The main objective of treatment of a phobia is to teach the animals that the stimulus it is frightened of can be associated with something good, such as a reward. This is often easier said than done, requiring persistence and patience. The most important thing to keep in mind is that you must not reinforce fearful behaviour by petting, reassuring, or rewarding the animal (by giving him dog treats like bully sticks).
The approach to any type of fear is the same in principle. The first step to treatment is to identify what the stimulus is and when it occurs. When the trigger has been identified, attempt to avoid all encounters with this if possible. If your dog is afraid of thunderstorms, start your training at a time of year where they are less likely to occur, such as the winter. The next step is to desensitize the animal and teach relaxation in the presence of the stimulus. This must be done slowly and systematically. If the dog is fearful of unfamiliar people, ask a friend to help with training. Place the dog in a crate and ask the friend to enter the room but keep a great enough distance that the dog remains calm. Reward the dog for good behaviour with food or affection. The unfamiliar person can attempt to desensitize the dog by throwing food from a distance, avoiding eye contact, and approaching sideways. Gradually, over the course of several training sessions, ask the friend to approach closer each time to a distance in which the dog can remain calm. Remember to only reward calm, relaxed behaviour and not to reinforce inappropriate reactions. The animal should slowly learn to associate the stimulus with good things, such as treats, resulting in a less fearful response.
The prognosis for successful treatment is dependent on several factors, including age, duration of the fearful behaviour, and the owner’s diligence with training. Generally, the younger the age of onset and the longer the duration, the less chance there is of correcting the behaviour. That is not to say, however, that correction is impossible. Again, it is important to be able to recognize the triggers and be patient throughout the training process. With appropriate training, an animal can learn to be relaxed in the presence of previously frightening situations.
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