Friday, November 20, 2015

Please Comfort Your Dog When They Are Scared!


The other night we had our smoke alarm alert us to a low battery. It does this by going off and screaming about how the battery is low. It went off at bedtime. If you all remember, Phoenix was rescued from a house fire and she is terrified of the smoke detector. We have no idea how long she was in the house with a screaming smoke detector but it obviously left a lasting impression. She was rescued by firefighters.

We didn't realize we had a problem with Phoenix being afraid of the smoke detector until a little over a year of having her. I probably should of known that it would be an issue and I'm not sure why I didn't think about it, knowing where she came from. I feel really bad that I didn't try to work on it sooner. In our old apartment, the thing never went off. When we moved to our inlaw's house, their smoke detector is extra sensitive and the first time it went off, Phoenix had a PTSD-like episode where she actually reverted back to her pre-adopted state. She was extremely fearful and would not come out of the closet and she would just shake nonstop. She would also shy away from anyone trying to touch her, a problem we hadn't had since we got her. It is absolutely the saddest dog thing ever. I hate watching her go through this fear. Since then we have been working on it but it's very slow going.

You hear all the time how if your dog is afraid you should just ignore them. You don't want to "reinforce their fear with any sort of coddling because it will make them more fearful".

I am here to tell you that is just not true. It is OKAY to comfort your dog when they are afraid and I urge you to do so. You can't reinforce their fear by giving them comfort. Fear is an emotion not a behavior. You can only reinforce behavior. If you would like to read a more in depth article on why this is true, please visit my friend Eileen's blog: It's OK to Comfort Your Dog!

Now when I say comfort your dog, I don't mean clutch the dog to your chest while screeching in a high pitched voice "It's OKAY!!!" over and over. Don't do that. That CAN make them more nervous, if you're afraid they will be afraid, too. Think about the last time you were scared or anxious, what made you feel better? When I'm anxious, a hug from my husband can be really helpful to me. Since dogs are not big fans of hugs, let's stick to scratching them in their favorite spot or something similar.

Try to be as calm as you possibly can. I know sometimes our own emotions can get the better of us, especially when we are having to witness our dogs go through something unpleasant. It's better if you can keep an even, quiet tone, while petting them gently. Or whatever the dog will like that might help them feel better.


So let's talk about what I did with Phoenix when the smoke alarm went off. The first thing I had my husband do was unplug the stupid thing and take the battery out. We knew that when we put a new battery in that it would screech again. So I got ready for that by getting some high value treats out. As soon as he plugged it back in, I started feeding Phoenix as quickly as possible. (This was my attempt at Counter Conditioning, however I would like to note that she was probably over threshold already since the noise had already gone off and she was scared. Counter Conditioning works much better if you are able to keep the dog under threshold and do it before the thing is so scary. Noise phobias are very complicated and hard to treat because they are unpredictable.) I am lucky that as long as the food is very good she will still eat it. Some dogs when they are very scared won't take food at all. If that's your dog, then you just do what you can for them. Getting away from the scary thing is important as well, so if you can move the dog to a different location that would be a good idea. Our apartment is small so unfortunately we don't have that option.

Even after the smoke alarm stopped screeching at us, Phoenix was still very visibly shaken and upset. If I wasn't interacting with her directly, she would run around the house with her tail tucked looking for a safe place to hide. I continued interacting with her, giving her treats asking for very simple known behaviors that would be easy for her to do to distract her. All while quietly praising her and giving her scratches in her favorite spots. Then when she was a little more calm, I broke out one of her favorite toys and encouraged her to play with me, getting her to play with me did take a while. She was still very nervous and didn't really want to but eventually she couldn't resist her favorite toy. When we were done playing, I took both dogs out for their nightly "before bedtime" walk. We actually went further than we usually do and I think the walking also helped her to calm down. Once the walk was done, when she came back inside she was mostly back to normal and we were able to go to bed. This whole process took around two hours but it was so worth it to me! My dog's emotional health is more important than sleep and always will be.

So if your dog is scared, it is okay to comfort them and don't let anyone tell you not to!

