Your cute puppy is usually a wonderful little bundle of joy. However, when lightning flashes and thunder strikes, she transforms into a terrified bundle of fear and bolts straight to your lap knocking down your grandmother’s favorite china along the way. Before wondering if your pet is unusual, wait a minute; you are not alone.
“Pets can be fearful of all types of things,” says Dr. Mark Stickney, Clinical Associate Professor, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM). He gives a variety of examples: thunderstorms, fireworks, cars, hats, and even children. Separation anxiety when you leave home can be destructive and potentially cost thousands of dollars, he remarks.
So why do pets get scared? All animals have evolved to recognize threats, Stickney says. The fear physiology in animals is similar to that in humans with the heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature rising when frightened, he explains.
Dogs, which are bred as pack animals, want to be with their owners when afraid. Cats, being more solitary, hide when scared and may be less destructive because they are smaller. Thus each animal responds differently. But the greatest available body of information on pet fears is on dogs.
An important factor in such animal behavior is the critical socialization period – a time between 8 to 12 weeks (2 to 3 months) of age for both kittens and puppies. During this period, a young animal should get its first series of vaccinations… and then be taken everywhere and be exposed to all kinds of people, things, and sounds, Stickney advises.
“If you plan to have the animal accompany you while horseback riding, take it to a place where it can see and smell horses. If you plan to take the animal along during hunting, take it to the field where it can see and hear gunshots.”
Another important practice is crate training – a place for the pet to feel safe when you leave the house – right from the first day the puppy comes home.
“It’s sort of like your favorite chair in the house,” Stickney says, “The crate should always be a safe place, always a happy place.” The pet should never be put in these crates to be punished or for any negative experience.
Stickney also recommends puppy daycare – a place where puppies spend an hour playing together. It includes obedience training, helps them socialize, and makes them more observant to social cues. In this way, they learn to notice things they may not otherwise pay attention to.
One way to overcome fear is to expose pets to the feared objects and reward them when they are brave. For example, you can expose your puppy to a small scary noise but keep it close by, pet it and give it a treat as a positive reinforcement. Slowly, you can keep increasing the threshold of the noise. Thus, even if we do not change the fear, we can at least desensitize the pet to such cues.
Some dogs experience separation anxiety and freak out when they hear keys being picked up. One way to desensitize them is to frequently pick up keys and then sit back at home or leave the house for a minute and then come back. Animals will slowly recognize to ignore these cues, Stickney advises.
A recent market trend is tight-fitting pet jackets. These help with modifying behavior in mild problems.
“The idea is that animals feel safe and secure when they are compressed, just like babies when they are swaddled,” Stickney says.
For more severe fears, specialized veterinary behaviorists prescribe a combination of behavioral modification and pharmacological treatments. For example, veterinarians sometimes prescribe sedatives for animals that tend to be terrified during long travel periods.
Stickney emphasizes that the pharmacologic therapy only serves to help the behavior modification. “There is no such thing as a single solution to fix the problem,” he remarks.
So while leaving the pet alone first for a long time, you can leave the puppy in its crate (maybe with a jacket) with its favorite toys and some old T-shirts, Stickney advises. “The puppy will feel a whole lot better and will probably sleep through most of it,” he says.
The take-home message: If you have a brand new puppy, make sure that it is exposed to different types of people and places during the critical socialization period. If you already have a dog with fears, consult a veterinarian. This is important because these fears are learned and do not disappear after a phase.
“The sooner you address these issues, the better it is because these fears do not go away on their own,” Stickney says. “Nothing is easy about rearing a puppy. It’s a responsibility. There are incredible benefits if you put in the time and efforts early on.”
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