This is a great frustration among dog parents and handlers. Our dogs sudden act terrified of something that does not seem scary at all. There are a few different common categories of fears: people, dogs, noises, situations, inanimate objects, surfaces. In this blog, I am going to focus on fear of objects and noises. The intensity of fear can vary greatly from one dog to another and between situations. One dog may be terrified by a flip-top garbage can sitting by the road with a lid that flaps back and forth with the wind, making a soft "thud" every time it bumps the can. However, this dog relaxes after spending a few minutes cautiously sniffing/investigating it. Another dog may be too terrified to ever approach, and runs away in fear every time the lid flaps and "thuds".
We must remember that there is no right or wrong to a dog's feelings. They feel the way they feel and we must find ways to manage it. Often times, these fears can be handled with a change in how we approach the situations to put the dogs at ease, as well as desensitization and counter-conditioning. I caution people to stay away from flooding, which is desensitization through the exposure of a high volume of the stimuli at once. For example, a hunter may take a dog who is afraid of the sound of gunshots and tie him to a tree, then have a number of people fire off their guns into the air until the dog "gets over" it or just shuts down. Dogs often shut down with this kind of therapy unless the fear is very mild, so I heavily caution against using it. Take a more gradual approach by introducing the stimuli (gunshot, trashcan flapping) at a lower intensity level from either a distance as described further below, or through a recording of the noise. Remember that you are re-conditioning this stimuli from something negative to something positive! So reward heavily with praise, food, and treats.
If using desensitization through a recording of the noise, start by playing the offensive noise at a volume where the dog does not react. Give treats and play games with the dog, and very gradually raise the volume over time while continuing to treat and play until the noise is at real-life volume and the dog no longer reacts to it. Occasionally, your dog may be so sensitive that he reacts to the noise on the recording when the volume is turned down so low that is cannot be heard by the human ear. Start with the volume as soft as needed, even if you cannot hear it. What is important is how much/little your dog is reacting to the noise. This method of desensitization can take mere days, or sometimes many weeks, depending on the dog and the level of fear. It works great for many common noises, including gun shots, fireworks, thunderstorms, traffic noises, sounds of people/children, etc. It works even better if you have surround sound at home, but this is not a requirement! Many recordings made specifically for dog desensitization can be found on YouTube, iTunes, and Amazon. You may have to try a couple different recordings of the offensive noise to find one that gets a reaction from your dog.
For fears of objects, explore what may be making your dog fearful of the object. Are there shadows making the object appear differently? Is the object moving (like the trashcan lid or a flag on a flagpole) and causing a reaction? The thought process can help to make sure that you are addressing the correct situation. It helps to start the dog from a far distance so the intensity of the stimuli is less anxiety-inducing. When put in a situation such as the trashcan with the lid flapping, it helps if we set a positive tone. Speak excitedly and positively as you reward your dog with a high value treat (or playtime) from a distance for showing interest in the object (such as looking over at it). Immediately praise with "Yes! Good Look, Good Boy!" and a treat every time he looks over at the object. Sometimes, the distance could be as much as 50 feet for some dogs. For others, it could be 10 feet. Slowly move closer as your dog becomes more comfortable. If your dog refuses to take food or to play, then you are too close for his comfort! Back up 5 or 10 feet, or until he will take food and/or play again. Encourage him to look, sniff, or curiously approach the object, rewarding with every effort on his part, no matter how small.
You have to learn to read your dog's body language with both of these methods. It is better to start too far away from the object or too soft of volume than to be close/too loud and have a stressed out dog that is no longer able to keep training. Is his body tense with his tail tucked? Is he yawning or panting heavily? Licking his lips? Pacing and sniffing? These are all signs of stress. His body should be loose with relaxed ears and tail, most likely with his focus on you since you have the food/toys! If something is stressing him out, he will be focused on that thing (object, noise) and not you. Lack of focus is a tell-tale sign of stress.
Sometimes, behavioral modification cannot take place without the help of a medication or other calming agent to lower the dog's response to the stimuli. A calming agent you may want to try first is Adaptil, which has the patented Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP). It comes in a travel spray, collar, and diffuser. I am a fan of the travel spray, which I frequently recommend for use on neck bandanas for dogs showing signs of fear/anxiety. DAP is a copy of the pheromone that is present on mother dogs, so it has a calming effect on many dogs. I have seen excellent effects on probably around 80% of the dogs I know to have used it. Spray onto a bandana and put it on the dog about 30 minutes before exposure to the stimuli and it may help to lower the level of fear/anxiety based response. You can buy Adaptil at your vet clinic and on Amazon.
For some dogs, the fears can be so numerous and intense that they severely impact the quality of the dog's life, or make behavioral modification very difficult due to the intensity of a dog's response to the stimuli (the trash can and it's flapping lid). I recommend discussing the situation with a veterinarian when a dog's quality of life is lacking due to such intense fears. Anxiety medication in conjunction with behavioral modification can be the best choice for some of these dogs. Medications with low level side effects do exist. Your veterinarian will have the best information to help you if you are interested in this path.