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How to Help a Nervous Dog Overcome His Fears

We know what makes our bones shake but what are dogs scared of? With meds and supplements or behavior modification, you can help a nervous dog overcome his fears and become a calmer, happier canine.

Arden Moore  |  Aug 28th 2018


After getting married recently and blending our pets into a Furry Brady Bunch, I found myself dealing with a nervous dog in Bujeau, my wife’s 75-pound dog. The usually sweet-natured Bujeau was terrified of thunderstorms, men in hats and even the beeps coming from the new microwave.

Veterinary visits and grooming appointments were no picnic for her, either. At the sight, sound or smell of these and other triggers, Bujeau began to drool. Her eyes dilated and her body trembled as she desperately attempted to seek a hiding spot.

My situation is not unique among canine parents with a nervous dog. For far too many dogs, the Fido Fear Factor is real. By definition, fear is a normal emotional response to a real or perceived threat or situation, such as being stalked by a dog-hating cat or dreading the anticipated pain from a vaccination needle.

Unaddressed, fear can escalate to a phobia, an exaggerated and irrational response that can completely emotionally cripple a dog. A phobic state can cause medical issues, such as inflammatory bowel disease or a weakened immune system. It can cause behavioral problems, such as fear biting or destructiveness.

For a nervous dog, baby talk or yelling at them to “calm down” will only make the situation worse.

Not sure if your dog is scared? Check out these fear signals >>

First, what are dogs scared of?

What are dogs scared of? The vacuum cleaner makes the list. Photography ©igorr1 | Getty Images.

What makes dogs nervous or scared? Your vacuum cleaner might be one thing! Photography ©igorr1 | Getty Images.

Topping the list of canine fears that make for a nervous dog — thunderstorms, followed by its frightening cousin, fireworks.

“I equate thunderstorms to a phobia stew, as affected dogs hear the loud wind noise, see large trees bending over and feel changes in static barometric pressure,” says Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, professor emeritus of veterinary behavior at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Massachusetts, and founder of the Center for Canine Behavior Studies.

“It is downright frightening to them and is one of the most difficult to desensitize in dogs.”

Here is a sampling of sounds, situations and visual things that can turn any confident canine into a fearful dog:

  1. Veterinary visits
  2. Car rides
  3. Vacuum cleaners
  4. Strangers, especially those wearing sunglasses or hats.
  5. Battery-operated toys like singing Santas that move erratically on the living room floor
  6. Balloons
  7. Open stairways
  8. The sound and smell of bacon frying in a skillet
  9. The sight and sound of a delivery truck that is backfiring
  10. Dogs of certain breeds or colors, such as a black Labrador Retriever or spotted Dalmatian

Help a nervous dog with meds and supplements

Alas, there is no one-solution-fits-all approach to help a nervous dog. Finding the right answer can require the skills of a detective. You need to tap all your senses — look, listen, touch and smell for clues behind your dog’s fearful actions.

You need plenty of patience and calmness, as dogs tune in to our emotional states. And most importantly, you need a team approach with your veterinarian.

Some fears are best mitigated using medications or over-the-counter supplements to calm a nervous dog. They include:

  1. Zylkene: a supplement that contains casein, a milk protein. It can be given before identified fear causers, such as a veterinary visit or a trip to the groomer.
  2. Adaptil: a dog-appeasing pheromone available in a plug-in diffuser, spray or collar. It contains chemicals that mimic relaxation in some dogs.
  3. Trazodone, Valium and Xanax: popular antianxiety prescriptions designed to be given before an anticipated fearful event, such as a thunderstorm or veterinary visit.
  4. Prozac, Zoloft and Clomicalm: medications prescribed to be given every day to help keep a dog in a steady, calm state.

Fear Free Vets can help calm a nervous dog during vet visits

Fear Free veterinary clinics use a variety of tools and stress-free handling techniques during exams and procedures. Photography ©Steve Debenport | Getty Images.

Fear Free veterinary clinics use a variety of tools and stress-free handling techniques during exams and procedures. Photography ©Steve Debenport | Getty Images.

Behavior modification in terms of how you approach a nervous dog and how you work on ways to improve the dog’s view of sights, sounds, smells and situations can also be effective in reducing the degree of fear in your dog.

That’s the message being spread by Marty Becker, DVM, founder of Fear Free Pets, an educational campaign designed to make veterinary clinics more welcoming to pets and to give pet owners resources to help their pets stay happy and healthy.

Veterinary clinics earning Fear Free certifications now use non-skid exam table mats, pheromone-sprayed towels, a wide range of treats and stress-free handling techniques during exams and procedures on pets.

And they are encouraging some clients to fit their dogs in anti-anxiety vests or body shirts designed to apply gentle, constant pressure on the body to help produce a sense of calm.

“A pet’s emotional well-being is our top priority,” says Dr. Becker, author of the new book, From Fearful to Fear Free: A Positive Program to Free Your Dog from Anxiety, Fears, and Phobias. “For example, a veterinarian can write a pet’s name in easy cheese to lick off while being weighed as a distraction technique. Or, the exam can be performed with the dog on the floor or in your lap, depending on the dog’s preference.”

Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist and owner of Florida Veterinary Behavior Service in West Palm Beach, co-authored the book and is part of the Fear Free team.

Stress happens to everyone, people and dogs, so you have to decide how you will handle it,” Dr. Radosta says. “For example, you can’t change the smells in a veterinary clinic, but you can condition the dog to relax on a mat. And, that mat can go anywhere with the dog.”

Helping a nervous dog overcome other fears

Dr. Dodman has spent his veterinary career helping dogs and other companion animals overcome fear and phobias. Each case presents its unique challenges.

“Dogs learn by association,” Dr. Dodman says. “One of my clients was a police officer whose K-9 partner, a German Shepherd Dog, had slipped on a shiny floor and hurt his hip. In his canine brain, he equated slippery floors with wicked pain in his hip. When this policeman had to investigate something in a shopping mall, this dog froze when he neared the mall’s floor.”

His solution? “With fears and phobias, it is important to judge each situation on its merits and to take baby steps,” Dr. Dodman says. “Using desensitization techniques and anti-anxiety medications, plus treat rewards, we were able to impose new, positive associations of these floors that outweighed the dog’s memories of the fall on a slippery floor.”

The best cure for a nervous dog? Time and effort

As for Bujeau, she is responding well to gentle ear massages, my calming voice and being ushered to her safety spot — the walk-in closet — with her favorite toy when a thunderstorm nears.

To stop her from trying to paw the back door to escape when the microwave beeps, I call her over seconds before the sound and hand over small pieces of boiled chicken to counter condition her to this sound.

And, as for the last grooming visit? I gave her the veterinarian-prescribed trazodone an hour before so Bujeau remained in a mellow state while being bathed, brushed and trimmed.

“I’ve treated dogs who are afraid of someone, something they see, hear, feel or smell, but I have never had a dog frightened of taste,” Dr. Dodman says. “There can be trial and error involved to find the right solution, so it is important to assimilate all the facts and work with your veterinarian.”

Thumbnail: Photography ©GlobalP | Getty Images.

Arden Moore, The Pet Health and Safety Coach™, is a pet behavior consultant, master certified pet first aid instructor, author and host of the Oh Behave Show on Pet Life Radio. Learn more at ardenmoore.com.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Dogster magazine. Have you seen the new Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? Subscribe now to get Dogster magazine delivered straight to you!

Plus, are you JUST nervous … or is it a nervous breakdown? Find out >>

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