How to Calm Your Scared Dog
by Jessi Larson
Our giant yellow lab Toby isn’t scared of much. This past New Year’s Eve, however, he had an epic – I mean epic – freak-out session in reaction to a small party favor. Let me explain.
We spent the holiday with my parents, my brother and his fiancé and had a bunch of random party supplies to mark the occasion. Toby was bouncing around, acting like his usual jovial self. My dad had just opened a party horn, so when Toby came over, he thought it would be cute to blow it in his furry face. Bad news.
Toby freaked out. He ran to my husband and hid underneath the table, anxiously peering out at my dad. Then he got up and ran into the bedroom, cowering in fear. He spent the rest of the night stressed out and scared. Sure, he had moments where he appeared to calm down. Then he would systematically look over at where my dad had been sitting and freak out all over again. All from a silly horn!
We fortunately haven’t had to deal with this type of scared dog behavior before, so I wasn’t sure at first how to handle it. So I read up. Here’s what I found.
What is causing the fear?
You can’t solve your dog’s problem if you don’t know the source of the anxiety. What the heck is making your pup so scared? It’s a lot easier when the reason is obvious, for example, they don’t like the thunderstorm or they’re timid around your friend who just entered the home.
Other times, it’s not so simple. If you see your dog showing signs of fear and anxiety, quickly look around and take note of the situation. Be vigilant. Also, watch their eyes. They’ll actively look away from what they’re scared of or stare at it out of concern.
Sooth your poor pal
Many dogs respond to the soothing touch of their owner petting them. When your dog is having a meltdown, sometimes the best thing to do sit down beside them and gently stroke their back until they’re in a calmer place. Start at their head and float your hand down to their tail. You can also say something soothing, like “Settle” or “It’s OK.”
However, some will say this rewards a dog for being fearful. That by showing them affection, you’re saying It’s OK to behave this way. How do you know what to do? Honestly, just judge the situation and make a gut call knowing your dog’s personality. For some dogs, yes, it could be counterintuitive, but for many, your loving touch is exactly what they need to settle down.
Take a time out
Your dog may also need to go to a place of safety until their anxiety passes. This can include their crate or a smaller room. Lead your pup to this space and encourage it to lie down and relax. Covering the space with a blanket or sheet adds additional security. By taking a break and going to a safe area, your dog can reset, get out of their funk and forget what was scaring them.
Face the fear
You know the whole “You have to face your fears” mantra? Sometimes that’s exactly what your dog needs. Sometimes. What do we mean by this? Well, if your new dog is scared of the TV, for example, put the pup on a leash and bring it directly in front of the TV. Give your dog praise and show them that what they’re scared of isn’t all that bad. But remember to be patient and gentle.
Embrace positive reinforcement
Speaking of showing your dog praise, positive reinforcement is an excellent way to help your dog get over their fears. Say your pup hates going to the veterinarian. It’s scary – the lights are bright, they’re poked and prodded by some strange person, the place smells weird. By using positive reinforcement, however, you can change your dog’s attitude toward the whole situation. When your pup gets out of the car, tell them good job and give them a treat. When they get inside, do the same. Continually lather on the praise and soon your dog will have a positive connotation with what they once feared.
Cause a distraction
Ah, the old distraction trick. It works so well on children, why not use it for dogs? If your dog is freaking out, try to distract them with something else. Start playing with a toy they love. Throw a ball in the other direction. This will provide them with something else to focus on and distract them from the negative situation.
Prevent future meltdowns
Once you understand your dog’s fears and how they react, you’re in a position to prevent it in the future. You can minimize the source of anxiety. Say your dog hates fireworks. On Fourth of July night, close the blinds and play louder music to distract them. Or if your dog is scared of your big, hulking uncle Bob ever holiday, have Bob spend time with your pup beforehand so they can slowly warm up to each other.
Don’t punish your pup
Whatever you do, DO NOT punish your dog for being scared. How would you like it if you were anxious and someone yelled at you for feeling this way, and grabbed your face or even swatted you on the bum? Would it make you feel calmer? Um, duh, no, it would not. Repeat after me: No punishment your scared dog. You want to fix the problem, not make it worse.
Stay calm, be patient
Once again, try to put yourself in your dog’s situation. You’re an anxious hot mess. But what if a calm, soothing person came over to help you? They were patient, helped you work through the problem and didn’t pass judgment. Would this help you? You bet your bottom dollar it would. So try to be calm and understanding when your dog is scared.
See a vet for additional support
Despite your best efforts, there is a chance your pup will remain a scared dog. Don’t take it personally. These fears can be very deep rooted, especially in dogs rescued from precarious situations. If you feel you’ve done all you can, see your veterinarian. Your vet can also recommend behavioral therapy, changes to their diet, supplements or other measures to help your dog chill out. There’s a chance your pup may have a health issue you’re not aware of.