Understanding Fear in Dogs

Fear Behavior

When we think of a scared dog, what usually comes to mind is a trembling animal hiding in a dark corner or under the bed, whining, his tail tucked. Nonstop barking doesn’t often make the list. Nor do shredding of clothes, gnawing through window frames, or growling and lunging at visitors. But these can all be symptoms of fear in dogs. Fear-based behaviors vary so widely that we frequently don’t recognize them as fear-based. Instead we think the dog is being stubborn or naughty or is trying to run the household (the long-discredited dominance theory), which means we end up trying to solve the wrong problem. Clues in canine body language can help us identify fear and anxiety—fear-based behaviors always come with some physical, postural giveaways. It might be muscle tension, a tightly closed mouth or one wide open showing all the teeth, crouching, dilated pupils, yawning, ears held back, etc.

Origins of Fear in Dogs

Understanding Fear in DogsWhy dogs develop fear-related conditions in the first place is a complex question without an easy answer. Genetics play a role (experiments have shown you can breed for fear of people, for example), and so does proper socialization, the all-important early exposure to new people, places, animals, sounds, and objects. Puppies who have positive experiences with all-things-new are much less likely to develop fear later in life. But that isn’t the whole picture, because some well-socialized dogs do develop fear disorders. And again, bad experiences (abuse, accidents) can explain some of those cases, but not all.

How to Help Your Dog

Helping a fearful dog takes patience and effort on the part of human companions. Once a visit to a veterinarian has excluded pain or illness as the source of a problematic behavior, a qualified trainer or behaviorist can assess the situation and design a behavior modification plan. Treatment might include desensitization (exposing the dog to something he fears at such a low level it doesn’t trigger his anxiety) and classical counter-conditioning (pairing something the dog fears with something he loves). The less-than-good news is the amount of time it can take to see improvement. But the good news is that dogs can and do overcome fear. Not all dogs, but most.