Scary things aren’t fun to be around. (Unless you like scary movies and haunted houses. And even then you’re choosing to experience it.) Many dogs encounter scary things in their day to day life. When the scary thing is too close, you’ll see your dog go into fight, flight or freeze mode. Regardless of which you see from them, they’re not feeling good about the situation.
A lot of pet parents will try to avoid the scary thing so their dog doesn’t have to experience it. This is a very kind thing to do and will also help ensure that their dog’s fear will not increase. But what about scary things that are unavoidable? How are you supposed to avoid all cars on walks? How are you supposed to avoid ever seeing a person on a walk? Simply put, we cannot.
If we cannot avoid it all, what is the best thing to do? Believe it or not, we can decrease our dogs fear by turning the scary thing into a predictor of something our dog loves. Food is generally the easiest tool for this. In order for this to work, we need to keep our dog at a distance where they can see the scary thing and eat the food easily. If you’re having to wave it in front of their face and really try to encourage them to take it then the scary thing is likely too close. We also need to make sure that our dog sees the scary thing before we start giving food. Having the correct order of events will help build the association.
Yesterday I was out walking with my kids and I was pulling them in a wagon. A person and their dog was approaching us and I noticed the cute little dog watching us closely. As I looked at the person I could see a treat bag hanging from their waist. The next thing that happened was some happy talk from the person to the dog and a treat followed. After the treat was delivered, the dog looked back at us and then the person repeated. What I witness was a thing of beauty. The dog learned that kids in wagons predicted tasty treats. The pet parent was likely doing this because they wanted to help their dog build a positive association with kids in wagons.
Fear leads to fight, flight or freeze. A positive association leads to prosocial, more desirable behaviors. When done correctly, barking and lunging turns into looking at the scary thing and happily looking back for a treat.