Dogs are different from people. They look different, do different things and have different motivations. Yet, fears in dogs are common and can be very recognizable. Think about fireworks, thunder and lightning or other (larger) animals. By understanding your dog's fears it can be prevented from affecting his life tremendously. It is one of the most common underlying causes of problem behavior: fear.
There are still people who think that when a dog is afraid and you give him a treat at that moment, you are rewarding, confirming or reinforcing the fear. However, fear is not a behavior. Behavior can come from fear, though. You can reward behavior, but not fear. You cannot make negative feelings worse with positive experiences. You can make them more negative with negative experiences.
What exactly is fear in a dog?
Fear is an oppressive, unpleasant emotional state caused by threat or danger. Fear is a feeling that can lead to some form of behavior (e.g., flee, fight, freeze).
What does fear do to a dog?
Fear plays an important role in the life of any animal. This is an important emotion that makes people pay more attention to risk factors. It's like not being eaten or injured. But fear can also lead to dangerous situations. Imagine running from one place to land an animal in the middle of another danger. For example, becoming afraid of a vacuum cleaner, and then running in panic to a busy street. Fear therefore plays an important role, but it can also bring unexpected risks. Especially if fear is unfounded.
Which fears are most common?
- Fear of thunderstorms
- Fear of fireworks
- Fear of being left alone (separation anxiety)
- Fear of the vet
- Fear of riding in the car (use a carrier)
- Fear of going up and down stairs
- Fear of people
- Fear of strangers
- Fear of children
- Fear of specific objects
Where does fear in dogs come from?
An important theory about the origin of fear is the classical condition theory. According to this theory, we understand fear of stimuli (such as dogs) by linking stimuli to traumatic events (such as being bitten). Research in 1920 showed that an 11-month-old baby felt anxious about a white mouse because every time the baby came into contact with the mouse, he heard a loud and unpleasant sound. However, this theory cannot explain everything. After all, not everyone who has been bitten by a dog is afraid of dogs. Moreover, people often worry about not being able to associate this "thing" with the traumatic event. For example, many people in the West are afraid of snakes and have little to no contact with them. Therefore, there are other causes of fear.
Social observations and verbal information can cause fear. In one study, children were given information about an unknown animal, which was reportedly in a locked box. Sometimes researchers tell children positive things about animals, sometimes negative things. Children in the group who received negative information about animals began to avoid boxes. As a result, they become anxious because of verbal information. In another study, researchers asked some young monkeys to watch a video, where one monkey reacted fearfully in the presence of a snake. Showed neutral videos to other monkeys. Later, only the first monkeys will show fear of snakes during the test. Fear can also be learned by seeing other people feeling fearful (social observation).
How to recognize an anxious dog?
There are very recognizable symptoms of a fearful dog:
- Ears flat on the neck;
- Tail between the legs;
- Sitting huddled behind you
- Frequent licking of the lip;
- Hair standing up - often on the neck;
- Avoiding eye contact/avoiding the eyes;
- Starting to scratch himself when there is no itching at all.
- As an owner, how can you best help your dog?
- It is a process, but certainly not an easy one. First of all, you must try to redirect the negative energy into positive energy through your own actions.
- If you know what the trigger is of its fear at your dog, for example your dog is fearful of sounds, avoid these then where it can. If this is not possible, make sure that you remain calm and assertive.
Make sure your dog feels safe
A good way to best help your dog is to make sure your fearful dog feels safe. Depending on the problem, you can address this in a variety of ways. Perhaps your dog needs a private place (such as a crate or dog bed) where he can go when he wants to retreat because there are children or strangers in the house. It may help to tell people not to pet your dog because it makes your dog uncomfortable. You can also, for example, go for walks at special times so that your dog does not have to come into contact with what he is afraid of; other dogs, strange people etc.
It involves devising and implementing a plan so that your dog slowly learns to be less and less afraid.
Reward based training
Raising and training a dog using the reward-based method is much better for your dog in general, but when your dog is scared then it is extra important that you stop punishing him because you run the risk of making your dog even more scared and even afraid of you. Your dog is already stressed by what he is afraid of. You don't want to make the stress worse by using aversive methods, by hurting him or forcing him.
If there are behaviors you want to change, focus entirely on a reward-based approach to teach your dog what behaviors you would rather see from him.
Use high-quality rewards and repeat the exercise often so that the new behavior is reinforced.
Don't force your dog to overcome his fear
Some people recommend confronting your dog with his fears, but unfortunately this is not good advice. Such confrontations can cause the dog to get used to what he is afraid of. But what can happen is that the dog actually becomes more sensitive and therefore even more afraid. This can also eventually cause aggression to make that one "scary thing" go away. In some cases, your dog may panic or freeze completely due to fear.
It may also be that your dog will react to everything in the environment because he is so full of stress. (If your dog is afraid of thunderstorms and then you may have discovered that your dog will then also react to other sounds, such as doors being closed or street noises.) Sometimes the suggestion is made to have a frightened dog eat all meals out of hand so that the dog will like you. In doing this, you have to ask yourself if the dog is comfortable enough to come closer. If the dog is too scared to approach, then this approach is not very friendly, because you are forcing the dog to come closer in order to eat. After all, he has to eat sometime. If you want to make a dog eat out of hand at all, check carefully to see if the dog is really at ease. If you see signs of fear, such as a low posture and shivering, put the food further away from you so that the dog does not have to be afraid. You can also sit down and throw some food towards the dog. This way you give the dog the choice of whether or not to take the kibble in your presence.
Playing and rewarding
It is not a good idea to distract a dog who is already showing anxious behavior with something sweet or a toy. This is because then you are rewarding exactly the behavior you don't want to see. And behavior that is rewarded will be repeated more often and more vehemently. What you can try is to develop fearful behavior before.
For example, if your dog is afraid of other dogs and you see another dog in the distance, do something with your dog that he likes very much. And do it before your dog gets anxious or excited because another dog is approaching. Play with him with a ball or let him do simple obedience exercises where you reward with a treat. Stop playing and rewarding as soon as your dog starts to show fearful behavior. Walk briskly and talk cheerfully to your dog. Start again playing and rewarding as soon as your dog "behaves" again. When you repeat this consistently then your dog will see the arrival of another dog as the herald of something nice (playing with the boss) instead of as something threatening
Thus you can deal with the fear of your dog. So do not do pathetic and do not comfort, but act decisively and cheerfully. Find a strategy that suits you and your dog. Take your dog and his fear seriously. Support and protect your dog if necessary, you are the leader. This way you can build a good relationship with your dog.