vacuuming, and of course, all three combined. Each of these layers can be scary, but usually not equally scary. You should take note of their behavior with each individual aspect and create a fear gradient. You’ll end up working to counter-condition your pet starting with the least scary aspect working your way to the scariest.
Ideally, you should do your best to avoid exposing your pet to what scares them until you are ready to start counterconditioning. It’s understandable if you can’t, like with thunderstorms, but do what you can to minimize exposure in those instances.
Identify the Threshold
This sounds pretty technical, but it’s not so bad! In order to properly counter condition your animal, you’ll need to know how gradual to be when reintroducing the thing that scares them. To do this, you’ll need to find out how close to the stimulus they can be before showing signs of fear or anxiety. The closest they can be without fear is where you’ll start.
Teaching or Utilizing Calming Cues
In order to control your dog’s response during training, you’ll need to train them to be calm. I outline calming commands in my article about separation anxiety. Once your pet is consistent with this command you can start the counterconditioning process!
A calming command is the best method for controlling how your pet responds, but if you don’t have time to teach the command before the next exposure (if something on a walk scares your dog) then you should try something like a head halter. I have all but tamed Gremlin’s dominance issues with his!
Control the exposure
Now it’s time to start gradually exposing your pet to the scary stimulus based on the fear gradient you made earlier. We’ll continue with the vacuum example.
Since the vacuum itself is kinda scary, we’ll start by having the vacuum in view at a distance that doesn’t scare your pet. Reward their calmness and then slowly move them closer. When they start to show anxiety, give the calm command and reward their calmness again. You will do this with each item on the gradient, only moving on when they are completely comfortable with each item.
Use a high-value treat or favorite toy to be sure that when you reward your animal for being calm they know they are doing a good job!
Be confident. Our pets feed off of our emotions, even when we aren’t aware of them! If you’re nervous about how they’ll react, they will be too! These situations tend to be a vicious cycle and that’s why my husband isn’t allowed to take Gremlin to the vet anymore!
Be patient. This can be a long process depending on the severity of the fear. I always go back to the Golden Rule here. Consider how much understanding and patience you’d need from people if you were the one facing your fears. I’m a very disciplined person, but I know I’d need lots of time and reassurance from my support group to face a big spider! EEK!
Don’t punish. The very last thing that will help your pet get over their fears is being punished for taking too long to do it. Punishing your pet even without the presence of something scary can lead to anxiety, so imagine how anxious they’ll become if you punish them in the face of danger!