How to Manage and Desensitize Your Fearful Dog
Havanese are a gentle breed and can be prone to anxiety or fearful behavior if under-socialized or exposed to negative experiences. They do best with positive reinforcement and do not respond well to punishment such as yelling or hitting. While Havanese already require a gentle hand, it is even more important to be mindful of your emotions or actions with a fearful Havanese. Negative behavior on your part could exacerbate their fearful response.
If your Havanese displays fear or anxiety so severe that it is affecting your dog’s mental well-being and quality of life, then you should speak to your veterinarian about finding a professional behaviorist.
To successfully manage a fear response in a dog, you will need to employ counter-conditioning and desensitization. Counter-conditioning is training your dog to display a behavior different than their current reaction to the stimulus. Desensitization is slowly and gradually exposing your dog to the triggering stimulus.
As with any sort of training, the best way to create a new positive association is with lots of rewards! You should find the rewards that your Havanese values most, whether that’s some sort of food treat or a well loved toy. This should be something that grabs your dog’s attention in any situation, no matter how overwhelming.
So, how do I desensitize my fearful dog?
You should begin by slowly exposing your Havanese to their feared stimulus at a distance. For example, let’s say your Havanese loves hot dogs and is afraid of strange men wearing hats. You can recruit a male friend to wear a hat and stand at a distance. They should be close enough that your Havanese acknowledges their presence, but far enough that your Havanese is relaxed enough to take bites of hot dog. If your Havanese shows any signs of fear, or refuses to acknowledge you or eat a hot dog piece, then you should move them further away from the trigger until they are able to relax.
Gradually, you should decrease the distance between them and the trigger until they are close enough for your aforementioned recruited friend to toss your Havanese some treats.
The goal is for your Havanese to begin associating what they’re afraid of (in this example, men wearing hats) with something they love (hot dogs). You are replacing the fearful response with an expectation of good things.
Desensitization is a long process and it is important that you take things slowly. Some dogs can show considerable improvement in as little as a day, but most will require more time than that. You must remain consistent and patient, and most of all, positive!