How Can You Help a Fearful Dog?

An owner with a fearful dog recently asked this question:
“My dog is fearful of strange noises like thunder or fireworks, how can I help him?”
The short answer was that they could help in a number of different ways, but that it was equally valuable to know what wouldn’t help, because some of the things we instinctively do can have the opposite effect to the one we intended!

Why Dogs Become Fearful
The root of your dog’s fear could relate back to a bad experience or a lack of socialisation and exposure to noise when they were young. However sometimes the fear is not attributable to anything obvious, but don’t worry if you can’t find a cause because understanding where their fear comes from is not as important as how you react to it.
Dogs can be afraid of almost anything that they don’t understand – and the truth is that our dogs live mainly in a world that they don’t understand. It’s a world full of alien, noisy gadgets that beep and whirr, start up, make a lot of noise and then stop without rhyme or reason. Owners report dogs afraid of everything from doorbells to washing machines, vacuum cleaners to fireworks.
How to Influence Your Dog
The way you react to a fearful dog can affect whether the level of the fear goes up or down. The best thing you can do for your dog is to stay very calm. Your dog is highly sensitive and will know if you are anxious too. If you are, it will confirm to them that they were right to be afraid in the first place. This can actually escalate the fear in your dog and validate their response, making it even more likely that they will react in the same way next time.
If your dog wants to sit close by you, or even hide behind you when they are afraid, that’s fine as long as you don’t make a big fuss of them. It’s your job to act like everything is fine and they have nothing to worry about.
What Not to Do With a Fearful Dog
Don’t make a dog face their fears as it won’t help and it could backfire on you. Dogs live by their instincts and when they are fearful it is because they interpret the noise as potentially dangerous or threatening to their safety. A dog has 3 responses to danger which are flight, freeze and fight and they will use them in that order.
So the first reaction is likely to be to get away – that’s why a dog will run and hide from the sound of Thunder. The second reaction is to stay very still to see if the danger will go away without them taking any further action and the third is to use aggression to make it go away. If you are making your dog face their fears they could turn their aggression on you and you risk getting bitten.
A highly fearful dog will panic when brought face to face with something they fear and we all know how difficult it is to reason with someone who is panicking!
It is not a good idea to try and comfort your dog either because you are again making something big of the event or could be confirming in the dogs mind that there really is something to be afraid of. Ironically you could also end up reinforcing the behaviour, if your dog interprets the attention as a reward for their fearful behaviour.
What Else Can I Do to Help My Dog?
Learn to be the pack leader. Many dogs assume that they are the pack leader, but struggle because this position makes them responsible for keeping you safe which is difficult when they live in a world full of things they don’t understand.
When you take on the role of pack leader, your dog should relax and be reassured that they can trust you to make decisions. This means a fearful dog will look to you to decide if something is a threat when face with something they don’t understand or are scared of and if you are not afraid your dog will be reassured that they don’t need to worry either.