Is your Dog Afraid of the Dark?

By Ty Brown

Is your dog afraid of the dark? I am often approached by clients and by readers of my website about what to do about their dog's fears. Their dogs are afraid of loud noises, of slippery floors, of certain areas outside, of certain people, of certain situations.

If your dog has problems with fear the good news is that you can typically help to alleviate those fears with a keen understanding of the problem, good training, and a lot of patience.

The first thing to determine is why your dog has the fear that he does. Through my experience I have found that there are basically two main reasons why a dog has fears.

1. Genetics- Thanks to poor breeding practices many dogs nowadays are born with weak nervous systems. What that means is that a dog with a weak nervous system is less capable of processing new information in a quick and stable way. Whereas a normal dog may hear a loud noise and initially be startled but quickly recover, a dog with a weak nervous system is likely to be thrown into a tailspin. They are flooded with fear and take a disproportionate amount of time to recover. The same issue that doesn't allow them to recover from a loud noise also makes it difficult to meet a new person, for example. To that dog, a new person is the unknown, and anything unknown is cause for fear. Genetics are genetics. There isn't anything you can do to change the genetic makeup of a dog.

2. Socialization- Whenever the topic of genetics and behavior is brought up there is the ever present argument of nature versus nurture. That is to say, what determines behavior, genes or upbringing? The answer with fearful dogs is both. Nature is the genetics of the dog, and nurture is what I call socialization. Socialization, when speaking in reference to dogs, is the act of exposing your dog to all types of stimuli. A socialized dog has been exposed to all types of people, noises, objects, and floor surfaces. A socialized dog has learned that although there are myriad things in this world that they haven't seen before, there usually isn't cause for alarm or fear. On the flip side, a dog lacking socialization has not learned to process new information. Such a dog never stepped on a slippery floor during his crucial first few developmental months of life, and therefore finds it scary when he finally does at the age of a year. A poorly socialized dog never met many new people so now when confronted by a very tall man or an obese woman or a person of a different race he finds himself afraid. While there is nothing you can do to change the genetics of your dog you can change your dog's perception of the world through good socialization. Many dogs with very weak nervous systems are able to overcome a great deal, if not all, of their fears through patience and socialization.

So what is causing your dog's fear? Is it an inherited problem? Or is it from a lack of socialization? The answer is often both. Often a genetic weakness is worsened because a dog doesn't experience new things. Whatever the root cause you will go about fixing the problem in the same way.

First determine what it is your dog is afraid of. Is he afraid of all people or just certain people? If so, what is it about those people that may be causing your dog fear? Do they act afraid or nervous in front of your dog? Do they invade his space too quickly? Or does he only act afraid of people when he is away from home, or only when he is at home? What about noises? Is he afraid of all loud noises, or just certain types? Far off noises or close ones? Get inside your dog's head. Analyze every situation where your dog exhibits fear and look for the common denominators. I find that most times when a client tells me what their dog is afraid of, if we analyze the problem further we will find that they were initially wrong in their estimation, or were missing a large piece of why their dog is afraid.

Once you have determined what your dog is afraid of you can get to work. Let me start out first, though, by telling you what you should not do when dealing with your dog's fear.

1.Don't scold your dog for his fear. Many people will automatically want to scold or correct their dog for acting fearful in new situations. Think about what is going on in your dog's mind, though. He is experiencing something that causes him stress and fear and then on top of it his owner yells at him. Scolding him will only worsen the problem.

2.Don't coddle your dog. This is the opposite of scolding but is equally wrong. Again, let's think about what is going through your dog's mind. He is afraid and you suddenly start to pet him and speak soothingly. He is going to interpret this as praise and approval for his behavior. He will receive your petting and think, "Oh, I guess being afraid is a good thing." You are reinforcing his fear instead of helping it go away.

The key is to get your dog to slowly become more and more accustomed to what is scaring him until he realizes that there is no more need to be afraid. If you want to bench press 250 pounds but right now you can only do 200 you are going to have to slowly make your muscles capable of handling the extra weight. First 200, then 210, then 215, then 225 and so on. The same will happen with your dog as his "mental muscles" slowly are able to handle the extra strain.

So if your dog is afraid of certain people you would want to start out by having your dog in the same area as that person. Then you would allow the dog to approach that person. Slowly you would let the dog sniff the person's hand. After that you would allow that person to gently pet the dog. Then you would allow the person to approach the dog and pet the dog and bend over to pat the dog, etc. This could take a day or 20 days depending on your dog.

The same goes for any fear. You slowly accustom the dog to whatever scares him. As he shows acceptance at each stage you should reward him with praise or even a treat. Don't coddle the fear, but reward the progress.

Dealing with your dog's fears and insecurities requires patience and a strong understanding of your dog's mental workings. Invest the time, though, and your dog will thank you.

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Author Ty Brown is a renowned dog trainer whose training adventures and clients have taken him to 18 states and 5 countries to teach others how to properly train their dogs. Go to dogbehavioronline.com for more dog training articles, advice, tips, and answers from a professional dog trainer.