We often see a dog become suddenly fearful of something.
Often the fear seems ridiculous or random. A fire hydrant, when the dog has previously seen hundreds. Or suddenly, an aversion to people wearing baseball caps. After working with the dog to overcome a fear, another fear may appear without warning. After much hard work trying to help the dog adjust, it is discouraging to the owner to always encounter yet another new fear to deal with.
Why does this happen? The reason is that fearful or anxious dogs do not need to have a bad experience to create a fear. Usually there is an underlying sense of fearfulness and caution which is not always visible, but is easily triggered.
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The general feeling of fear might be triggered by the stress of being in a new situation, a change in a familiar environment, or seeing something unusual.
This is the start point. The stress causes the dog to feel threatened. It wants to escape, but does not know what to escape from. Instinctively, it surveys the environment to find the danger that it knows is there.
Surveying the environment then reveals a “cause”; anything that stands out from the whole, and can be noticed. We’ll call this the “Danger”. It could be a bird, a child’s actions, a nontypical-looking person. In a rush of fear, the dog’s anxiety suddenly focuses on the Danger. Now it understands the situation, and knows what is causing its fearful feelings. Now, the dogs focus on the new Danger increases.
When it feels stressed, it will know what to look for. It will constantly scan the environment for the Danger, so it can be prepared.
Often, the Danger might simply disappear or retreat on its own, such as a child or dog walking toward the dog, then leaving as they pass by. Or, a noisy car “retreating” quickly as the dog is focusing on it.
From the dog’s perspective, focusing on the Danger has caused the Danger go away. Any behaviors the dog also unconsciously did while focusing, such as crouch and tremble in fearful anticipation of attack, (and then being picked up or removed from the Danger by the owner), or stare, or run away, or bark, or growl, are intensely remembered in this heightened awareness of the need for survival. Animals and people’s brains have evolved to form both good and bad memories most intensely during “survival” moments of extreme fear, anger, or pleasure.
After the dog escapes or avoids the Danger, what happens? How does the dog feel when the Danger disappears?
It feels better and less fearful. It is relieved of stress. It also has realized that its behavior of passiveness, escaping, avoiding or challenging, has been successful. Lessening of fear is a very big reward. The dog has survived Danger. Now the dog knows how to solve the problem.
The survival strategy to escape from Danger is set in place. If it does not work the next time, the dog will try harder, escalating the strategy. It may progress to panicked escaping, or threatening dramatic displays of aggression, or to passive frozen trembling. “Whatever Worked Before”, is always a good survival strategy.
It would be anthropomorphic to say threat the dog “blames” the new fear-item. But the result is the same. Perhaps you have noticed that people with paranoia issues do not blame life changes or environment changes or illnesses for their feelings. Instead, they focus narrowly on something like a single person or group. People with “free-floating anxiety” have a lesser problem, but they still may discover triggers for their anxiety that focus them on a Danger.
Free-floating anxiety/fear that comes from within the dog, always will find another Danger to “blame” and to focus on. Working with these dogs is frustrating, because if one Danger is shown to be harmless, the dog always finds another Danger to focus on.
In some extremely fearful dogs, the Danger becomes a phobia, leading to panicked reactions. These dogs are very vulnerable to experiencing a downward spiral as phobias develop. Phobias spread from one Danger to another, as new stimuli become accidentally associated with the phobia.
Fear is useful for survival, but animals need to be curious and exploratory of new things, too, to survive without hiding all their life. A dog with a normal temperament also can find investigating and exploring the unknown to be very rewarding. A dog whose temperament is genetically fearful, does not have enough confidence to survive “in the wild” and will be happy and confident only in very narrow and predictable situations.
Fearful dogs build fearful behavior based on negative perceptions and experiences, but confident dogs build confident behavior based on positive experiences and perceptions. Some breeds or individuals have more tendencies towards fearfulness or confidence.
And the outcome? Understanding fearfulness from a dog’s point of view is essential. We need to try to help fearful dogs, although setbacks will occur, and can be frustrating.
We must remember that fearful dogs should not be bred. When searching for a SD prospect, having a fearful parent dog should eliminate a puppy from consideration. A fearful puppy may or may not improve, but its chances for success are very low.
When we are trying to train a dog with any fearfulness for a public access or Service Dog lifestyle, we need to make compassionate decisions on whether this lifestyle is too terrifying and stressful for the dog. Fearfulness is the number one reason for dogs being career-changed from Service Dog programs, according to an MA thesis by Steven Grunow.
Fearless, confident, adaptable and accepting temperament without aggression is rare, hard to find, and is not “normal” in the domestic dog. But when we find this “abnormal” dog”, we rejoice that we have a partner who will enjoy both us and our lifestyle.
Be sure to join Martha and others from the Service Dog community on the Martha Hoffman Hearing Dogs Open Forum Facebook group. It’s an open community where dog trainers, both professional and owner/trainers, exchange ideas and tips about training their dogs.
Martha Hoffman is the Training Director for the Hearing Dog Program. She has trained several hundred Hearing Dogs and tested over 20,000 shelter dogs over the course of 25 years. She is the founder and lead trainer at Martha Hoffman Hearing Dog Academy (MHHD) and the author of the highly respected text on Hearing Dog training, Lend Me an Ear.