3 PROACTIVE SOLUTIONS TO HELP YOUR FEARFUL DOG
There are three ways we can really start to help our fearful dogs. Understanding what fear is, what it looks like and which strategies are likely to help can make all the difference. Although it overlaps with anxiety, it is different and it’s helpful to understand how they differ as well as where they intersect.
These three things may seem simple but they are often overlooked. So often, guardians and trainers rush straight into treatment and training without even understanding what fear is and even whether their dog is fearful or not.
What is fear?
The first thing to know about fear is that it is normal. An animal that does not feel fear will not survive very long in the wild. Even for predators such as lions, tigers and wolves, a healthy amount of fear will stop them getting killed by members of their own species.
However, dogs may respond more quickly to fearful events. They may need only a tiny amount of exposure to whatever causes their fear. Some dogs may have a larger or more intense response to fear. Other dogs take a longer time to adjust once things have settled down.
Two guardians with two reactive dogs may come face to face in the street. However, only one dog might end up barking and lunging. We could see that their dog is more sensitive to the appearance of whatever it is they feel afraid of. In this case, that is the other dog. One dog may growl rather than barking and lunging. Their response is less intense. Finally, the barking may take longer to subside and the dog may take longer to get back to normal things. Fear responses don’t all look the same.
We also need to understand that fear has three levels. It works on physiological, emotional and cognitive, and behavioural levels. Although these three levels are interconnected and constantly feeding into each other, it’s also important to know that an observer may not see all three levels.
Often, guardians overlook the physiological and cognitive aspects of fear. When they concentrate only on behaviour, this is often not enough to really make a difference for their dog.
The physiology of fear
Fear is a physiological response. When we detect something that has threatened the survival of our species, or when we detect something that has made us feel endangered in the past, the body prepares us to survive.
First, this means detecting whatever it is that presents a threat. Sometimes, this may be an odour. For humans, that might be something like smelling gas or even detecting that food has spoiled by the way it smells. Did you know, for instance, that men’s physiology and also their behaviour towards women changes depending on whether or not they have just smelled the sweat of someone with a more symmetrical face than they have?
Humans can find it very difficult to understand how much canine behaviour is altered by odours even though odours can change the very chemistry of our own bodies!
Smell is not the only stimulus that is relevant to a dog. Other times, this can be a sound or a visual stimulus. It can be a dangerous change in temperature, a sensation of pain, even being off balance. Our sensory systems take in all kinds of information, sifting out things that could be dangerous.
Research psychologist Susan Mineka has been working on fear since the early 1980s. She says that some fears are easily learned and hard forgotten. These species-relevant fears are those which are not present in all members of a species, but are surprisingly common. For instance, not all humans fear bats, snakes or spiders, but they are surprisingly common fears. Evolution has made it easier for us to survive by leaving a genetic predisposition to fear certain dangerous stimuli. The same is true for dogs. Not all dogs will fear unfamiliar dogs and humans, but they are common fears across the species.
Once our senses have perceived a threat, that information is passed on to the central nervous system. Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains our brains as having two processing pathways.
The first is System 1. This is fast, ancestral, automatic and often innate. It makes some errors but it doesn’t care because it kept us safe. Its neurological epicentre is the amygdala.
The second is System 2. This is slower, more evolved, developmental, more voluntary and often learned. It refines our thinking and gives us feedback to help us process that it’s just a hosepipe and not a snake. It’s a much more diffuse process across the cortex.
When the central nervous system recognises a threat to our system, it takes action to protect the body. Sometimes, this doesn’t even get to the brain for processing. It’s so fundamental that the brain need not be that involved. Put your hand on a hot stove or step on a lego and reflex responses will kick in.
Some fears involve much more than simply pulling a hand away from something that will burn us.
The autonomic nervous system is designed to respond quickly to danger. Once the brain signals the presence of danger, the sympathetic nervous system takes over our body, flooding it with adrenaline and noradrenaline to fuel our muscles so that we can fight or flee. It switches on some processes and switches off others. At this point, our response to fear becomes both emotional and behavioural.
The emotional aspects of fear
Fear is not simply a physiological response. It’s not simply about our hair standing on end, or our pupils dilating to be more sensitive to movement. Fear carries with it an emotional quality. Sadly, some reductionist neuroscientists doubt that animals – or humans! – have such an emotion. They say we have a physiological response to fear, but that the emotional side of it is all in our heads and has been learned. This contradicts almost every single thing we know about ourselves and about animals. Of course some things are learned. While this view has been largely ridiculed in psychology, for some reason, it seems to have taken hold of the dog training world.
There are trainers, therefore, who dismiss canine fear and say it is a human construct. Given the hundreds of dogs who have suffered in laboratories to prove that fear exists at a neurological and physiological level, it is wilfully ignorant to take this line and prolongs the suffering of our companions.
Feeling afraid has evolutionary value. Often, it is this feeling that gives way to anxiety. Our anxieties and fears make sense from a survival perspective. Sometimes they are not useful. They are not adaptive. They become unhealthy. However, we live to see another day. The long term costs of feeling chronic fear and anxiety may be high, but in the short term, our brains believe they are doing us a favour.
Following the physiological and emotional responses, our bodies prepare to take evasive actions. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, experimental psychologist Robert Bolles proposed a theory about species-specific defence behaviours. He said that each species has their own way of dealing with threat. We tend to simplify this as ‘fight or flight’, but in reality, it is much more complex than this. Some prey species flock together. There is strength in numbers. Some birds feign injury at specific times in order to draw predators away from ground nests, for example.
