Is Your Dog A Scaredy Cat?

Is your dog a scaredy cat? Are they afraid or reactive to an everyday item such as the nail clippers, brush or leash?  As caring dog owners our first impulse is to comfort our pup when they are afraid.  Unfortunately, we may be accidentally reinforcing the fear behavior.  

How is this possible?  While dogs understand many of our words,  they are more inclined to understand our tone of voice.  Think about it.  Comforting our dog is usually done in a soft, higher-pitched, crooning tone.  Praise is also given in that higher tone of voice.  I have had several clients who have accidentally reinforced fearful behavior in their dog by trying to comfort them.

How do you avoid turning your dog into a scaredy cat?  We need to be our dog’s support system when they are afraid. We need to remain calm and relaxed and speak to them in our normal voice.  This allows the dog to process the situation. You can read more about this in my blog post “Let’s Get Social“,

How to turn your scaredy cat into a big brave dog

(Regardless of their size)

Not too long ago I had a client whose dog was terrified of their leash. He cowered in the corner of the sofa. He was visibly trembling as the owner calmly sat with him, not allowing him to run away. I placed the leash on the other end of the sofa, offered him high-value treats. He was very frightened but he couldn’t resist and I praised him every time he took one. I slowly, calmly moved the leash closer and closer until the leash was right next to him. Finally he was taking treats I placed on the leash. We ended the session with lots of excited praise and a Jackpot. A Jackpot is a handful of treats which we placed on the leash along with very excited praise while he ate them.

Work slowly and consistently

We scheduled an appointment for the following week. Their homework: leave the leash laying around where the dog could access it. I asked them to ignore any fearful behavior and praise him whenever he approached the leash. I also asked them to move the leash to a new location at least once a day. By the time I returned the following week the dog was calmly coexisting with the leash. He was still a bit of a scaredy cat but he could see his leash without panicking!

My next step was to approach the dog while holding the leash and bringing it up towards his collar. As always there was lots of praise and treats when he was calm. Then I brought the leash up and I clicked the leash clasp near the dog’s collar (praise/treats). Then I gently grasped his collar with one hand, brought the leash to the collar, clicked the clasp (praise/treats). Finally I attached the leash to the collar with big praise and a Jackpot of praise and treats.

Homework: put the leash on the dog and loosely hold the end of the leash (praise/treats). I asked them to let the dog wear the leash for a short time (praise/treats). The next step was to loosely hold the leash (praise/treats). They were to continue keeping the leash where the dog could see it and moving it.

Our final session we took the dog into the backyard on his leash and allowed him to explore. We let him set the pace stopping whenever he became concerned, allowing him to work it out. Again, see my blog post Let’s Get Social).

Work as a team

This brave pup has a long way to go. Now that his family has the tools, he knows he can trust them to support him in this process. This dog is no longer a scaredy cat.

How to heal anxiety from every day objects
In-Home Dog Obedience Training

Let’s Get Social!

It’s not exactly what you might think.

I ask my clients what they think it means to “Socialize” their canine friend and I often get this answer:  To introduce their dog to other dogs.  While this could be true it is not necessarily so.  My dogs do not associate with other dogs and they’re perfectly fine with that.  

Socializing your dog is bigger than associating with other dogs.  It’s new experiences out in the world.  New sights, sounds, smells.  They don’t know that an enormous trash can isn’t going to hurt them.  They don’t know that the noise from the garbage truck is safe.  They don’t know that they shouldn’t rush over to every person they see (or hide from them).  It’s being comfortable riding in your car, it’s seeing other dogs and remaining calm.  It’s walking on different surfaces such as carpet, tile, wood, grass, gravel, sand, asphalt, cement, wood chips.

Meeting a ferret at Petco

Everyday items that we take for granted can be a source of concern.

Creating space between your dog and the object removes stress from the dog and gives you time to respond in a calm manner.

