Fearfulness in Dogs

Fearfulness in dogs is one of the most wide-spread dog behavior problems and can be the most difficult to deal with. In order to understand the whole concept of fear and how it applies to dogs, the easiest way to start would be to divide it into three different types of causes:

  • Genetically inherited predisposition for fear
  • Level of socialization
  • Fears caused by environment/situations

Fear is a normal animal instinct and all animals, including humans, have it. In a dog’s life, hazard/avoidance behaviors start appearing sometime after their fifth week of life. At this time, the part of the brain that holds fear sensors starts developing. As mentioned above, fear is an instinctual pattern, and like other instincts, it is a self-driven action that can overpower other aspects of the brain once activated. This can, at times completely overtake a dog’s actions and performance.

The reason for this is that fear is a natural defense system that kicks in to remove a dog from potential danger or prepare him for defensive actions. However, it is not always that simple.

There are more and more dogs that have a genetic predisposition for a fearful temperament. There are many names for this type of temperament and one of the most commonly used one is weak nerves dogs.

The problem with this type of temperament is that there are so many triggers that get the dog going. Fearful reactions tend to get worse over time and will start to spill over into situations to which the dog didn’t react to before.

The great news is that this can be lowered or almost completely overcome with proper puppy socialization. On the other hand, most dog owners miss that window of opportunity, thereby drastically lowering the chances for success in their dog’s life.

The environmental influence on a dog’s fears

The influence of the environment has always been an underestimated factor when dealing with dogs. Nowadays we know that aggression, for example, is (in the vast majority of cases) a classically conditioned reaction to changes in the environment or to a specific trigger in the environment.

One of the most common scenarios happens most often, right in front of a dog owner’s eyes. Window aggression is a fearful type of response where a dog displays aggression towards an object, human or other animal that passes on the other side of the window. This exercise has a typical pattern:

  • the trigger approaches
  • the distance and the presence of the trigger activates the dog’s aggressive response
  • the trigger leaves the area (this is a relief and reward for the dog, giving him the feeling that he can control the environment by his actions).

This is a self driven pattern that will only increase, and eventually the dog will start practicing the same type of behaviors on the other side of the window, since he is now “convinced” that his aggressive approach works so he will tend to do it in different scenarios, as well.

The other aspect of the environment is stress. The level of environmental stress depends on the environment itself; as well, it is different for every dog based on multiple factors. Fearful dogs tend to have extra difficulties dealing with the environment as it is normally overwhelming for them, and they tend to not be able to control the situation.

Many dog owners leave their dogs on their porches or the back yards for hours on their own; fearful dogs need help in order to deal with everyday stress produced by the environment, so dogs that are left alone in the back yard, etc. will only increase their fear and in most cases, will develop some type of aggressive response to the environment.

Fearfulness in dogs divided in groups

For easier orientation, we can divide fearfulness in dogs into three basic groups of triggers:

  • auditory fear
  • visual fear
  • fear of being touched (aphephobia)

Dogs normally react to most auditory stimulants however, if dogs weren’t exposed to different types and levels of sounds, or if there is a new sound that a dog wasn’t familiar with it, there is a high possibility that the dog will react fearfully.

In most cases, dogs tend to react to firecrackers, guns, or thunder. These are powerful, loud sounds and most dogs were not exposed to them during their socialization period, these are also sounds that only appear occasionally, therefore making it even more difficult for a dog to have enough repetitions of exposure in order to develop a natural non-reacting behaviour to it.

Some items also create fearful reactions because of the noise that they make. For example, many dogs will avoid approaching or stepping on metal tin cans because of the sound that they produce, on the other hand they might not have any issues with a glass jar that is a similar size and shape.

For the proper development of the auditory system the puppy socialization period is crucial. However, during the dog’s life he may encounter situations where even a familiar sound combined with the environment and intensity, could produce an instant fear which will require a Counter-conditioning approach, in order to be dealt with afterwards.

A client of mine has a dog that was fine with thunder, until one time when they took him outside before a storm and the lighting struck nearby creating a powerful loud noise. The combination of timing, and volume scared the dog, and from that point on he was fearful towards loud noises. Luckily, this was easy to deal with in his case and was only a short phase in his life.

The second group of fearful reactive triggers are the visual ones. Just like with sounds, a dog’s development time in life (puppy socialization) is crucial in order to avoid as many problems as possible. When we talk about visually triggered fearful responses, we are talking about certain triggers in the environment that make a dog react. For example, the majority of dogs will react in an open field when they see another animal or person approaching.