I was unable to take any photos during the time I was dealing with Phoenix being afraid. I hope no one minds cute photos instead of fearful ones.




31 comments:

  1. Blueberry has noise sensitivity issues too. The chirp for the low battery on the smoke alarm is definitely not her favorite. I know I prepare Blueberry for the fireworks for New Year's Eve and July 4th by trying to take her for an extra long hike during the day to really wear her out. That way, when evening rolls around, she's still nervous, but on a smaller scale. I've gone so far as to hide in the walk in closet with her, reading my book and petting her until a loud storm passes. She just feels safer in there and I don't mind joining her if it helps calm her down a bit.

    That's really sad about Phoenix's reaction. Glad you are working through it with her. I have learned that sometimes, you can make it easier for them but not always completely "cure" them of their phobias.

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    1. Awe! That's so sweet of you to sit in the closet with Blueberry! I'm sure she really appreciates it!

      I totally agree with you. Sometimes their fear is too ingrained for them to ever be cured. We try to work on it and provide support but I don't think she will ever get over it. I hope that I can make things easier for her by being there for her, though!

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  2. I put Schooner and Skipper Thundershirts on but we wrap them in a blanket and have them sit beside us so we can talk and pets them to calm them down. Great blog today!

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    1. Awe that's good! I hope the thundershirts help!

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  3. I cannot imagine ignoring Bentley or Pierre when they are scared. That is just cruel. They trust us for comfort and security. Ignoring them when they are in need of that very thing is a good way to teach them that you are worthy of their trust. I never let my children cry it out either. ☺ I am so sorry Phoenix has such a bad reaction to the fire alarm but she is very lucky to have you there with her.

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    1. That's so awesome! I'm glad you're there for your pups and kids, too!

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  4. I was in town with Jess one time, and a nearby chapel bell started ringing. I'd been teaching Jess to stay on the ground and not to jump up while I was outside the cafe. The bell made her shake. Probably the wrong thing to do, but when she wanted to jump up on the bench beside me I let her. She got hugs and pats until the bell stopped, and then she jumped down. We're not out and about very often, so it's not something I'm very strict about. And she was scared - I had to help her fell better!

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    1. Awe! Poor Jess! I bet that was super scary! I think in those situations you just do what you have to do, even if the thing might be considered "naughty" by some other owners! If it makes your pup feel better then that's the most important thing.

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  5. Such an excellent post. I hope lots of people take your advice. I'll be sharing this after I comment.

    We're lucky that a breed characteristic of golden retrievers is to not be noise sensitive (since they're originally hunting dogs). And we had a few mild thunderstorms when she was a puppy so we were able to expose her to them in a mild way.

    But we had an extremely harsh thunderstorm last year that frightened her quite a bit. We tried comforting her by having her on our lap (which usually works) but she was very restless.

    Eventually I took her down stairs where we spent 45 minutes practicing her new trick with a clicker--shutting a cabinet door with her nose.

    Normally physical comfort or treats would be enough. But during this particular storm, that just wasn't working. Luckily, she loves to train and it boosted her confidence (and tired her out) enough to go back to sleep.

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    1. Thanks so much!
      I'm so glad you figured out something to help Honey with her fear. Sometimes when they are super restless, I think doing a fun activity that's super easy is the best thing you can do. If the dog is able to do it. Sometimes they are so scared that they can't focus at all but if they can then distraction can work really well!

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  6. This myth is definitely one of my biggest pet peeves; you did a good job both with Phee and with explaining the reality behind it. Truly, unless the **only** time your dog gets affection is when he's scared, there's no way that it can be reinforcing.

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  7. I absolutely agree with you. Comforting is important! I did not know Phoenix had been rescued from a fire, I imagine the smoke alarm is doubly scary for her. I'm glad you were right there when it happened.

    I'm not sure if you saw this in my follow-up post or not, but we actually got a smoke detector that talks, because Sampson had a similar experience with it going off and now is a bit noise phobic.

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    1. Thanks Jodi! Poor Sampson! Noise phobias or no fun for anyone.

