When a Confident Dog is Afraid

On a recent camping trip, my friend and I were relaxing at the picnic table shortly after the sun set.

We each had two dogs and all four were sound asleep after lots of walking that day. Suddenly I heard the tell-tale buzz of the June bugs we’d been hearing and seeing each evening. They were attracted to our lantern.

One beetle in particular, however, went straight for my youngest dog, Bones, and collided with Bones’ head as the dog was sleeping. Startled, Bones went from sound asleep to full motion in just a couple of heart beats. Thankfully he didn’t panic and try to run away but instead came straight to me. I talked to him, calmed him down from his panic, and held him until he relaxed. A confident, balanced dog, it just took a few minutes for him to calm down; but for the rest of that camping trip, he got excited whenever he saw or heard one of those beetles.

A Little Fear (or Caution) is Good

Being a tiny bit afraid (or cautious) of something, especially something that is new, unknown, or threatening (even just potentially threatening) is normal. Fear of danger is a survival instinct. The animal who moves away from potential danger is more apt to survive than the animal who stands his ground to fight the danger.

At the same time, though, the one who runs away at everything new or potentially dangerous could be running from one danger to another and be in a constant state of fear. That might be a good way to live for a prey animal that everyone wants to eat, but it’s not a good life for us or our dogs. A middle ground is better; recognize when something might be dangerous but don’t live life on high alert.

Bones is not a fearful dog. Four years old, he is well socialized, well traveled and confident in his own abilities and in our relationship. He knows I will protect him which is why, in his reaction to the beetle, he ran to me. His fear of the beetle came from it’s unexpected attack while he was sleeping. His continued distrust of other beetles he saw were, I’m sure, an anticipation that all beetles would act in such an unexpected way. We’ve all faced similar situations that caused us to distrust something for a while afterwards.

Some dogs owners seem to be shocked that their normally confident (or bold) dog might be afraid of something. Being afraid of something is not a weakness, however; fear is a normal emotion and since it is a potentially life saving reaction (depending on the circumstances) it’s not something to be worried about. Your dog is allowed to be afraid every once in a while; after all, we face those instances, too.

©istockphoto/Pekic

©istockphoto/Pekic

Your Reaction is Important

How you react to your dog’s fear is important. When Bones ran to me, I welcomed him. I talked to him, put my hands on him, and let him know that coming to me was the best thing he could have done. If he didn’t trust me enough to think that I would keep him safe, he might have run away in a panic and that would have been devastating. Instead, by coming to me, I could keep him safe.

My hands on Bones were to keep him close, but also to use the familiar feel and warmth of my hands to calm him. Although one hand went to his collar until I knew he wasn’t going to try and run away, the other hand rubbed him all over.

I also talked to him in a reassuring but also slightly silly tone of voice, “What was that? Did that beetle attack you?” I wanted to calm him without sending him into more panic which I could have done if I got too excited myself.

When I felt Bones relax, then I let go of his collar but encouraged him to remain close, which he did.

Desensitization is a Possible Training Technique

A few days after we got home from our camping trip, I saw a big June bug beetle in the back yard so I caught it. Putting it in a jar, I called Bones over to see it. After taking a good look and hearing its’ tell-tale buzzing, he backed away, eyeing the beetle skeptically. I talked to Bones, let him remain at a distance where he felt comfortable, and kept up a chatter about the beetle. It didn’t matter what I said, I just wanted Bones to hear my happy voice.

When he felt comfortable enough to come closer, I praised him but didn’t call him to me or otherwise force him to come closer. I wanted him to move closer only when he was ready. It actually only took Bones a couple of minutes to come up to me and nose the jar holding the beetle. I praised him and let him investigate the beetle as much as he wanted. When I released the beetle from the jar, Bones was bold enough to chase it away.

The process of desensitization is that of exposing the dog to something he’s worried about at a distance where he still feels safe. Then, over time, and sometimes several (or many) training sessions, move closer. The dog is never to be forced to move closer; that will escalate his fear.

Fearful Dogs Get All the Press

There is a lot written about handling, training, and desensitizing fearful dogs but little on handling a fearful incident with a confident dog. Granted, most fears with confident dogs are momentary, but mishandling such an incident could create a larger problem even in a stable, normally not fearful dog. So understand that fear of the unknown, especially when potentially threatening, is normal. Handle the incident with calm reassurance and when possible, do some desensitization while allowing the dog to set the pace of the training.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, and the co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in Vista, CA. Liz is also an award-winning author and writer specializing in pets. She writes about cats, cat behavior and health, dogs, dog behavior and health, living with pets, and pet nutrition. Liz’s works have been recognized with many awards, but her most recent book, “Idiot’s Guides: Dog Training” (Penguin Books, 2014) recently won the Best Nonfiction book category in the San Diego Book Writing competition. Liz shares her home with two dogs; Bashir, an Australian Shepherd, and Bones, an English Shepherd. Three cats, Spock, Scottie, and Kirk, provide motivation for her articles about cats. And yes, she is a Star Trek fan. For more information go to www.kindredspiritsk9.com.

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