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Fearful Dogs Basics

(reprinted & adapted from Expert Canine)

Safety is a basic need.  If a dog does not feel safe, even if he is in fact safe, everything can seem to him like a crumbling or exploding catastrophe.  To protect our dogs' very  lives, we must protect their sense of safety, because a threatened dog, however meek otherwise, may naturally fight if flight is not an option.

Unfortunately, for some dogs, life is not only not all  fun & games, it is rarely fun and games. It's important to take these dogs' conditions seriously because they do not typically get better on their own--they frequently get worse without treatment. The well-intended actions of friends, family, and strangers can hasten the pace of things getting worse as well. Luckily, there are two things you, and they, can do right now and continue to do while awaiting the start of the program:

           1. Ensure the dog is safe at all times.  

           2. Ensure the dog feels safe at all times.

How you achieve these two things may be as varied as the personalities of each person reading, of each dog, and of all the others living and/or working with and nearby them, but the answer probably won't be simply "give cuddles and love." In fact, petting and other contact stresses many fearful dogs, especially early on and unfortunately, unless for you, "love" means doing whatever your anti-aversive, certified behavior consultant / fearful dog specialist suggests that your fearful dog needs in order to feel safe, love won't be the entire answer either.  I'm truly sorry to have to say that. But I can help you get started with what is needed. Here are just a few examples of things to consider avoiding, where possible, that people with their first fearful dog might not immediately think of:

-Consider loud, sudden, or bothersome noises, scents, and visuals--e.g., statues of animals and people--inside and outside.

-Consider extreme temperatures, natural disasters (not as avoidable, but as stressful stimuli), and environmental hazards.

-Consider actual dangers to the dog and to those on whom the dog relies, as well as potentially perceived dangers.

  --In other words, consider actual threats and perceived threats.

-Consider fights and arguments between animals and between people.

-Consider overcrowded conditions that might tend to increase stress, fear and/or discord between animals and people.

-Consider grouchy or volatile people, especially those who express their displeasure by, for example, stomping around, slamming doors, tossing things, glaring, or even just muttering passive-aggressively under their breath and carrying around a head of steam.


Dogs are sensitive creatures, and disadvantaged dogs moreso. Studies show dogs even read our facial expressions, avoiding negative ones.  


Every person in the dog's vicinity would do the dog a huge service to set aside certain habitual expectations, needs, and behaviors for the sake of saving the life of of the dog.  I say "saving the life of" because not all people are as reasonable as those, like you, who see nothing odd in helping and living with a fearful dog. (A mini-essay at page-bottom explains this further.)  But what if something happens to those few like you? We need to ensure that the dogs fortunate enough to have people like you are prepared for life, whatever life may bring.


But we need to prepare these dogs in a force-free, intimidation-free, pain-free, anti-aversive way.  This is often also called a "fear-free" way, but we must be honest when working with highly fearful and anxious dogs and acknowledge that they live with fear daily--and that due to  artificial selection, genetics/epigenetics, or environment, sometimes it is outside of human control. While we are working with them to change their emotional states, we can and do avoid leveraging their fear, and we avoid causing additional fear.  It isn't honest to say that anyone can work "fear-free" with a fearful dog, however, because a fearful dog comes with fears pre-installed, and while we work to help the dog move past his/her fears, legitimate, humane behavior modification is not some sort of magical, instantaneous cure.  Therefore, a few years ago, I decided to label the entire collection of R+ labels "anti-aversives."  An anti-aversives trainer is one who goes to all possible lengths to avoid, and/or is against, the use and leveraging of fear, pain, force, intimidation, coercion, and compulsion in animal care, handling, treatment, training, and behavior modification.


-Consider the quality and availability of food**--another basic need.

-Consider not taking the dog out on walks if it is safer, or feels safer to the dog right now, to just stay home. 


Falling prey to societal norms is a common challenge that loving caretakers face when caring for a fearful, phobic, anxious, feral, or traumatized dog, so one must make a mantra of the rule Keep the dog feeling safe.  While exercise is nice (though leash walks are not usually the best way for dogs to get exercise), and sniff missions are important for most dogs, safety and the sense of safety are far more important for a dog in these conditions. Many fearful dogs are terrified when on walks. Safety and the feeling of safety are Job One. If you would like ideas for providing exercise and enrichment within the safety and comfort of a dog's home and property, email me and I will be happy to give you some ideas. 

