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.