Why Are Some Dogs So Anxious and Fearful?
Both genetics and experience make some dogs fearful.
Posted Nov 01, 2011
Consider the strange case of Allie. She was a Pomeranian and as brave and self-reliant as one could expect for a dog of that size—at least until you brought out a toaster, inserted a piece of bread, and clicked it on. That simple act would cause the dog to flatten its ears, whimper, and run and hide. A psychologist would say that Allie had developed an extreme fear or phobia associated with the toaster. While this is an odd thing to be fearful of, many dogs develop phobias associated with a variety of circumstances. Most typically, we find dogs that are afraid of loud noises, such as thunderstorms and fireworks, but also they can become fearful of children, men, riding in cars, going down stairs and such, or esoteric things, such as butterflies or flickering shadows.
The signs indicating that a dog is experiencing fear or anxiety include body language such as flattened ears, tail lowered between the hind legs, cowering, slinking, yawning, hair raised on the back of the neck, trembling, drooling, or panting. The dog may also cling to the owner, whine and whimper, or even dribble puddles of urine. In extreme cases, the dog may show distressed behaviors, ranging from pacing and destructive chewing to growling or snapping at individuals who are the source of its fear, or even at its owner or other family members.
Although some dogs are born with a genetic predisposition toward fearfulness, most fears that we encounter in dogs are due to experiences that they've had during their lifetime or experiences that they've failed to have at certain times in their development. Probably the most important single factor in whether your dog develops into a confident or a fearful animal is its early socialization.
Socialization is simply the process by which a young dog has experience with a variety of people, places, and situations while it is still young. There is a fairly narrow window of opportunity to socialize the dog. After eight weeks of age, puppies start to become shy and wary of unfamiliar people, and this tendency must be dealt with before the puppy reaches fourteen weeks of age. A second window opens between five and eight months of age, when dogs become fearful of strangers and will often single out certain groups, such as children or men, as the target of their fear. This condition worsens quickly, and it may turn into aggression. If such fears are not nipped in the bud, you may end up with a dog whose life is burdened with enough stress and anxiety to make him useless as a working, competition, or protection dog, and perhaps even as a satisfying companion dog.
Shy and fearful dogs can be rehabilitated to some degree, but it takes a lot of work, and they will never be as reliable as a well-socialized dog. Fortunately, the process of socialization is really quite easy and enjoyable. The idea is to safely and pleasantly expose the puppy to all sorts of different people, strangers, men with beards, children, people wearing glasses, smokers, people who are old, the infirm, those who use walkers or canes, people carrying bags, and so forth. The pup should also be exposed to a variety of different places, different rooms, paved streets, parking lots, public buildings, gas stations, and any other places that the dog is likely to encounter. Lots of treats, petting, happy talk, and interactions with friendly people will make the dog glad to engage in such exercises. Although the pace of these new experiences can ratchet down after the puppy reaches the age of 18 weeks, they should not stop until you've made it all the way through the second window of time—that is, until the pup is about nine months to a year old.
While using socialization to prevent fears from developing in the first place is the ideal situation, there is always the possibility that a later traumatic event will cause a fear or phobia to arise. That appears to be the situation in the case of Allie and her fear of toasters. Apparently her owner was preparing breakfast one day and had just clicked on the toaster, when a contractor who was helping to remodel their home, dumped a large quantity of construction materials in the driveway beside the kitchen, causing a loud and frightening clatter. From that point on, the click of the toaster and the smell of browning bread would send Allie into a panic.
What do you do if your dog has already developed a fear or phobia? The most natural response of most dog owners is to treat dogs much the way we would treat young children who were acting fearful—namely, to comfort them. With dogs, however, this is exactly the wrong thing to do. Petting a dog when he's acting in a fearful manner actually serves as a reward for the behavior; it's almost as if we're telling the dog that being afraid in this situation is the right thing to do. Such treatment actually makes the dog more likely to be afraid the next time.
For severe cases of fear and anxiety, there now exists a collection of veterinary pharmaceuticals to calm the dog and reduce its emotional state. However, for the average dog's fearfulness, ignoring the dog's anxiety and going about things normally is often the best way to blast through this emotional problem. For example, suppose your dog is afraid of thunder. If the dog has already had obedience classes, clipping a leash on him during a thunderstorm and practicing some of the simple exercises he has learned will help assure him that things are normal. Reward the dog with treats, petting, or praise—the way you did when you first trained him. The dog may at first appear puzzled by the fact that you're ignoring the state of affairs that is frightening him, but ultimately he will decide that if you—leader of the pack—are not bothered by the situation, then everything is all right and his fears are unfounded. This is what worked for Allie who now treats toasters as if they are just another device that might produce something edible for lucky dogs.
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