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Q. Our dog was a stray found with no collar and no microchip. We looked for an owner with ads and flyers, but no luck. We think she was abused because she is afraid of so many things. Can you help?
A. Living in fear is misery. For adult pets with fear problems, the answer is a program of what behaviorists call counter-conditioning — pairing the scary in small doses with something the pet likes.
"Punishment is never appropriate for a fearful pet," says my colleague, Dr. Wayne Hunthausen of Animal Behavior Consultations in the Kansas City, Kan., suburb of Westwood. "Your pet is already afraid. You don't want to force the pet to accept something he doesn't want. The secret is controlling the volume, the size or the distance of exposure to the thing a pet's afraid of and gradually increasing the exposure. "
Start small. With a dog who's afraid of garbage bags, he says, start with a piece of a garbage bag, as small as 3 inches. Pick it up, give the pet a treat when it notices, and then put down the piece of plastic. When then dog is comfortable with that, increase the size of the scrap and continue until the pet links the sight of the bag with a good thing — food — not fear.
"For a dog who's afraid of other dogs, you'd reward for being calm while the other animal is at a distance and gradually decrease the distance," Dr. Hunthausen says. "For thunderstorms, there are recordings you can use to build confidence gradually."
Stay calm. Always keep the exposure below the level at which the pet starts showing signs of anxiety — yawning, drooling, scanning the room for escape routes, changes in posture that show a lack of confidence, including ears back and licking lips. Build on your successes and go slowly, the veterinarian says.
Don't give up. What if you're not having any success? Get help. Ask your family's veterinarian to refer you to a behavior professional who can help you develop a good program. A specialist may also put your pet on medication to make the transition to a fear-free life easier. Though it sounds odd to many pet lovers, a pharmaceutical solution paired with a well-managed behavior modification plan, either in the short-term or forever, helps many pets cope with modern life.
Pets don't have to live in fear as long as pet owners are willing to help them work through their issues with patience, compassion and, possibly, professional guidance.
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