Fear And Anxiety
Since dogs share a similar physiology to us, it is extremely likely that they feel the same uncomfortable feelings we do when we are anxious or afraid. Anxious or scared dogs have a very distinctive body language that can be recognised instantly once you know what to look for. Different dogs show slight differences in their reactions so it is important to get to know your own dog and what he does when he is worried or afraid.
Body language of fear
This dog is afraid of someone in front of him.
- Weight on back legs ready to run (sloping forepaws)
- Ears back
- Eyelids held wide open showing whites of the eye
- Head up ready to bite
- Tense body
- Tail down and tucked in
This dog is worried about being stared at and yawns to make himself feel better.
- Ears back
- Tense face
The sandy-coloured dog is worried about the greyhound who he had never met before, so puts on a confident display and makes himself look as big as possible to scare the other dog away. It works. He may look confident but the motivation for getting rid of the other dog is based in fear.
Fearful dogs can choose one of four options: freeze, appease, flight, or fight
Dogs can switch between these modes instantly if they think their strategy is not working so a dog that is in freeze or appease mode can suddenly bite if it decides it is necessary.
There will often be great tiredness after an incident as the body recovers and reverses the physiological changes it has made during the emergency. Stress-induced chemicals stay in the body for up to 2 days, priming the dog for another fearful incident. Consequently, a frightening experience will cause a dog to be edgy and quick to react for some time after the event.
Why so worried?
- Genetic predisposition - Some dogs are more likely to be fearful than others due to their genetic make-up.
- Lack of socialization - During the early weeks, puppies should be exposed to all the things they are going to have to get used to in later life, including people of all ages and a variety of dogs. If puppies do not encounter such things while very young, they will be fearful of them later.
- Bad experiences - Any experience that causes pain or fright will be avoided in future and dogs will rapidly learn to be afraid of all things surrounding such events.
- Motherly fears - If the mother of the puppies was fearful and was allowed to demonstrate her fear in the presence of the litter, they will have learned to be wary of the same things she was worried about.
No need to be afraid
Dogs are often frightened of things that we would not expect them to be concerned about and things we know are no threat to them. This doesn’t stop the dog being afraid and we cannot tell them not to worry or make them stop being frightened. We need to accept that they are frightened of some things and work hard to gently help them overcome their fears.
Changing a frightened mind
To overcome fears, you need to work slowly and appreciate that things that are harmless may seem terrifying to your dog. Break it down into stages:
- identify the fear
- stop all exposure to the frightening thing unless you are working on it
- find a way to make the frightening thing less scary
- arrange for your dog to have small controlled exposures to the reduced experience
- encourage your dog to relax and have fun during these controlled exposures by offering food treats and games
- gradually build up the intensity of the exposure over successive sessions as your dog becomes less afraid.
- continue until your dog is relaxed and confident around the thing he once found scary
How long does it take?
Fears can be overcome but it takes time and patience. This is because fears are recognized and processed deep in the most primitive part of our dog's brains (and ours). Signals from this part of the brain are not easily overridden by the more conscious decisions. This is why humans cannot tell themselves not to be afraid of flying or spriders, or some other irrational fear. In a similar way, you cannot expect your dog to just stop being afraid and, instead, you need to mould his experience until the fear pathways in his brain are superseded by connections that remember happy and safe times.
Learn the reasons behind why your dog is afraid, and find positive ways to help him overcome fears. 23 pages
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- Carla x border collie Carla came to us as a very frightened puppy after being kept in a stable for the first 8 weeks of her life with no view of the world outside. Everything frightened her, especially loud noises and ... — Click to read more By Pat Seymour
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