**Food availability includes the dog being allowed to eat her meals in peace and privacy--from her own bowl, in her own private, safe space--not by being hand-fed. The practice of hand-feeding meals to feral/fearful dogs is a mistake because it uses a basic survival motivator--hunger--as leverage to force human contact upon the dog before the dog is ready. Also, if the dog has nowhere to go to escape the invading hand (for example, if the dog is housed in a kennel), then the dog also is being flooded by that person, so learned helplessness becomes a risk as well, as may self-defensive behavior, which is usually misleadingly labeled aggression.  The proper way  to encourage contact is to slowly allow the dog to develop positive associations with people outside feeding times, at a pace that is comfortable for the dog, and in ways that do not force or coerce the dog. It also is inadvisable to force the dog to take her meals in stressful conditions, for example, where s/he feels threatened by the presence of other dogs within reach of her food.

The Dangers of Being a Fearful Dog​

Most people are aware that dogs deemed highly aggressive are at risk of being euthanized, whether by animal control or by their owners.  Fewer people are aware that sometimes, dogs deemed highly fearful are also at risk of being euthanized. These dogs may be euthanized in shelters because they are considered unadoptable, or because they are misdiagnosed as aggressive dogs if they to try to protect themselves from humans whom they have experienced as threatening or endangering them. Or they may be taken to vets for euthanasia by their frustrated owners. Additionally, dogs with unaddressed fear may be at risk of self-injury, and often are escape risks, which increases their risk of permanent loss, accidental injury or death, or worse.

A fearful dog often is a misunderstood dog–or perhaps more accurately, a misinterpreted dog. We should not presume to know what a dog is thinking, but we can change or improve the conditions in each dog’s life, which is good since those conditions can often be a fuel source for their fear and other emotional states.  Unfortunately there also is a lot of misunderstanding about how change is achieved, and much of what is currently being done in our society increases fear in an already scared dog, yet due to learned helplessness in the animals involved, the people involved often, quite innocently, are unaware of the risks of their methods.

One unfortunate practice that we see over and over again is known as “flooding.”  Flooding is, essentially, attempting to force a cure of a fear by overwhelming the animal in or with the thing of which s/he is afraid, with no way to for the animal to escape. Getting inside a scared dog's crate with the dog is one example. A person taking a dog who is afraid of people or of other dogs on a leash walk through a retail store or a dog park to ‘get it used to’ them is likely flooding that dog.  Insisting that a human-avoidant dog must accept treats from strangers, or insisting that the dog must tolerate strangers petting her/him in order to be allowed to move away from the strangers, would also be flooding. There are more subtle and less subtle examples of flooding. The point is, forcing a dog to “face your fear” only increases fear and distress in the dog, decreases trust in the handler, and, if the dog does not self-protect, can result in the dog developing learned helplessness, which comes with a host of other problems. 

An analogy:  If you're deathly afraid of spiders (or plug in whatever your phobia is), say I tether you to a pole and commence pouring boxes of spiders on you until you sit and quietly accept them with a smile.  Does that mean you are no longer afraid of spiders? Or does it mean you've learned to hid your fear so that I'll stop and release you? (And what might happen next time you saw me coming your way with a tether or a box?) 


NoteSome people, sadly, still promote the old belief that one should not comfort a dog when s/he is afraid. This is a misconception.  Job One is to help them feel safe, so comforting dogs, to help them feel safe, is correct. The trick is making sure that what you think is comforting is, in fact, something they find comforting. 

Feelings, such as fear, are not reinforced by consoling, comforting, or, what old school thinkers often call "spoiling' or "coddling" because it is behaviors, not emotions, that are reinforcable. If you don't want your dog to continue behaviors like hiding, panic barking, or worse, then provide the dog with a sense of safety.  If your dog's trembling or other distress signals are  replaced with signs of calm (slowed heart rate and respiration coupled with body language indicators) when you comfort your dog, then the physical sensation you provided probably helped your dog feel safer at that moment. 

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