Does your dog have a fear of objects? Does he run to hide under your bed when you pull out the vacuum cleaner? Does he bark frantically at step ladders? If so, there's a good chance that your dog may be reacting out of fear.
Causes of a Fear of Objects
Dogs can develop a phobia or fear for a variety of reasons. In many cases, it's just that the dog gets frightened of something unfamiliar. The annual Christmas tree is a good example of this. Your dog isn't able to understand your reasons for decorating for the holidays. All he can see is a big tree full of lights and shiny objects where there had never been a tree before.
Dogs can also become fearful of certain objects because of the unpredictable lights, noises, or movements they make. For example, Toby, a hound mix, stands and barks at a child's stuffed animal that sings a birthday song. He keeps low to the floor with his ears tucked back as he barks, ready to run if the stuffed animal should lunge at him. The unfamiliar and unpredictable noise startles him to the point that he has developed a fear of the stuffed animal. Many people see this type of fear develop in their dogs towards vacuum cleaners, hairdryers, and other noisy household items.
A negative experience with an object can also cause a dog to become fearful or avoid it in the future. In some cases, it is advantageous for dogs to remember when they had a negative experience so they can avoid that danger the next time. Sometimes their assessment of a dangerous situation is not accurate however and that leads to fears that may be unhelpful. If for instance you accidentally put a step ladder down on your dog's paw, the pain he feels can cause a fear of that ladder in the future when there is not really imminent danger.
Overcoming a Fear of Objects
Fortunately, there are several things you can do to put your dog at ease if they are fearful:
Put Objects Out of Sight
With some objects, you are able to simply hide them out of your dog's sight. If it is something your dog won't often encounter, you may be able to just avoid his exposure to the object entirely. For instance, Toby's fear of the stuffed animal is easy to deal with because the toy can be stored in a closet out of his line of sight.
Coax Your Dog's Fear Away With Treats
A mild fear may be overcome by using positive reinforcement to help your dog get closer and closer to the object. Give your dog some treats anytime he approaches the object and use encouraging praise to show your dog this can be fun. Gently toss some treats over with each step he takes. If this doesn't work, you can try leaving treats on the ground that lead up to the object. Allow your dog to get the treats in his own time, and try to give him space as he investigates the area around the object. You can leave a few treats around the object every day. In time, your dog may learn that he gets good things whenever he goes near the object he once feared.
Gradually Desensitize Your Dog to the Object
It may take a little more work to get rid of more severe fears. With some objects, you may need to slowly get your dog comfortable with it. This desensitization works well with fear of objects that the dog will have to encounter, and that may not stay in one place, like the vacuum cleaner. The goal of desensitization is to start with baby steps; this means start at a point where your dog is comfortable and work up slowly to the most intense exposures. You may find that having the object at a distance is all your dog can tolerate at first, and with each training session, you can slowly bring the object closer. For objects that make noise, move, or have lights, try to start with the object still and in an off position until your dog gets comfortable with that setting before trying to reintroduce additional stimuli. Not every dog is motivated by treats, so find the reward that works best for your dog. This might be a favorite toy, petting and physical affection, or excited praise. Be consistent and take your time. You may need to do short training sessions each day for many weeks to see progress. The vacuum is a good example:
Start by leaving the vacuum in the middle of the room without turning it on. Place treats in the vicinity of the vacuum. It may take several days or more for your dog to get comfortable with getting closer to the object.
The next step is to begin moving the vacuum cleaner. Keep the vacuum turned off when you begin this process. Move the vacuum around the room a little, and toss some treats to your dog.
Once the dog is able to be around the moving vacuum without fear, try turning it on for just a few seconds while continuously tossing some really yummy treats to your dog. Slowly build up the amount of time the vacuum is on until your dog is able to get close to it without showing signs of fear.
Gradually work up to moving the vacuum around while it is turned on. Soon you should be able to vacuum the whole house without a whimper from your dog.
Edited by Jenna Stregowski, RVT