Deal with the dread

worried looking boxer dog

Photo courtesy of Olathe Animal Hospital

William James, a 19th century psychologist described his anxiety in this way:

“A horrible dread at the pit of my stomach….a sense of the insecurity of life.”

We cannot know for sure if dogs experience dread but anyone walking into a vet clinic with a dog who would rather not be there has surely seen what could be described as a dog anticipating something unpleasant, dreading what is to come.

A dog who cowers and resists being put on leash may not be concerned about the leash itself, but what the leash predicts- exposure to things or situations the dog is afraid of. When people ask my fearful dog Sunny’s name I may tell them, but ask them not to use it. I have also told people his name is ‘Bosco’. For a people-fearful dog being spoken to predicts a social interaction with which the dog is not comfortable. When a dog hears their name they may begin to ‘dread’ what is going to happen next. In my dog’s case, ‘Bosco’ means nothing to him and if I suspect someone is not going to be able to follow my instructions regarding not talking to him, if they use Bosco, he is less likely to have a negative response on hearing it. It means nothing to him.

In order to help a dog learn to cope with and even feel good about something we have to address their fear and concern early on, when the dread begins, and then take a step back. Our ability to feel comfortable and confident improves as we learn to become proficient at a task or skill. A child won’t learn to swim if they are afraid to put their feet in the water. So we start by helping them to learn to do that. As they become proficient at entering the water we can slowly add to and increase the skills they need in order to swim. A dog who learns to put one foot on a step or take 2 steps up an a-frame may cease to dread approaching stairs or the agility obstacle. We allow the dog to practice just this simple behavior, moving away and returning to practice it again.

The challenge for most of us and our dogs is our sense of urgency for completing a behavior. We adopt a dog afraid of moving through hallways and because we live in an apartment building expect that the dog is going to learn to be comfortable immediately. We need them to be in order to take them outside. We bring home a puppy who has never been left on their own and plop them in a crate for hours at a time and expect they will quickly discover the joys of solitude because we have to go to work on Monday morning. We would not be foolish enough to assume that just because we’re going on holiday to the beach in two weeks that a non-swimmer is going to learn to become proficient enough at swimming so they’ll be comfortable and safe in the waves, just because WE need them to be.

When dealing with fears and anxiety follow the chain of experiences back and start by addressing the dread. We can’t force skills on a dog, but we can help them to want to learn them.

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15 comments so far

  1. Louisa on

    Very good blog Debbie, Louisa x

  2. Lorie Huston, DVM on

    Good post, Debbie, as usual. I never thought about use of a dog’s name becoming a predictor of unwanted interaction and thus causing anxiety. Thanks for pointing that out!

    • fearfuldogs on

      It happens a lot with recalls and why they fail. We often use our dog’s names when we are upset with them for something or trying to interrupt inappropriate behavior or call them to us to do something unpleasant. If I hear someone say my name the way my mother did when I was a teenager…Deb-or-ah, I still cringe!

  3. Lorie Huston, DVM on

    LOL…me too, Debbie. My mother used to call me Lorie Ann when she was mad…cringing at the thought even now 🙂

    I will make sure to mention this to my pet parents in the future. It’s good advice to try to avoid associating a pet’s name with something unpleasant. Thank you.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It takes practice and restraint but worth trying to do.

  4. Kay Liestman on

    Thank you, Debbie, for an “aha” moment. There’s a man in our neighborhood that our ACD Mattie really dislikes. He always calls her name. She had a bad aggressive lunge toward a friend when this man was outside in our yard. I’m sure the action was for the man, but I couldn’t figure out the reason. I may still not know all her reasons, but I wish I’d known not to tell him her name! Good advice. Thank you, again.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Any behavior on a human’s part that could predict an interaction can freak out scared dogs. I ask people not to look at or talk to my scared dog. If I don’t think people can do this, I keep him away from them.

  5. melfr99 on

    Another great post Debbie. I could relate to the swimming analogy because for Daisy water was a whole new and scary experience. Because she was afraid of it, we started with the small steps of just getting her feet wet. And, that was enough for her for a long time. She could get her feet wet and then go back to dry land. But in the last year and a half, she has decided water can be quite fun and now loves to run in up to her belly.

    Like Lorie, I had not thought about the name thing. It makes perfect sense, but I had not even considered it an issue before. Another valuable piece of knowledge to add to my toolbox! Thanks!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Mel. I had a cocker that took 7 years before she decided she could join her mother for a paddle in the river.

  6. dogs4ever on

    My dog dreads going to the vet for her checkups. I have tried bringing her favorite toy and other things, but so far nothing has worked. As soon as we pull up in the parking lot of the vet’s office, she starts to cry. She’s so pitiful. I won’t give up though with trying to find a solution.

    • fearfuldogs on

      There are some things which may be difficult for a dog to ever feel good about. Even if I’m just going for a cleaning, I do not look forward to the visit to the dentist. The process of desensitizing and counter conditioning a dog to going to the vet can be time consuming. I will bring my dogs to the vet when they don’t need to go, feed them treats, do some tricks, get weighed, and that’s that. But if I had a dog who was seriously distressed about vet visits I’d ask the vet about an anti-anxiety med that could help take the edge off, if the conditions allowed for its use. Each time the dog goes to the vet and is horrified, it doesn’t help the next time around. I can’t say my dogs love going to the vet but for the most part it’s a manageable experience for them. If they require sedation for a surgery I ask to be with them until they are pre-medicated.

  7. dogs4ever on

    Thank you for the suggestion regarding the anti-anxiety meds. I never thought about doing that, Duh…I plan on calling my vet this week to get that going.

    • fearfuldogs on

      People would think I own stock in pharmaceuticals I suggest them so much, but if they can help a dog feel less horrified, it makes a big difference for them, and for us, because their behavior becomes easier to deal with.

  8. dogs4ever on

    Thank you! I will let you know how Freckles is getting along after our visit this week.


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