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Preventing fears and anxieties

Dogs feel safest when they are around their owners but, like any other animal, they are often cautious of anything that could pose a threat. This fight or flight instinct is a natural one, but sometimes they can over-react, and need help to find the right balance. You can’t always be there to keep them feeling safe and happy, so it’s better for them if you can teach them to have some degree of emotional independence.

Fears and phobias: fireworks and other loud noises

A fear of fireworks or other loud noises is quite common in dogs, but the effects can be devastating in some. If not treated promptly, it can escalate into a phobia of loud noises or bright flashes, and, in the worst cases, anything that he has come to associate with fireworks, such as the approach of dusk.

Signs of fear typically include:

  • Pacing
  • Panting
  • Attempting to hide
  • Lack of appetite
  • Being too distracted to get his attention
  • Salivation
  • Yawning
  • Restlessness
  • In extreme cases, incontinence

Increasing your dog’s overall sense of security in your home is advisable if he is already a nervous type, but the same approach can help young dogs develop tactics to deal with common threats such as loud noises.

Provide your dog with a cosy, draught-free sleeping indoor kennel or ‘crate’ in a secluded corner of the house to use as his ‘den’. It should be dark, snuggly and warm, with cosy bedding and chew toys filled with nice treats. He can go there when frightened and learn to cope by settling down in safety and re-emerging when he feels safe again.

See our article on Pets, parties and fireworks for more advice on dealing with loud noises.

Separation problems

Because dogs are such social creatures, many are unhappy on their own, and some can become stressed when left home alone. The most common causes are never having learned how to cope on their own when young, and over-dependence on your physical presence.

They may pace and pant, howl or bark repeatedly, become incontinent, chew furnishings, dig frantically at doors in an effort to escape the home, and even self-mutilate. Such separation-related problems are serious and best dealt with as soon as possible by a professional dog behaviorist on referral from your vet.

A behaviorist will investigate thoroughly and may use a video camera to record how your dog behaves in your absence. It may be simple boredom at the root of the problem (common with young, active dogs), or perhaps your dog is being left for too long or isn’t being sufficiently stimulated at other times. A dog walker might help in such cases. Or perhaps a traumatic event in your absence, such as a thunderstorm or firework display, has made him afraid of being alone altogether.

Fortunately, most such cases respond well to treatment but the sooner you seek help, the better.

Other ways to deal with separation problems
  • Although it’s tempting to spend every moment you can with a puppy or new adult dog, it’s important that he has time-out from you. Two or three times a day (more if you have a young pup who needs frequent naps) pop him in his kennel, crate or bed for half an hour or so and leave him alone.
  • Stair-gates are useful, not only for barring your dog from going upstairs, but also for using between rooms in the house. Shutting him the other side of a stair-gate for brief but frequent periods throughout the day will get him used to being physically separated from you while still having the security of seeing that you are close by.
  • If your dog is always pining for attention, try not to always make a fuss of him on demand. By all means give him the same amount of attention as before, just not when he asks for it. This can be difficult, as he may just redouble his efforts, but try to be persistent and avoid even making eye contact until he is calm. It often helps to establish a clear signal of when you are not available for contact. Placing a large ornament on the living room table and then leaving the room or ignoring all his efforts will soon become associated with the presence of the ornament and he will give up trying if you are consistent. As soon as you remove the ornament, fuss him and allow him to initiate any contact he likes. Once he has learned about this, you can put the ornament on the table 10-15 minutes before you intend to leave him, and he should be calmly engaged in some other behaviour by the time you go.
  • Generally keep all departures low-key. Try to keep the noise levels in the house the same. To go from the hub-bub of hectic family life to stony silence signals the fact that your dog is on his own. Leave a radio or the TV on, or even record your family going about their usual daily home life and play it back when you leave your dog.
  • A dog-appeasing pheromone diffuser may also help to calm him. Ask your vet for details.
  • Defuse any leaving rituals. Dogs know well in advance when an owner will be going out and some become anxious the moment keys are picked up, windows are closed and coats are put on etc. Try doing all these things, but then carry on with what you were doing before. Put your coat on for 10 minutes whilst vacuuming, perhaps; walk out of the front door and walk straight round to the back door, so your dog is left for 30 seconds maximum to start with.
  • Before leaving your dog, always make sure his needs have been met, so he will be comfortable. Ensure he has been fed, exercised and allowed to go to the toilet so he will be more likely to snooze contentedly when you are out.
Preventing fears and phobias in puppies

Good, early socialisation to a wide range of sounds will prepare a puppy for any loud noises he will encounter later in life. If raised in a breeder’s busy home, with people coming and going, and all the sounds that accompany ordinary family life (pans being dropped, washing machines, loud music, excited play and so on), then a puppy is likely to be noise-tolerant as an adult in any subsequent home. 

Similarly, he will be fine outdoors if, as a young puppy, he experiences the sounds of aircraft, thunder, cars backfiring etc., and takes his cue from his relaxed, non-reacting owner.

If your puppy’s first exposure to these noises causes great fear and his initial anxiety is reinforced by over-attention from his owner, then he could well learn to be fearful of such sounds for life, so stay relaxed.

As a general rule, puppies can get used to almost anything given enough time and exposure, but they take their cue from the people and animals around them. Make sure you’re calm at all times and aren’t making too much of a fuss of him. If problems persist, speak to your vet about possible solutions such as behavioural therapy.

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