Dogs need to experience new things but we have to be careful how we introduce them.  We need to be a calm presence while they work through their fear. 

I’ve had several clients who have accidentally reinforced their dog’s fear by using a comforting tone of voice which sounds exactly like praise.  Try it! Notice the tone of voice you use when you say “Good boy/girl” and “It’s okay”.  Chances are they  are both in a higher tone of voice.  Dogs cannot differentiate between the two.

Instead, try using your normal voice.  In the case of the aforementioned big, scary trash can, I backed the dog away from it so he wasn’t reacting to it and had him sit next to me and I talked to him in a normal, calm voice.  I said things like  “That’s a really big trash can.  It does look a little scary but I promise it won’t hurt you.” etc.

Once the dog relaxes,  “Shall we move a little closer?”  At which point I would move a  few steps closer and continue to talk to the dog in my calm voice.  Going at the dog’s pace, I continue this process until the dog feels comfortable enough to investigate the object.  At that time I give lots of praise in my happy praise voice.

Think of yourself as your dog’s support system.  You are there to support them as they figure out this great big world and how to be in it.

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lightning and gray clouds

Is Your Dog Afraid of Loud Noises?

Thunder! Lightening! Wind! Rain! Storms can be exciting and amazing. And, if you don’t understand what’s happening, terrifying. Does your dog freak out, panic, run, hide during a thunderstorm, fireworks or other noisy situations?

While I love a good thunderstorm, the dogs, not so much. They used to let me know loudly when there was a thunderstorm or fireworks (as if I didn’t notice!). Because I have assumed the leadership role and I let them know that it’s safe, they settle down quickly and only let out a warning bark if there is a particularly loud noise. Unfortunately this is not the case for many dogs and it was not the case for us in the beginning.

What to do? Our first impulse is to comfort them. Unfortunately, this ‘comforting’ will probably sound a lot like praise to the pup which means we are accidentally reinforcing their frightened behavior! Probably not the best idea! We certainly don’t want to give a correction.

This is what has worked for all three of my dogs:

Dogs ogs want to be the Sentries and they want us to be the Leaders, they want to let us know that something is happening. Consequently, our response will affect their behavior. If we do not let them know that everything is fine, they may continue to bark or cower.

Associate the Noise With Something Positive

Using a higher-value treat (A Word About Treats), we can associate good things with the noise. Once you recognize that a noisy event is imminent, grab a handful of treats that your dog really likes, get your dog’s attention and every time a thunderclap, etc. occurs, use a happy yet calm voice and your Praise Phrase as you give your dog a small treat. Do not acknowledge their behavior or try to comfort them. Just keep giving the treats and phrase every time there is a loud noise.

Teaching “Safe”

Once it is understood by your dog, “Safe” is a great command for letting them know that there is nothing to be concerned about and they should stop barking, whining, pacing, etc. This works well for visitors as well as loud noises.

Initially, “Safe” is taught by placing your hands on each side of your dog’s ribs, just behind the shoulders. Fingertips point down towards the ground and firm pressure is applied as you say “Safe” in a calm, quiet voice. (This is the premise on which the Thundershirt is based. While I have not needed to use a Thundershirt, it is an available option.) If the dog calms, praise them by using your praise words in a calm, quiet voice. We want to avoid exciting them by using our usual excited praise voice. After the dog has learned the word “Safe” with the hands placed on the ribs, you may find that you only need to use the word “Safe” to calm them. Once you know that your dog understands Safe, you can initiate a correction for failure to obey.

Common Mistakes:

  • Punishing the dog
    This will only increase your dog’s stress level (as well as yours). Remember, Punishment is NOT the same as Correction.
  • Comforting the dog
    This comes across as praising the dog and can reinforce the behavior.
  • Ignoring the dog
    While we want to avoid being either positively or negatively reactive towards the dog’s behavior, ignoring the dog completely may confuse the dog and increase their anxiety. Use a calm voice, hands, body language.