      I didn't see that you got a talking smoke detector! I wish we could switch ours out but we live in an apartment complex and they actually fine you $250 if they catch you tampering with it other than to change the battery. We are stuck with the one they gave us. It talks and screams. :(

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  8. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I still read conflicting things on this subject, but the first time I read it was OK to comfort your dog I started doing so immediately, I always hated trying to ignore our golden Moses during thunderstorms...it just went against my nature!
    We had big issues with our late beagle Kobi and the smoke detector. We don't really know what triggered it (we have an idea it was something that happened with his pet sitter though), but our smoke detector often went off when we used our oven (it's too close) and it got to the point where Kobi trembled and tried to hide when we even turned the oven on! Once we made sure it didn't happen anymore in time he got over it. I wish I'd known more about counter conditioning back then because I would have worked with him to help him sooner. He was a dog who wasn't afraid of anything....but that smoke detector!

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    1. Yeah, the articles that oppose comfort totally frustrate me! It makes me so sad when people ignore their scared dogs. I'm so glad you liked my post and found it helpful! :)

      Phoenix was the same way with the smoke detector at my inlaws, as soon as anyone would start dinner prep she'd freak out and hide in the closet. We started taking the battery out immediately before making dinner and counter conditioning her to dinner prep. She did a lot better after that. Most of the time we do our best to try and prevent the smoke alarm from going off. We actually put an industrial strength fan underneath it every night to blow any smoke from cooking dinner away from it so it doesn't go off.

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  9. Great post! Dogs have emotions and we can help them.

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  10. When LeeLee is scared, we do try and comfort her, although she usually just wants to hid.

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    1. That's good that you try! Sometimes they do better being left alone in a quiet spot. Zoe can be that way occasionally. We just do the best we can! Really. :)

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  11. Our Little Bit was scared of this too, and fireworks, and thunder. We kept her close and made sure she was contained. It helped a great deal. It often takes hours for them to settle down. We sure miss our girl. It's been almost a month since she crossed the bridge.

    Have a woof woof day you two. ☺

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    1. Hi Sandee, I am so sorry for your loss. ~hugs~

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  12. Fantastic advice! Roxie is the first dog I've dealt with out right fear issues in, and stroking her head and speaking calmly to her helps wonders. If I'm interacting with her, she seems to focus more on me, rather than reverting to the shut down, terrified dog I first brought home.

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    1. I'm so glad you found something that helps Roxie when she's scared!

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  13. Brilliant advice! Comforting is always very important. We were on a walk today and some idiot drove past beeping at something several times! Poppy was terrified! It's not right to just tell them off for being scared, or not comforting them when this happens - it's alright to be worried and us humans aren't expected to not be scared of certain things, so why dogs?

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    1. Oh no! Poor Poppy!
      I definitely agree with you! Thanks for stopping by!

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  14. I'm so glad that you were able to help Phoenix recover more quickly than she otherwise might have! Heck, I find the smoke detector's various sounds really aversive and I don't even have traumatic associations with them.

    And thanks for writing this wonderful account of a real life "how to comfort your dog" situation--I'll definitely be sharing it! The best ways that I can comfort Nala are probably food games--when she's worked up and worried over something, she doesn't really like to be touched and she's way too concerned to play with a toy. But after a few rounds of chasing treats, she starts to feel better; then she solicits petting or cuddles, and I give them.

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    1. Thanks so much! I'm glad you liked my post! :) Nala sounds a lot like Zoe! Zoe is the same way when she's scared and she usually doesn't find comfort in physical touch, either. We play food games with her, too! :D

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  15. Hi hi hi! Ojo here! I do not understand. Why would people not comfort us when we are scared? Some people must be weird! Or maybe they don't know any better?

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  16. Poor baby! Max is absolutely terrified of thunder and I try my hardest to cuddle and comfort him. We have anxiety drops for him anytime we know it's coming or fireworks will be going off. The smoke detector is a hard one because there's no warning. The one I have beeps continuously when the batter is getting low. Any way you could get new ones that don't scream when low? ~RascalandRocco

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