Fear is a powerful emotion in dogs and is at the root of a variety of behavior problems. I have a keen interest in fear and anxiety. Working in the human mental health field prior to becoming a dog trainer, I saw and experienced firsthand how paralyzing the symptoms of these conditions can be.
Recently I adopted a senior dog from Muttville Senior Dog Rescue who suffers from separation anxiety, so I see how his intense fear of being left alone renders him unable to cope with even the shortest of absences. Working with him has added to my understanding of how crippling canine fear can be.
When dealing with a dog that is afraid, it’s easy to feel lost as to how to help. After all, we can’t give psychotherapy to our dogs, and the behaviors they exhibit when they are afraid can make them behave in ways we are not accustomed to seeing. Although medication can help manage fear-based behaviors, the problem is likely to persist without behavioral intervention.
A favorite quotation of mine regarding fear and dog training is from animal behaviorist Jean Donaldson. In her curriculum for dog training students, she emphasizes, “When a dog is afraid, nothing else matters” – a powerful and radical statement, to be sure. Often, dog training becomes so focused on obedience and ideas like “He should do this” and “He should know better” that a dog’s emotional state gets overlooked.
So what’s the “nothing else” Jean is talking about? Often, dogs who are experiencing fear don’t want food. They could care less about their owner telling them to sit, go down, or stay. They may display aggressive behaviors that aren’t present at other times. They are unable to cope because they are paralyzed by one thing: fear.
As James O’Heare wrote in his book, Aggressive Behavior in Dogs, “Inhibition, impulse control, and previously learned coping mechanisms may become inaccessible by the dog, setting the stage for fight-or-flight operants such as escape or avoidance behaviors.”
When discussing fear in dogs, I like to use a personal comparison to one of my intense fears: flying. When I’m in an airplane experiencing turbulence, do I care about whether I want a beverage from the flight attendant, the number of my connecting gate, or whether someone in the neighboring seat needs me to move so he can use the restroom? Of course not. I could care less, because I’m scared. Flat-out, no-holds-barred scared. Nothing else matters.
Fear can be incredibly frustrating for dog owners and trainers alike. The concept of “nothing else matters” can help us understand why our dogs are so upset and greatly affects the approach we and our trainers need to take.
When a dog is afraid, we need to tap into something called counterconditioning (technical speak for changing a dog’s emotional response to a fear-causing stimulus). O’Heare explains this beautifully: “…if a person has come to fear snakes, but loves strawberry smoothies, counterconditioning might involve presenting the snake, followed immediately by a sip of smoothie, and repeating this process until the presentation of the snake elicits a pleasant reaction instead of a fearful reaction.”
Another technique, systematic desensitization, is often coupled with counterconditioning as a treatment plan for fear-based behavior problems. Originally used for humans with phobias, it involves introducing a dog to the fear-invoking stimulus in gradual increments that he can handle, never putting him over his fear “threshold” in the process.
This can all sound complicated and overwhelming, especially when dealing with the immediate behavior problems associated with canine fear and anxiety. Rest assured that there are things you can do, right away, that will put your dog on the path to recovery.
First, try to discern whether your dog is, in fact, fearful. Behaviors that indicate a dog is experiencing anxiety include: excessive panting, dilated pupils, yawning, higher than normal urination, vomiting, shaking, self-mutilation or excessive grooming, compulsive behaviors (like tail chasing or barking), stiffness, and hyperactivity. Note that these behaviors may not occur all at once or at all, and if they do occur they may be fleeting in duration. Other fear-induced behaviors not listed may also occur.
Setting up a video camera and reviewing your dog’s behaviors after the fact can be helpful, as can documenting his behavior patterns over time. Also try to identify the antecedent, what happens immediately before the fear-based behaviors begin. Pinpointing the source of your dog’s fears is critical.
If you have determined that your dog is indeed afraid, your next step is compassion. I cannot emphasize this enough. Dogs that are afraid, anxious, and in distress need our love and patience. They are experiencing incredibly strong emotions that have the power to overshadow previous training, common behavior patterns, and coping abilities. They need us and our love more than ever.
Finally, get professional support. If you suspect your dog has a fear-related issue, I recommend hiring a professional positive reinforcement trainer to work with you on applying these techniques. Consulting a trainer will help you fine-tune the treatment plan for your dog’s specific needs. Also, since living with a fearful dog can take a physical and emotional toll on you, having a support system in place will increase you and your dog’s chances of success.
Maureen Backman, MS, is the owner of Mutt About Town in San Francisco and a student of the Academy for Dog Trainers. She is one of the founders of the positive reinforcement training blog and social network Dog Connect SF, Bay Woof’s 2013 Beast of the Bay Awards winner for best dog social networking site. More info at muttabouttown.com.
Main article photo by: stock.xchange