ANIMAL PSYCHOLOGY 101: OVERCOMING FEAR
It is extremely common for our animal friends to develop fears and anxieties due to their highly sensitive nature. For many people, it can be trying to live with animals who become anxious and fearful. In addition to it creating anxiety within us, it can at times be heartbreaking to watch.
I have been asked more often than not, how to communicate with an animal to get them to stop their fearful behaviour. Whereas I would love to have an “off switch” that I can use in these situations, there is no such thing. In fact, in these situations, the most tested and true methods of fearful behaviour treatment lies within patience and consistency.
As we may all be aware, the animal brain operates differently than the human. Of course there are many similarities, however one difference is the strength of their fight or flight reflex. Their fight or flight reflex is stronger due to generations of adaptation to environment and survival mechanism.
Many of our animal friends develop fears from living with humans. When studying cat and dog behaviour, we can safely say that common fear origins are noise, objects at speed (i.e. when walking toward a cat or small dog, she may run away because all she sees is your legs as posts- not part of you, her caregiver) and most assuredly abandonment and abuse.
Though fear originates from these sources, what affects our animals afterward is a trigger. Triggers are experiences that remind our animals of past trauma. In the case of an abused dog, when the dog sees a broom, he may cower because in his last home he was hit with a broom as punishment.
The number of animal fear behaviours is limitless. The good news is that there is one method that is easily accessible to all, if they commit to it. This method requires time, patience and understanding.
When we are working through fear with animals, we must ALWAYS go at the animal’s pace. If we speed through the exercises, we could frighten them even more and always be starting from square one. In order to go at the animal’s pace, it’s important to understand your animal and how she operates. The main point of any behaviour training when it comes to cats and dogs is to go one small step at a time. As humans, we tend to be in a hurry. Remember that animals live in the moment, only according to the clock of their bodies. This means that different animals will learn at different speeds, on their own time. Keeping this in mind, we may now go ahead with re-training our animal’s behaviour.
Any time we are working with our animal friends to conquer fearful behaviour, we must always understand the importance of going one step at a time as mentioned earlier. As an example, I have recently worked with a client and her dog who is afraid of being brushed. The dog is a large breed and sheds a lot. My client has tried repeatedly to brush her dog’s feet and he simply will not have it. The question here was- is the dog afraid of being brushed or is the dog afraid of the brush itself? To answer this question, we must bring the brush to the dog and see if he flinches. If he does not flinch at the sight of the brush, we know it is not the brush itself. The next step was to get the dog to relax while being brushed. I advised my client to go step by step with her dog. In this example, she would bring the brush out, set it down and walk away. The next day she would bring the brush to his lower shoulder and walk away. And every day after that she would go one inch more toward his feet from his torso. By breaking this activity onto small steps, the dog will not likely be as anxious.
This behaviour modification technique can be used across the board with the understanding that some dogs and cats may take longer than others to supersede their fears. Whereas some dogs may be ok going inch by inch, day by day, others may relate better to inch by inch, week by week. This is where our patience is of foremost importance.
In addition to your own patience it is always of great import to ensure that the rest of the household members are on the same page. As with any behaviour training plans, consistency is key.
Creating a well-thought out plan and staying consistent and patient with it is the best way to tackle any fear-based behaviour in companion animals. By taking the time to do so, you are taking the first steps to ensuring a peaceful and harmonious home for the whole family.