The Fearful Soul

Fear responses in dogs can range from mild discomfort to fear to profound fear to true anxiety.  You and your dog are bound to encounter a person, an object, a place, or a situation where your dog tells you that he is no longer relaxed and happy.  It’s wise to pay attention to these disturbing stimuli, so you can work to change your dog’s emotional response to them.  Dogs don’t simply outgrow fear with maturity and exposure.  Fear responses often become more pronounced as the animal matures and is exposed to these stimuli without human intervention.  Many truly anxious dogs benefit from medications prescribed by your vet or a veterinary behaviorist.


Dogs tell us the extent of their fear.  With mild discomfort, the dog might balk or initially avoid the fear stimulus.  Other over threshold behaviors, such as accelerated movements and vocalizing, may be present, but the practice is brief and the dog is capable of redirecting attention back to his handler.  He returns promptly to a relaxed state and may re-approach the “scary thing” with curiosity. 

A fearful dog is more insistent in his avoidance, and it is more difficult for the handler to redirect the dog’s attention.  Simply making eye contact with the human is impossible in that moment.  The dog must be distanced from the source of his fear in order to return to a relaxed state.  Left to fend for himself, the dog may become defensive and engage in an aggressive display.  Behavioral protocols are needed.  

With profound fear, the dog refuses any approach or interaction.  His only thought is flight.  There is little to no success to redirect the dog’s mind, and he is too stressed to take even high value food.  He can relax only when removed from the source of his fear.  Dogs also freeze in fear.  This response is often misinterpreted by humans.

Ways to Help

Mild discomfort in the face of a stimulus is best addressed with a de-sensitizing program.  Work within the dog’s thresholds to gradually expose him to that stimulus and reinforce calm behaviors.  Over time, the dog can tolerate exposure to that stimulus – free from fear.

Fear-related behaviors can be changed with a counter conditioning and cognitive reappraisal program.  These protocols work within the individual dog’s thresholds.  Flooding or extreme exposure can happen when the work moves too quickly.  This can produce setbacks and even exacerbate fear in the dog.  Many behavior professionals find flooding inhumane.  (Scared of snakes?  Would you be less frightened if someone threw you into a snake pit?)

Profound fear is best evaluated by a veterinarian with a strong knowledge of psychotropic medications. He/she can assess if there is an underlying medical issue.  Often behavioral protocols have a better chance of effectiveness with medical treatment.

Copyright © Kimberly B. Mandel   CPDT-KA, 2019 all rights reserved

Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC