Are you having problems with your pet reacting to everyday situations with fear and anxiety?
Maybe your cat runs away every time you enter the room or your dog barks uncontrollably at new guests. While these behaviors can be baffling and frustrating, it's important to avoid punishment at all costs. That just increases the anxiety your pet is experiencing - instead, try a common behavioral technique called counter conditioning.
What It Is
"Counter conditioning teaches a dog to feel better about a thing or event that initially caused him to feel fearful, anxious, or threatened," explains Lindsay Wood, behaviorist at The Humane Society of Boulder Valley. Basically, every time your pet is presented with a stimulus that causes anxiety, you provide him with a reward that makes him very happy. The goal is to counterbalance the negative effects of the fear-producing event with a positive stimulus. Treats, pet food or a favorite toy usually work best. You need to use something that is of very high value for the pet for this to work. By repeating this pairing multiple times, your pet will eventually associate what was initially a feared object or event with positive emotions.
Avoid using petting as the positive stimulus - if you pet your dog or cat every time he shows a fearful response, he may think it's OK for him to be fearful. Instead, keep a relaxed and positive attitude and have him excited about the tasty treat, rather than focusing on the situation he perceives as negative.
To get started, collect some of your pet's favorite treats. Keep them in an area where the anxiety-causing situation tends to occur, and practice when it happens. If new guests are the problem, present your pet with a treat every time the doorbell rings. When presenting these counter stimuli, try pairing this process with desensitization by keeping your pet in an area where they can feel safe, possibly by using pet gates or keeping them in a separate room.
Remember that these behavior modifications can take a long time to fully take place, and it's usually beneficial to find a local behaviorist to help you out. If your pet's fearful behavior ever leads to violent reactions, make sure you get assistance quickly, before anyone gets hurt.
With a little patience and understanding, you're likely to help your pet feel more comfortable, and exist more peacefully in his circumstances.