Establish and Measure the Fear
If you want to develop a protocol to help a dog overcome fear, you need a plan. In order to do that and before you can develop a protocol to overcome a fear issue, it needs to be properly assessed and measured. First establish what the dog is actually afraid of and second, measure the severity.
Define the Fearful Stimuli
When you try to assess what the dog is actually afraid of, look at all the dog’s senses. For example, if your dog gets scared when there are thunderstorms, it is natural to assume that the dog is afraid of the noise or the shaking, but it could be the smell of the ozone or the touch of the static electricity for example. They might even think it is the house that is the problem because it is actually the thing they perceive as the origin. When you actually start training, if you aren’t counter conditioning for the right thing, the treatment plan won’t work.
Dogs Prioritize Differently – Include All 5 Senses
What order does your stimuli arrive from the dog’s viewpoint?
Smell Hearing Touch Sight Taste
Humans tend to think of sight first, dogs are more likely to think of scents, sounds and feeling first. So remember that they prioritize differently and another sense might be the first one they think of, or that they strongly associate with the fear. Fireworks for instance have not only light and sound, but pressure change and at least four different chemical smells associated with them.
Levels of Severity
How difficult will it be for the dog. If it isn’t that bad, then your dog can get over it easier. Give yourself a framework and make a concrete measurement about the dogs reaction. The greater the level of the fear, the slower the treatment plan will be.
• Level 1 – Startle reaction with quick recovery
• Level 2 – Startle response with a slightly longer recovery
• Level 3 – Freeze, Tremble, Pant, Vocalize, Eyes Dilated, etc.
• Level 4 – Flight and Hide for Perceived Safety (Still with conscious thought)
• Level 5 – Terrified Panic Response (Non-thinking unconscious reaction)
Implement Counter Conditioning
If the fear is not too severe like Level 3 or below and there is no distress associated with it, habituation would probably be sufficient. Repeated exposure will give the dog a chance to learn that he can deal with it without consequences. Typically you can habituate to level 1-2 fears.
If the fear is greater, the dog needs greater help so you would need to desensitize to level 3-5 fears. It would be very easy to over do it and flood the dog, causing irreparable damage, so go slowly and start well below the dog’s reaction threshold. Accustom a dog to a Level 3 or greater fearful stimulus or situation by using systematic desensitization.
Once you have really dissected what your are trying to achieve, it will be a lot easier to design a treatment plan. Remember to go slowly and don’t skip steps. If you go too fast, it’s harder to fix than doing a step too slowly.