Dealing with a dog that startles at every loud noise needs lots of patience. The following are examples of what to do and what not to do in the presence of a fearful dog.
It is a typical scenario: a sudden flash of lightning followed by a loud crash of thunder fills the room as a frightened Golden dog starts barking and shivering. Concerned for the dog being traumatized by the chaotic event, the owner takes the dog, puts it in its lap, and starts stroking the poor dog, reassuring him with a lot of cooing.
The dog appreciates all the attention, although he continues to shiver in the owner's arms. Minutes later, the dog seems comforted and falls asleep as the clouds move away, and the sun sparkles through the withdrawn curtain.
Now imagine the following scenario: an owner is walking her Pekingese dog when a bully dog passes by barking, growling, snarling, and acting as he would gulp down the Pekingese with no problem. The owner picks up the Pekingese, carries her in her arms, and blocks her from seeing the other dog. She talks to her, reassuring her that nothing will happen to her as long as she is safely near her.
Then only once the dog seems comforted, she puts her down as they continue the walk.
Both are very different scenarios, yet they have something in common: concerned owners trying their best to reassure their pets. Yet, there is something very wrong in this picture, something that novice dog owners may not realize when their main intent is focused on helping their dog as much as they can.
These are owners that tend to worry about their pets; they will make sure their pets are doing fine, they care for them, they nurture them, and they sometimes suffocate them with their attention. Yet, when dealing with frightened dogs, this is not the proper approach to take.
Yes, it seems the most natural, the most caring, but in a dog's eyes, this approach is not ideal; rather, it can be the most counterproductive.
Reassurance From the Dog's View
Let's imagine the thunderstorm scenario and look at it from the Golden's eyes. This is what a dog would think: 'I am very scared, this thunder is so loud, it hurts my ears, and I am terrified. I would like to escape, but I cannot; the noise is overwhelming, and there is no safe place to go.' And then minutes later, 'My owner is comforting me, she is petting me and confirming to me that indeed I am so right to be so scared. She is communicating to me that it is fine being fearful of thunder; this tells me that next time, I shall continue to be fearful because, indeed, thunderstorms can be very scary events'.
In the bully dog scenario, the Pekingese, on the other hand, may think: 'That dog is very scary, he is big, mean and likes bullying me by scaring me half to death. I am happy my owner is there to comfort me and confirm that by being scared, I am acting in the manner I should be'.
As seen, in both scenarios, dogs perceive their owner's intent in providing comfort as a way to confirm their need to be frightened. This is really not the right approach; therefore, unfortunately, in a dog's mind, that is what the well-intended comforting translates into.
A Humane Version Comparison
Perhaps a good way to further understand the frightened dog's scenario is by comparing it to the following humanized scenario: a woman is terrorized about an upcoming surgery, she is worried about the anesthesia, she cannot sleep at night, and cannot seem to calm herself down. Her friend calls her and tries to comfort her by saying: 'You know what? You are so right to be terrorized. Hundreds of people die under the knife each year, and then you can get terrible complications'.
How do you think the listener must feel now about the surgery? Terrible. Yet her friend just did what owners of frightened dogs do: comforting an unacceptable behavior.
At this point, the dog fearing the thunder will act more and more fearful as time goes by. It would come as no surprise if one day, the owner may have to put the dog on anxiety medication every time there is a storm on the way. Yet, this is a mistake many owners commit every day. Then one wonders why there are so many fearful pets nowadays with behavioral problems!
The Right Approach: How to deal with a frightened pet?
The best way is to ignore the symptoms, give no comfort or attention, and then praise every time the pet shows any initiative to fight its fears. Desensitisation works well as the dog grows used to the frightened source every so often. Owners should always praise for bold initiatives, walking towards the source of their fear on their own, showing curiosity, etc. With time along with proper desensitization techniques and positive reinforcement for the initiative-taking, most dogs will overcome to their small phobias before becoming out of proportion problems.