Fear and anxiety are human traits, they are also dog traits. Linked to emotional reactions and triggers in the environment, fear is a feeling that begins when a trigger is present. Anxiety is also a fear, but it means the sufferer is scared of something happening in the future as opposed to being present in the moment. For example if I am being thrown around on a theme park ride, I’m scared. Yet if I’m in a car slowly creeping up the first dip and haven’t yet been thrown, I’m experiencing the anticipation of being scared, strictly speaking I’m anxious.
If our dog hears a firework for the very first time, he might be scared. Yet if he spends his days worrying about whether a firework will go off, always expecting it to happen, then he’s likely to be living in a state of anxiety.
Fear is a fundamental, highly disturbing, disempowering and debilitating emotional state. Within the oldest part of the brain are the fear and fright responses to danger. Fear and fright are within the emotional scope of all animals. They are both rooted in the need to avoid danger and stay alive. Fright is sudden fear, alarm or terror, based on the appearance of some sort of trigger present in the environment. Fear keeps us safe because it’s an intense driver to behaviour change. For example: if we see something that gives us a fright, we naturally and urgently do something different. We may freeze and see what the scary thing does next or we may run away. This exact response works in the same way for dogs. When the dog gets a fright, he will respond with only one aim: survival. When we get a fright, we usually have the freedom to act and get away and recover. Often our dogs can’t run away when they see a potential threat, and this makes them face their fears, sometimes over and over again. This often causes reactive behaviour, but sometimes it causes leaned helplessness.
What if my dog is scared of everything?
As with many types of behaviour there may be a myriad of reasons for fear. General fearfulness is present in some dogs, leaving them less able to cope in the world, because things that seem normal to us may be scary to the dog. It’s vital to remember that when a dog is scared of something, that fear is very real – even if it doesn’t make sense to us.
Dr Karen Overall tells us that there appear to be two main types of fearful dog. The first is puppies who begin to develop fear at an early age – usually five to eight weeks old. These young puppies have a consistent fear of new people and situations, they may freeze when faced with new people and are averse to interacting with strangers, even at such a young age.
This can go unnoticed without exploration and understanding from the veterinarian and dog’s guardian, and this type of fear will not usually go away on its own. When dogs show fear from this early age, the same dogs show fear at 18 months old, without positive progress or change. These puppies can inherit this type of fear or it may be a result of very early negative/non-positive experiences. These dogs won’t grow out of the fear they show early on, in fact the fear worsens with time and for them to live a happy life, the dog’s guardians will need to provide a somewhat protected home and lifestyle. The other fearful dog is one who develops fear later on as they start to reach maturity. They may reach their normal fear impact period and never pass through it. Staying fearful afterwards is part of their progression towards adulthood and, whilst we may be able to help these dogs to cope by identifying their triggers, they will still need an element of protection in their lifestyle.
If you think you have a fearful dog, it’s just as important to look at your own presence in the relationship you share. Acts that you might not even connect with your dog’s behaviour may include banging doors, being impatient, moving quickly or being erratic in mood. All of these will certainly be recognised by a fearful dog. These actions, along with even the most basic inconsistency, will create more fear for the dog, so it’s vital that we see our own presence as a potential reason for our scared, jumpy dog. In many cases, if we take determined action to manage our own emotional states, our dogs will cope better too. If you’re interested in looking more deeply at this, ask yourself which emotions you experience most of all, and whether your dog shows them too. We have forgotten the domestic dog’s tendency to be so in tune with us. They are affected by our own emotional energy, every day of their lives.
Fearful Dogs Need Help
A fearful dog needs protection from the things that scare him. If the dog struggles internally with fear, triggered by things in his life and possibly associated with genetic influence, the first step is to protect that dog. This can be difficult for some people to handle, particularly if they wanted a dog who could cope with anything and accompany them to social occasions, busy parks and similar lifestyle enhancers. Whilst a perfectly bred, perfectly social dog is not the only dog that can do these things, as many dogs can learn to be resilient, a truly fearful one may never be suited to this lifestyle.
Protecting a dog from triggers must occur for any dog who is suffering with fear of those triggers. The next step really depends on the dog. For example: some dogs, after experiencing natural protection, will start to feel stronger and cope with triggers at a low level – so behaviour intervention can occur. Others may never be strong enough to cope with much outside their safe routine and areas, suffering every time a change or new trigger occurs. It is our task, as those responsible, to recognise how much a dog can cope with at the time, then gradually build their ability to cope until they reach their individual fear threshold. For some dogs, the fear threshold might be quite low and not be able to raise much, because that’s who they are, whilst for others it can be raised with resilience. If a dog has been taken into situations he can’t cope with over and over again it is usually for one of two reasons: The fear is unrecognised. The fear is recognised but the dog’s human thinks that they will get used to the situation if they are in it long enough.
Sometimes, the dog’s behaviour is based in fear, but the human assumes – or seeks help from a ‘trainer’ who assumes – that the fear is bad behaviour so takes the dog into the scary situation then punishes them. Punishment drives the behaviour back inside the dog, suppressing the feelings which will either lead to aggression or learned helplessness, which means the dog will either lash out or give up – neither is a good result.
At the moment a realisation occurs that we are dealing with a fearful dog, we must question their lifestyle and provide their protection. The moment that a dog stops being taken into/exposed to things they can’t cope with, healing begins. A dog who has been scared regularly for a long time may need a few weeks of full protection, to settle down and relax.
This might mean realising that they are not – at least for the moment – a normal dog. Protection might include walking only in one area for a few weeks, at a time of day where that area is empty. It might mean not walking at all, if that’s the best thing for the dog. It could mean playing classical music in the dog’s house all day long, particularly in firework or shooting season. Protection literally means that we recognise all the things that scare a dog and protect them from them for the amount of time it takes to build resilience, building their threshold so they can cope. If that’s not possible, we protect them for the rest of their lives.
You Can’t Reinforce It
There is an idea that to comfort or even interact with a scared dog will make them practise fear more often, because our behaviour towards them has made fear worthwhile for them. Often, people have been told to ignore their scared dogs, as comforting would either give the dog an idea that there’s something to be scared of or reward their fear through attention.
The idea that we may teach a dog to be scared in the future by comforting or protecting them when they are scared in the present, because we may be reinforcing their emotional state, is misguided. Emotions are completely natural states. We can cause fear by scaring a dog but we can’t teach fear by comforting a scared dog. Dogs need guidance, they need to be able to trust the person they live with. When the dog is scared, they need us to help them. If anything, ignoring a scared dog is unkind, our job is to recognise what’s scaring them and protect them from it, make them feel as safe as possible and then increase their resilience to empower them in the future.