The Fear Factor

On an emotional continuum, dogs can range from cautious, but curious to timid/shy, where the animal needs time to warm up to an unfamiliar person or process stimuli before feeling relaxed.  Behaviors always reflect the internal state of the dog.  At the fearful end of the continuum, a dog actively flees/avoids or engages in aggressive displays with the purpose of maintaining a distance between him and the fear-invoking stimulus. 

Dogs’ temperaments and behaviors relating to fear are largely genetic.  Under socialized animals on the mild end of the fear continuum may grow into adults who are at the higher end.  Environment and life experiences (or lack of them) play a large part in behaviors that the dog presents.  Without behavioral intervention, fearful puppies grow into fearful adults.  Fear responses escalate in adolescence and early adulthood.  Early, subtle fear signals in puppies become obvious signs in adolescents and young adults.  Barking and lunging are hard to ignore.  A puppy who is frozen in fear is often misread as calm and quiet.  He is, actually, shut down with fear. 

There’s No Substitute For Close Observation

Often fear looks like ordinary unruly behaviors, such as restlessness and jumping:  “he doesn’t know what to do with himself”.  These are flight and displacement behaviors.

The first walk in a puppy’s new neighborhood is fraught with new, noisy, and potentially scary stimuli.  Owners become somewhat frustrated and baffled when their puppies stop walking and “park” in the road.  They aren’t ready to move along.  The puppy isn’t stubborn or willful.  Something has spooked him, and he needs a few moments to unpack his surroundings.  Puppies become over-stimulated quickly.  They depend on the benevolent leadership of their humans:  patience and understanding.   

We often describe a fearful dog’s behavior as “protecting us”.  In reality, that animal is fearful and protecting himself.  (Insecure dogs may resource guard their humans, but behavior displays vary along with programs for change.  In the end, they are still looking out for #1.)  Dogs who are barking and lunging have moved past the flight/freeze/displacement behavior stages.  They have learned that those strategies don’t work to keep fear-invoking stimuli at a distance.

Please Don’t Do This

Dogs growl as a warning.  They are communicating an important message to us.  It’s a mistake to punish a growl, because the dog’s warning becomes repressed.  This doesn’t mean that he has changed his emotional state or intentions.  A dangerous dog is one who bites without warning, because someone repressed it with punishment.

Don’t validate a fearful dog’s conditioned fear responses by disrespecting his signals.  Reaching for or cornering a frightened animal who is barking/lunging is unwise….to say it kindly.  This also sets up to create a bite history.  There is no backpedaling from that.

Counter Conditioning Programs

Depending on severity and age, some dogs will always harbor a discomfort in the presence of men, trucks, or other fear-invoking stimuli.  There are no guarantees for behavioral outcomes for dogs or humans.  It would be unrealistic and unethical to believe and say otherwise. 

Appropriate treatment protocols, such as de-sensitization and counter conditioning, constructional aggression treatment (CAT), and behavior adjustment training (BAT) can diminish fear and its responses. These programs utilize both classical and operant conditioning to reinforcement calm reflexes and responses.  They are forms of exposure therapy that work gradually and are humane.  Extreme exposure therapy (flooding) can work, too, but can also do harm.  During treatment, owners manage in ways that prevent their fearful dogs from rehearsing fear-based behaviors.

Above all, these animals require large doses of patience and compassion from their humans.  No dog enjoys life more because he’s fearful.  He didn’t ask for those genes or any other influencing factors.   Treatment programs take time, energy, and know-how to train in obedience cues and use them along with threshold distances and reinforcement schedules.  Progress can seem slow; six months is the typical timeframe to change behavior.  Making a commitment to help your fearful dog cope and fully enjoy life is, certainly, worth the effort!


Copyright © Kimberly B. Mandel   CPDT-KA, 2017 all rights reserved


Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC