Understanding Your Dog's Fearful Behavior
Dogs can be fearful for several reasons. They may be genetically predisposed, they may have been poorly socialized, or they may have had a traumatic event during a critical period. It may be difficult to know what causes your dog’s fearfulness, but a dog with a specific fear is more likely to be suffering the consequences of a specific event, and is the most likely to be helped through behavior modification. A dog with generalized fear is more likely to have a genetic predisposition and be the least likely to profit from training. That doesn’t mean you should give up.
Living in fear robs you and your dog from engaging in lots of normal fun activities, and puts your dog at risk for panic running, fear biting, and high stress levels. Left untreated, fear problems tend to get worse. Common fears are fears of strange people, strange dogs, thunder, or gun shots. Helping your dog overcome them uses similar concepts no matter what the feared object or situation.
The old practice of flooding the fearful dog with whatever it is he is afraid of while preventing him from escaping typically doesn’t work for a couple of reasons. First, the dog’s lack of control over the situation makes him even more fearful Dogs with a history of being able to exert control over their own lives tend to be more confident and more resistant to fear than dogs without such a history. Second, flooding depends on the dog becoming so habituated to the fearful stimulus that he can no longer maintain his level of fearfulness. Most dogs never achieve this, and end up being even more scared of the situation. Think of it this way: If your child were afraid of heights, how effective do you think it would be if you strapped her into a harness and dangled her from a rooftop for an hour at a time once a week? (Hint: not very).
A better way to cope with fears is to use a system of gradual desensitization. You need to help your dog build his confidence and feeling of control. Your goal is to start each training session at a level that may cause some anxiety to your dog, but not so much that the dog is still fearful at that level at the end of the session. Remember, your dog is learning to be calm. If he’s still afraid at the end of a session, all you have taught him is how to be scared. You can help him learn to be calm by combining several behavioral techniques.
- Response prevention: Although you want your dog to learn to have some control, you don’t want him to learn that his control is through escape or biting. Instead, prevent that but give him some way of earning his way to a point farther from the stimulus. For example, if he does a trick you can then take him for a walk away for a minute. Better, if he allows a person to approach or touch him, he is rewarded by getting to move away.
- Counterconditioning: It’s easy for you dog to be fearful when he has nothing else to do but stand there and focus on the object of his fear. But if you can get him to do something incompatible with fear, such as relaxing, eating, playing, hunting, or walking, the dog will associate good things and good feelings with the feared object. This is one reason taking your dog for a walk, or hunting, with another person is more helpful than meeting a stranger at a shopping center. You can have somebody visit while you massage your dog, or feed him in the presence of strangers.
- Imitation: Your dog won’t be helped if he sees other dogs acting fearful, but he might be encouraged to join in if his best doggy friend is getting petted and eating treats from somebody else. Imitation won’t help a lot, but it can help push a dog one way or the other. Don’t forget that your dog can cue off of you as well. Don’t clutch him to you, pull on the leash, or coddle him when he acts fearful. Instead, if something startling happens, at as though it’s funny; if a stranger appears, act like you’re glad.
What if your dog can never seem to get to the point where he can be without fear, even at the lowest of exposure levels? Then you can no longer postpone consulting a canine behaviorist trained in the use of anti-anxiety drugs, which can help your dog experience being calm in otherwise fear-evoking situations. Drugs don’t take the place of training, but they can greatly help alongside of it.