Knowing several ways you can help your dog feel safe is important considering the negative impact fear may have on certain dogs.
If you rescue, foster or adopt a timid dog, it's good to know that there are many things you can to do to help raise his confidence levels and learn to trust humans again.
Dogs deserve leading a happy and healthy life. You can help your dog make heaps of progress if you are attentive enough and abide to some general guidelines, however, consider that, dogs with severe cases of fear may require medications and professional intervention.
The Problems With Fearful Dogs
Tackling fear that is persistent is important from a physical and mental standpoint. Left untreated, it can put a deep dent into the dog's life and can impact his wellbeing.
During times of stress, the dog's body is bombarded with the release of stress hormones into the bloodstream.
The dog's heart rate and breathing increase, his senses are amplified, the ears are ready to capture the slightest sounds and the pupils dilate so Rover can see with more clarity.
At the same time, muscles receive increased blood flow so that the dog can sprint into action, blood pressure increases, a surge in blood sugar released from the kidneys provides a boost of energy and a dog's appetite is suppressed as blood flows away from the digestive tract to the muscles for action (try dangling a slice of baloney in the face of a terrified dog).
Several changes also take place at a mental level. Dogs who are stressed and frightened, often have a hard time concentrating, their impulse control and bite threshold may lower.
12 Ways to Help Your Dog Feel Safe
Did you know? The secure base effect was first described in the context of infants, but something similar happens in dogs too.
It has been observed that the secure base effect between dogs and their owners is similar to that observed in infants who are attached to their parents.
A dog perceives his owner as a safe haven. The dog will naturally explore new territory when the owner is nearby.
This level of trust is established through time, patience and determination as dog owners help their tentative dogs come out of their shells and feel safe.
Following are 12 ways to help your dog feel safe.
1) Provide a Safe Haven
Dogs need a safe haven to rest and recover from scary situations. While they may seem like bomb-proof animals, many dogs are very vulnerable to the unknown and may feel anxious as a result.
Provide your dog with a safe and comfortable place to retreat to from an unpredictable environment. This can be a covered play pen, a crate covered with a blanket or a "Cave style" dog bed.
2) Keep Noises to a Minimum
Timid, fearful dogs may easily startle at sudden loud noises. Try to keep these noises at a minimum at first.
You may keep some "white noise" on to cover up loud noises if they are unavoidable. White noises consist of steady noises such as those emitted from a fan or a white noise machine.
3) Watch your Tone of Voice
Abused, neglected or timid dogs tend to get startled by loud voices. Some dogs are very sensitive to our tones of voices. Try to keep voices low and calm.
Avoid children until the dog is calm enough. Children's acute voices may startle timid dogs causing them to hide, shiver and even bite should they feel threatened enough.
4) Do Not Move Suddenly
Quick unexpected movements may startle timid dogs. Many will cower as you suddenly reach for something or may get startled if you get up suddenly or run towards the door or phone.
Be self conscious of your movements for the first few days or weeks and try to think as a timid dog, anticipating his/her response to your actions.
5) Avoid Looming Over
When you pet your timid dog try not to pet him by looming over him and bending down. This may feel threatening, especially to the smaller dogs.
Rather, try to simply sit down on the couch quietly. Your dog will naturally come to you when ready. Be patient.
6) Stick to a Routine
Most dogs like predictable schedules, and sticking to one helps to reduce stress.
For example, if you have a predictable sleeping schedule, your dog will wake up when you do and sleep when you do. This will help him feel safe and secure.
In addition, a dog can develop a routine for elimination, eating, walking and play. With time, a dog will adjust to the routine and it's reassuring for them to know what to expect.
7) Set For Success
Avoid at all costs getting upset of frustrated with your dog when he does something undesirable. That growly "no!" or that little smack in the butt can have deleterious effects on your vulnerable forming relationship.
Rather, focus on the good. Each time your timid dog does something wrong ignore it (unless it puts your dog in danger), but when he does something good make to praise.
To help your dog succeed and therefore perform more desirable behaviors than bad ones, keep him out of trouble by removing any items he may chew or destroy. Also, aim to train him the leave it and drop it cues.
8) Go Slowly
Your dog needs time to feel comfortable near other dogs, people and social events. You can't take him to a crowded area cold turkey. Your dog needs to go through a process called: "desensitization."
What this means, is that the dog must be exposed to new places, people or noises gradually without progressing until he shows sufficient confidence. Patience and time is the key.
Very important is to keep your dog under threshold as much as possible. Distance can help make a difference. Also is important to learn your dog's early signs of stress, so that you can intervene before your dog goes over threshold barking, growling or lunging.
Early signs of stress can be very subtle like a small lip lick, sniffing or looking away or even rolling his fur as if wet.
The moment you spot these early signs, give your dog distance from the trigger by walking away from it or doing an about turn and walking the opposite direction.
9) Create Positive Associations
On top of desensitization, it helps to add counterconditioning. This method involves pairing a fear-provoking stimulus with something the dog loves such as a favorite toy or treat.
This will create a positive association between the stimulus and the special treat, with the goal being changing the dog's underlying emotional response.
The trick is to start by offering treats for presentation of lower intensity versions of the stimulus, and gradually building up to the next level of intensity, always being careful that the dog remains under threshold.
A great method to help dogs who are wary around people is to play the treat-retreat game.
10) Play Confidence Building Games
Clicker training, brain games, navigating through obstacles, and nose work are all activities that can help instill a sense of confidence in your dog.
Play is a wonderful bonding activity as you and your dog share some fun.
Even playing a game of tug of war may help boost a dog's confidence. Try to play tug of war and let your dog win every now and then.
11) Invest in Calming Aids
Some dogs need some extra help to feel secure. Fortunately, nowadays, there are several calming aids on the market.
From DAP diffusers, to calming caps and Thundershirts, and even some calming supplements specifically crafted with dogs in mind. Ask your vet for advice on what supplements may work best for your dog.
12) Consider a Behaviorist
Some cases of shyness are obstinate to treat. Professional help may be needed. Consult with a board-certified veterinary behaviorist should your dog not progress or shows signs of anxiety or aggression. In some severe cases, veterinarians may prescribe anti-anxiety medications.
While your dog may never turn out being super social, he may grow to be more tolerant and accepting of many situations.
Now that you have implemented the above guidelines you should notice after quite some time some relevant improvements.
You may notice that slowly a new dog has unveiled perhaps even with that special spark in its eyes, tail wagging and head kept high and proud!
Horn L, Huber L, Range F. The importance of the secure base effect for domestic dogs - evidence from a manipulative problem-solving task. PLoS One. 2013 May 29