The distraction display is a very good example of species-specific defence behaviour. It only occurs when the animal is trying to lure predators away from the nest. Thus, it exists as a parental behaviour, not at any other time. It’s also shaped by the environment and other innate behaviours. Often, it is ground nesting birds who do this.
Other birds build nests very close together and mob predators. Mobbing requires social behaviour as well as parental behaviour.
How our dogs respond to threat will also be affected by the context and situation as well as learning and evolutionary memories. Our dog’s behaviour in keeping their babies safe from threat may be very different from their behaviour if they find themselves out of their territory, outnumbered by other dogs.
In other words, a dog’s behaviour will depend firstly on being a dog. They are not ground-nesting birds, so they are not likely to try and feign injury to lead predators away from the nest.
Their behaviour will adapt depending on the situation. They may respond differently if they feel like their territory, their offspring or their food is under threat compared to how they’d behave caught out in unfamiliar territory.
It will also depend on the proximity of the threat. When a threat is so close that your odds for escape are much reduced, that leaves you with a more limited behavioural repertoire.
And it will depend on what worked for them in the past.
Only by understanding the subtleties of behaviour will we really understand our dog’s fears. Not every situation is the same.
The better we understand our dogs and what they are afraid of, the more likely we are to see progress with their training.
First, understand that fear responses are as natural as goosebumps. They can be as involuntary as goosebumps. They require us to understand a little about the biopsychology of our dogs. Perhaps, if that’s overly complex, they just need us to understand that a dog is as unable to control their responses as you are to control your pupils dilating or the fact that your very biology changes because someone has a more symmetrical face than you do.
Then, understand that the behaviour we see from our dogs is predictable. It may be more intense than other dogs. Our dogs may be more sensitive than other dogs, responding more quickly. Our dogs’ behaviour may also last longer than other dogs. It may take our dogs longer to recover. Even so, this is relatively predictable and we can work on any single aspect of this response.
Where one dog may tolerate situations much longer and react much less dramatically, other dogs don’t have the skills to do so. Perhaps we will need to add a ‘yet’ to that sentence. They don’t have the skills yet. We might also have to accept that our dogs might never have the skills to cope as well as other dogs do, just like we might accept that some humans have the ability to talk without blushing to an audience of 20,000 people, and others will be unable to speak in an interview. Some people are that terrified of interviews that they can quite literally pass out!
The first solution to help your dog is to proactively seek to understand their behaviour better. That involves understanding what causes their behaviour as well as what the behaviour is like from the inside out. When we do that, it makes solution #2 and #3 much easier.
Once we have understood our dog’s behaviour and their needs, we will need to make some short-term adaptations to help them cope better. Occasionally, those adaptations may need to be long term, and more rarely, they may need to be permanent. It all depends.
Obviously, there is a difference between what we might expect of an older dog who has developed a fear of storms compared to what we would expect of a younger dog. Making permanent adaptations for a young dog can be hard to stick to, especially where treatment is possible.
Sometimes, those adaptations will relate to walks and the kind of places we take our dogs. Other times, it will relate to the home or car, the guests we have over or even the amount of time our guests spend with our dog.
We may also have to think about medication.
If our dog’s fears are multiple, if they don’t require much exposure to things that make them feel afraid, if their response is large and disproportionate to the situation, if they spend long periods in chronic fear or they do not recover from acute fear quickly, we may need to have a conversation with our vet. The vet may recommend medication or supplements that could help.
In this case, it is useful to have a list describing our dog’s behaviour exactly to take to the vet. This helps us communicate our dog’s needs clearly to the vet and to help the vet decide if the behaviour falls within a spectrum of what they would consider normal or not.
While we give behaviour programmes time to embed, we will definitely need some form of adaptation or management so our dogs aren’t exposed unwittingly to things that make them afraid. We’re never back to Square 1 completely, but it does help to manage the world around them. If our dog’s fears are severe, considering medication can certainly help training progress more quickly.
The third way we can proactively help our dogs is through training.
Training will involve three main strands.
The first strand will involve giving our dog a stress-free time to re-set. Whenever the world has caused us to react in a certain way, it takes a little time for our bodies to readjust. Often, we go right back to normal. Say, for example, you had been reading a scary book and then something happened to make you jump, you’ll be more sensitive to those things naturally for a while. This time allows us to relax naturally around things that we’d become sensitive to.
The second strand will be working at a distance with things that cause our dogs to feel afraid. We should be diluting these things as much as possible so that they are not at full strength. Working with a gradual programme to expose our dogs to minuscule levels of the things they are afraid of can help the first strand along. It helps us relax around things we’d become sensitive to.
The third strand is to turn whatever it is that causes our dogs to feel afraid into a predictor that other things will happen that are really good. If we pair up scary stuff with food, it won’t make the scary stuff less scary, but it will make the scary stuff into a predictor that better things will happen.
There are many other things we can do alongside these three strands to help our dogs exist around things they are afraid of.
We can teach them a cue that tells them they are safe. There will be much more on this topic as Lighten Up unrolls. It’s a core aspect of the Lighten Up approach.
We can also use items that cause a strong incompatible response, such as joy, playfulness or relaxation. Pairing the scary stuff up with things that cause different physiological and emotional esponses won’t turn the scary stuff into something marvellous, but it can help it become more predictable.
And finally, we can also use that to generate incompatible behaviours too.
We’ll look in detail at these approaches in future posts, so make sure you are signed up and subscribe below