Navigating the storm

“I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.” – Louisa May Alcott

Many dogs who come into this world quickly learn that there are many storms of which to be afraid. These storms come in many guises: other dogs, bearded men, men in general, vacuum cleaners, leaves rustling, visits to the vet and a whole myriad of other spooky things.

Fearful dogs see the world around them as a very unsafe environment in which to live, relax and enjoy the lives they so deserve. They do not know how to steer the ship and so they need our guidance.

As owners, trainers, behavior consultants and veterinarians, we can all do our part in helping such dogs see the light at the end of the tunnel. For some, the tunnel may be short, while for others it can be a long, arduous journey to come out on the other side.

However long the journey though, it is in our best interest to make sure that dogs exhibiting fearful behavior are never placed in a position where they constantly have to come face-to-face with the object(s) of their fears. In addition, we need to show them on a daily basis that, from now on, their fears will take on an entirely different meaning.

Many times, dogs are observed with their owners and it is quite clear to the trained eye that the dog is experiencing fear while the owner is, justifiably, oblivious. So many owners that I encounter in my training sessions are not even sure what signs to look for, unless the dog is openly running away from what is scaring them. Yet the tell-tale signs of fear are always present when a dog is feeling fear and is over threshold.

Body language signals can include a lowered body, tail down or tucked, ears back, lip flicking, freezing, dilated pupils, panting, pacing, avoiding eye contact, commissures pulled back and yawning among others.

Dogs experiencing fear may also not accept food or toys and will seem completely disinterested in anything around them. They are in survival mode and will do whatever or go wherever they need to achieve safety.

Nature vs. Nurture

At one time, it was believed that genetics did not play a hand in determining whether a dog would exhibit fearful characteristics. Now, however, it is well-known that genetics, along with environmental influences, play a large part in a dog’s personality and fearful tendencies.

Research shows that a pup with even one parent with a predilection for fearful behavior will be the recipient of fearful genes, even if the other parent is shown to be a stable and “normal” dog.

As shown in Neilson’s study (n.d.), fearful pups born to fearful mothers then fostered by stable mothers showed no growth towards a more stable personality. This, unfortunately, contributes to the continuation of fearful behavior. Back yard breeders and puppy mills are certainly not concerned with breeding dogs with desirable personalities, so, unfortunately, fear genes are being carried on from generation to generation.

The study states: “In the 1970s Murphree and colleagues did studies on the fearful behavior of pointer dogs. A group of pointer dogs was obtained then the dogs segregated according to their behavior: nervous or unstable dogs vs. normal or stable dogs. Nervous were bred to nervous and normal were bred to normal. Within a few generations the nervous dogs showed less exploratory behavior in new environments, were more likely to freeze at a loud noise, and less likely to greet people. Physiological differences between the groups of dogs (heart-rate and neurochemistry) were documented. Cross-fostering “nervous” pups onto “normal” bitches had no effect of behavior. All bitches and pups were raised and handled in a similar fashion, minimizing the environmental influences. Attempts to modify the nervous pup behavior with both training and drug therapy met with limited improvement.” (Neilson, n.d.)

For example, take a pup who is born to parents with unstable personalities. Nature has taken over before nurture has even had a chance. Does this pup stand a chance at being “normal”? With an abundance of proper socialization, positive reinforcement, force-free training, desensitization and counterconditioning plus a savvy owner, the pup should be able to make strides in the right direction.

In many cases, there will be fearful behaviors that show up, not necessarily in the beginning, but after maturity. This is when many owners find themselves saying, “I don’t know where this came from. He was so well-behaved.” Such things as lack of proper socialization, a traumatic incident during a fear imprint period, removal from the mother too early and/or heavy-handed aversive training can all increase the chances of a dog developing fearful behaviors as he transitions from puppyhood into adulthood.

“My Dog Is Aggressive!”

Trainers hear this phrase more than most and the truth of the matter is that the dog is most likely scared to death. “Aggression” in fear cases is simply the tactic the dog uses to cope and feel safe. Dogs learn quite quickly that by growling, snapping, biting and lunging, they can keep the scary thing at a distance and will do so to the death in some cases.

Each time the dog keeps the scary person/dog/item away by aggressing, he has learned, yet again, that this is the path to safety and will continue the behavior. Not only will the behavior continue, but it will, in many cases, worsen over time. At this point, many owners start implementing severe corrections and may yell at their “out-of control” and “bad” dog for misbehaving, not understanding that the dog is crippled with fear and needs help, not discipline.

Dogs are similar to children in many ways, but discipline and corrections are certainly not appropriate. While children can learn from corrections, a positive route usually garners more success. A parent or teacher can explain to a child why the discipline is necessary or warranted.

Dogs, on the other hand, do not understand this and can become more fearful and aggressive with corrections and yelling. Dogs need advocacy, distance, safety and good old-fashioned desensitization and counterconditioning.

The Path to Success

How then do trainers best communicate to owners how to deal with their fearful friends? There is an infinite amount of misinformation in cyberspace, books and on television so the first thing to suggest is that clients do not read information from non-credible sources. Many people will have themselves diagnosed with a disease befor