This is simply due to the fact that the object is more obvious in a dull environment that doesn’t offer any other distractions, than it would be in other places. This is the reason why dogs also tend to react in some places more than others. As well, how familiar a dog is with the environment also plays an important role. The relationship and the inputs that a dog gets from the environment itself may, or may not enhance the power of the trigger, and therefore the dog’s reaction to it.

It is important to know this, as many dog owners are not sure why their dogs react in some situations and not in others. This is also important to consider when creating a dog rehabilitation plan.

The last in this group is a fear of being touched. First of all, there is a wide spread belief that dogs like to be pet, and this is also the first approach by most people when they first encounter a dog. However, petting is not natural for dogs; they do have and show affection among themselves and although those interactions do include a lot of body contact, the act of “petting” is strictly a human/dog created action.

This is mostly obvious with fearful dogs that have had a poorly structured puppy socialization period. Even among humans we have acceptable and appropriate meeting rituals, but for some reason we think that it is okay for us to just approach a strange animal and that they should be fine with that.

Being roughly handled during their life may be one of the reasons why some dogs don’t like to be touched. It is very important to deal with this problem before you run into a dangerous situation.

The problem with dogs that don’t like to be touched is that you can end up in the situation where someone (in most cases, a stranger) gets too close to the dog, and the dog feels threatened by the person because they are too close and at that moment it is instinct that kicks in and a dog attack is a likely result of the encounter.

To understand this, you have to understand that dogs, just like any other animal in the world, have a “safety distance”. If you observed wildlife, you would know that you are normally fine as long as you are far enough away that the animal doesn’t feel threatened. By this I mean that the animal has a chance to control the situation and leave the situation without jeopardizing their security in order to do so.

Problems occur when that distance is too short and the animal can’t fully control the situation and he doesn’t feel that he can leave safely. In this case, going forward (attack) is the most likely option. An old saying is that, “the most dangerous cat, is a cornered cat” and that is for this same reason.

It is important to know this in order to properly address the environment and situations so that you can avoid possible problems. While you are working to resolve these issues, it is important to inform people who approach or who want to touch your dog, not to do so. Otherwise, you are risking the people’s safety by leaving your dog to resolve the situation himself. Not to mention the setback to your dog.

How to deal with fearful dogs

Dealing with fearful dogs is an ongoing process that may take a long time, in many cases, a dog’s whole lifetime. It is important to recognize symptoms as soon as possible and to start with rehabilitation. Most people don’t understand that if they deal with a fearful dog, the fear-based behaviors will progress during the dog’s life and will affect many of his daily routines.

Once the fear is established, it becomes a closed circle pattern that constantly keeps the dog under stress. This can lead to anxiety, nervousness, aggression and many other dog behavior problems.

Unfortunately, most inexperienced owners and dog trainers deal only with the final product of fear, ignoring the fact that the answer is to actually address the root of the issue.

The first step would be recognizing symptoms like nervousness, shyness, timidity or even fearful reactions. These are all signals of fear, and this has to be addressed as soon as possible. The best thing is to recognize and list as many triggers as you can.

Once you have the triggers, you can start working on changing the emotional response to them. There are a few techniques, but the most often used ones are:

The one that is best for you to use depends on the dog’s level of fear, overall temperament, specific issue, etc. It is best to check with a dog expert who can see your dog and determine which option would be the best approach.

Equally as important as dealing with fearfulness, is to build your relationship with your dog. Most people tend to comfort their fearful dog and cuddle them in order to control the situation. This sometimes works in the beginning when the dog’s level of fear is smaller, but as the fearful reactions progress, dogs don’t feel safe enough anymore just by the comfort from their owners. Unfortunately, most people tend to wait for this tipping point before they decide to seek help.

Affection, cuddling and pampering is just a temporary fix, if it works at all, and only until the problem gets worse. However, there is something that is more helpful to your dog in the long run; you need to build a relationship.

Building a relationship is a crucial factor between you and your dog, and it is very important element of communication between humans and animals. To build a proper relationship it takes time, effort and knowledge. You can find out more about how to build a good relationship with your dog on this part of the website.

A good relationship is a solid foundation for anything; your dog needs to trust you and to feel safe with you.

The next thing to do when working with a fearful dog is to help your dog to build self-confidence. A great way to build self confidence is through training. You can perform obedience dog training or just dog tricks (there isn’t any difference to a dog between these two things, in both cases they learn to perform actions that are not natural for them).

It is known in dogs circle that dogs with weak nerves (the expression for nervous, reactive dogs) are great for obedience or other types of trainings because they normally respond great. They tend to find an escape and relief in doing something.

Fearful Dogs

A fearful dog requires a lot of patience and dedication in order to help him overcome his issues, but knowing that this can be done and helping your dog through it can be a life changing experience, as you help to introduce your dog to a whole new world around him.

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