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Help Your Dog With Separation Anxiety and Other Common Fears

Animal Planet’s popular dog trainer Victoria Stilwell shares solutions for getting your dog through anxiety, fear of storms, and other worrisome behavior.
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Q: How can I help my dog get over these fears?

A: Try to redirect the behavior -- the fear -- onto something more positive, like a game, a toy, some food, or attention. Get the dog to try to focus on something other than the fear.

This is where food plays a really powerful role. You’re actually training the brain to function in a different way. Because the dog’s sense of smell is immeasurably superior to ours, when you activate that sense of smell, you can deactivate the emotion of fear and anxiety. This is something I’m becoming a lot more interested in because, more and more as I do my training and the more dogs I see with fears, the more fascinated I’m becoming with how smell can help a dog overcome fear.

 

Q: I’ve heard playing a tape of storm sounds at increasingly louder volumes can help a dog get over its fear of thunderstorms. Do you think this kind of desensitizing works?

A: I’ve used it, but only with other therapy. It’s not going to work alone. And there’s no way you can replicate the sounds of a real thunderstorm. There’s also a theory that dogs feel static electricity. Long before the storm comes, dogs feel changes in the barometric pressure. I don’t think we can really comprehend how a dog feels. I think it’s the noise, it’s the visual of lightning, and it’s maybe the static shocks it’s getting.

Therefore, when I have a thunderstorm-phobic dog, I give the dog a place to go to, like the basement, where the dog can take itself off to, or a closet, which is warm and dark, and I’ll leave a radio or television on. I will do desensitization work with sound because I don’t think it can hurt. Do everything you can to help your dog cope.

 

Q: What do you think of medicating dogs with strong fears?

A: I’ve only ever put two dogs on medications in 14 years of training. Research has been done, and the evidence is pretty conclusive that a trauma can lead to posttraumatic stress in a dog, exactly like it can in a human. If a dog is too stressed and so wild, you have to get the dog to a point where it can learn. So that’s where I would use medication. But it’s always used with a veterinarian’s consultation and prescribed by a vet. And it’s never for life. It can take around three to six weeks for the medication to work. It’s different for every dog. So normally, maybe for three months, I’d have it on medication.

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