Understanding Fear in Dogs

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Every dog or animal with a reasonably developed central nervous system has fear. Fear is one of the basic drives, along with hunger, thirst, sleep, sex, and sociality. Out-of-control fear is as much of a problem as any other drive that is out-of-control. But fear in the normal amount is essential, as it helps to keep a dog out of harm’s way. However, like people, dogs are not born with fear.

In dogs, fear responses begin between 6 and 8 weeks of age. By three weeks after its onset, fear plateaus at a level normal for pups and for the specific genetic complement they have. There are three factors which alone or in combination act to determine the level of fear any given dog shows.

The first of these is genetic. The dog inherits a predisposition for a high level of fear. Thus, what would cause a mild startle response in a dog with a normal fear level will drive the over-reactive dog ballistic.

A second factor that causes uncontrolled fear is early environment. The typical cause is
improper or total lack of primary and secondary socialization during the period of 3 to 12 weeks of age. Simply stated, the dog is not exposed to people, various sounds, and short periods of separation from its mother and siblings. Therefore, the dog will forever fear these things that will normally occur every day of its life.

The third factor is learned fear. It develops by the chance association formed between some arbitrary neutral stimulus—say a slamming door—and a coincidental negative reinforcement, something painful—like stepping on a sharp object.

Dogs can express fear in a variety of ways. Because they have several options, a dog might show fear one way at one time and another way at a different time. This varies based on its mental state at the time, the type of stimulus and its intensity. The most common expressions of fear include:

• The dog adopts a submissive posture; head down, ears back, tail tucked tightly between its legs

• The dog might lie down and roll over on its side, lifting the top hind leg

• Shows a high level of excitability: panting, salivating, dribbling urine

• It may whine or bark while showing a low-level submissive posture

• The fearful dog might take flight if he is able to by running away

• If confined in some way, the dog might pace, circle or whirl in a “make believe” running away

The most dangerous expression of fear is aggression in which the dog might growl, raise its hackles, bare teeth and could even nip. Or, in the extreme, it could launch an all-out attack with vicious biting, especially if escape is not an option.

The cure for fearfulness will depend first on recognizing the underlying cause—
genetic, early environment, associative learning or some combination of thereof. Not surprisingly, genetic fear is the most resistant to change and is therefore nearly impossible to completely cure. However, it can be made to take a back seat. The first step is careful, gentle, behavior modification along with obedience training or retraining, starting right back with the basics. Ultimately, to be successful, the dog must gain self-confidence and self-reliance. With your patient and positive guidance, a fearful dog can learn to manage its responses to uncomfortable situations and live a happy life.

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