I live with a dog who is a bundle of nerves. Someone walks by the door? THREAT. A dog is walking off leash at the park? THREAT. That squirrel looked at me funny? THREAT.
Percy sounds scary when he barks at these “threats.” He vocalizes at the top of his lungs, throws himself around, and tries to make himself as big and intimidating as possible.
Why? Because he’s scared.
Dogs express fear in a number of ways. Some cower, or try to hide. Some try to escape and become defensive if that doesn’t work (flight or fight!). Some bark or lunge to try to make themselves seem more threatening to scare off what they perceive as frightening. Some growl or even bite, sometimes with serious force. Some just shut down completely.
In their minds, these responses are all perfectly reasonable. The dog barking at everyone at the park may seem aggressive, but in his mind he is just trying to keep all the scary things at a distance. The dog who growled at you when you reached your hand out to pet him was trying to warn you that he was uncomfortable and needed space.
If we think about our own phobias, it makes sense. People who are very afraid of spiders might run away screaming, or they might smash that spider over and over again until they are damn well sure it’s dead.
Just like in humans, dogs can develop fear in a number of ways. Sometimes there is a very clear explanation – they were attacked by a dog on a walk, so dogs on walks become scary. Sometimes they had a seemingly small experience during an important period in their development, like the incredibly vital puppy socialization period during the first few months of their life. And like with some people, some fears don’t have a logical or obvious cause.
So how do we address fear in dogs? Because it is an emotion, and not a behavior, we generally go to classical conditioning, which means we are trying to change an association instead of teach an action. Many trainers use counter-conditioning and desensitization to help a dog work through a fear. Counter-conditioning is when you pair a previously scary or “bad” thing with a lot of really, really good things to try to change the emotion paired with it. Desensitization is slow exposure to that same scary thing, first at a comfortable distance and then gradually closer as they become more okay with it.
One very important thing to remember here: we do not want to move the dog past his or her threshold too soon. The threshold is the point at which they become too uncomfortable to avoid reacting. They should be aware that the thing they are afraid of is present, but feel reasonably safe. Once they are over threshold, they have locked into the emotional part of their brain, the thinking part is gone, and you are probably doing more harm than good. If that happens, get them away and give them a break.
Another important element of fear and stress is the physical effect it has on your dog’s body. They release cortisol when they have a bad or anxiety-inducing experience, and that can stay in their system for a few days. So multiple scary experiences happening in those few days can cause what’s known as trigger stacking, where they start reacting more and to things that seem less scary or important to us.
So a basic set-up for working with a dog who is afraid: if you have a dog who is afraid of other dogs, set your dog up in an area where they can be a large distance from other dogs and can escape quickly if needed. Have a large number of very high-value treats ready (chicken, hot dogs and cheese are great options for this). As soon as the scary dog appears, treats happen. The dog is gone, they stop. The dog appears, treats happen. And so on. (A note: If you dog stops taking food, and it is food that they love, they are probably over threshold. Put yourself at a further distance and try again, or give your dog a break.)
This of course works best if the other dog is fairly calm and being handled by someone who knows what is going on, so they don’t put too much pressure on your dog and push them over threshold. It is ideal to try to find a way to set up your dog for success and to limit their exposure to situations where they will feel trapped and terrified, which can make the fear worse.
This example can be translated to any fears – if your dog is scared of thunder, for example, play a recording of thunder at a very low volume paired with lots of yummy treats, and gradually increase the volume as they become more comfortable.
The dog I mentioned at the start of this post, Percy, has made a lot of progress using these methods. But he’s a pretty extreme case, and still has a long way to go. Sometimes working with dogs who are afraid can take a lot of patience and time. But the payoff for helping a fearful dog become more confident and helping them realize the things they found scary aren’t actually so bad is tremendous.
A final note: I highly recommend finding a qualified trainer to help you work through these exercises. I also recommend this fantastic Sophia Yin handout, available to download as a PDF at that link, which shows common body language signals that your dog is anxious or fearful (which are overlooked by many dog owners).
Good luck and happy training!
Sarah is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge and Skills Assessed. She lives in the Texas Hill Country near Austin with her two dogs, Percy, a cattle dog mix, and Clara, a lab/German Shepherd.