Fearful Dog Behaviour | Winnipeg Humane Society
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Fearful Dog Behaviour

Dogs can display a variety of behaviours when they’re afraid.

A fearful dog will display certain body postures including lowering his head, flattening his ears back against his head, and tucking his tail between his legs. Panting, salivating, trembling and/or pacing might also be displayed. A frightened dog might try to escape or show submissive behaviours such as avoidance of eye contact, submissive urinating and/or rolling over to expose his belly. Some dogs shut down and remain immobile. Some dogs will bark and/or growl at the object that is causing their fear. In extreme cases of fearfulness a dog might be destructive out of general anxiety or in an attempt to escape, or he might lose control of his bladder or bowels.

Causes of fearful behaviour

A dog that is genetically predisposed to general fearfulness or a dog that was improperly socialized during a critical stage in his development will probably not respond as well to treatment as a dog that has developed a specific fear in response to a specific experience.

It’s essential to first rule out any medical causes for your dog’s behaviour. Your first step should be to take your dog to your veterinarian for a thorough medical evaluation.

What you can do

Most fears won’t go away by themselves and if left untreated might get worse. Some fears, when treated, will decrease in intensity or frequency but may not disappear entirely. Once medical reasons have been ruled out you should attempt to identify what triggers his fear.

Most fears can be treated using desensitization and counter conditioning techniques. These are effective techniques but they can be time consuming and challenging to implement. You might need help from a professional animal behaviour specialist to help you with these techniques.


Desensitization and counter conditioning

These techniques work at the emotional level and have been proven to produce strong and lasting results.

Desensitization

Involves exposure of a stimulus at very low levels, levels the dog can tolerate without reacting. As the dog relaxes with the stimulus at the very low level, we increase the level. If we are working on noise phobias, we would introduce the noise at a very low volume and slowly increase it. If it is an object (or person) we introduce it at a far distance and move it closer over time.

Counter conditioning

Involves pairing a stimulus that has a negative effect with something that produces a “yippee” effect. With consistent pairings the stimulus that originally caused fear or aggression begins to produce the “yippee” effect.

What a desensitization/counter conditioning program might look like:

  • If your dog is afraid of bicycles, park a bicycle at a distance of 100 feet from your dog. If your dog is relaxed with the bike at that distance, feed high value treats such as cheese or meat. Just tiny portions, about ½ size of your smallest finger nail. Feed several pieces, one at a time, while the bicycle is in view. If your dog is not relaxed with the bike at that distance, move farther away. If your dog is normally motivated by food and will not eat the treats, it means the bicycle is too close.
  • Gradually move closer to the bicycle. As long as your dog remains relaxed, reward him with treats and praise. If at any point he becomes anxious, move away from the bicycle and proceed at a slower pace. Do not try to move too close to the bicycle in the first session. If you push him and he becomes anxious you will lose ground in the long run. Take your time and plan on taking several days or even weeks. He should never become fearful during this process.
  • When your dog can remain relaxed in the presence of a stationary bicycle, move the bicycle 100 feet away again, but have someone ride it slowly by at that distance. Again, gradually increase the proximity of the slowly moving bicycle, rewarding your dog for remaining calm and relaxed. Repeat this procedure as many times as necessary, gradually increasing the speed of the moving bicycle.
  • This process may take several days, weeks or even months. You must proceed at a slow enough pace that your dog never becomes fearful during the desensitization/counter conditioning process.

There are non-prescription products available that can help relieve lower levels of anxiety and help with the desensitization/counter conditioning treatment. Thundershirts are an anxiety wrap that do help some dogs. DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) is available as a plug in, spray, or collar. DAP is a synthetic form of a pheromone that naturally occurs in dogs. Both of these products are available through pet stores and veterinary clinics. They are helpful in some cases and not in others.

Realistic expectations

Some things that frighten dogs can be difficult to reproduce and/or control. For example, if your dog is afraid of thunderstorms, he may be responding to other things that occur during the storm such as smells, barometric pressure changes, and/or changes in the light. During the desensitization process it’s impossible for you to reproduce all of these factors. If your dog is afraid of men, you may work at desensitizing him, but if an adult man lives in your household and your dog is constantly exposed to him, this can disrupt the gradual process of desensitization.

When to get help

Because desensitization and counter conditioning can be difficult to implement properly and because behaviour problems can increase if the techniques are implemented incorrectly, you may want to get professional in-home help from an animal behaviour specialist. It’s important to keep in mind that a fearful dog that feels trapped or is pushed too far may become aggressive.

Some dogs will respond aggressively to whatever it is that frightens them (see Aggression In Dogs). If your dog displays any aggressive behaviour such as growling, snarling, snapping or baring his teeth, stop all behaviour modification procedures and seek professional help from an animal behaviour specialist as soon as possible.

Consult with your veterinarian

Medication that can help your dog feel less anxious might be available. Your veterinarian is the only person who is licensed and qualified to prescribe medication for your dog.

Don’t attempt to give your dog any over-the-counter or prescription medication without consulting with your veterinarian. Animals don’t respond to drugs the same way people do, and a medication that might be safe for humans could be fatal to your dog. Drug therapy alone won’t reduce fears and phobias permanently. behaviour modification and medication used together could be the best approach.

What not to do

  • Don’t punish your dog for being afraid. Punishment will only make him more fearful.
  • Don’t try to force your dog to experience the object or situation that is causing him to be afraid. For example, if he is afraid of bicycles and you force him to stand in place while bicycles whiz by, he’ll probably become more fearful rather than less fearful of bicycles.

Fear of thunder and loud noises

It’s not uncommon for dogs to be frightened of thunder, firecrackers or other loud sounds. These types of fears may develop even though your dog has had no traumatic experiences associated with the sound.

The most common behaviour problems associated with fear of loud noises are destruction and escaping. When your dog becomes frightened, she tries to reduce her fear. She might try to escape to a place where the sounds of thunder or firecrackers are less intense. If the dog leaves the yard or goes into a room or area of the house that is more quiet and she feels less afraid, the escape or destructive behaviour is reinforced because it successfully lessens her fear.

For some dogs, just the activity or physical exertion associated escape or destruction might be an outlet for their anxiety. Unfortunately, escape and/or destructive behaviour can be a problem for you and could also result in physical injury to your dog.

Things that are present in the environment when your dog hears the startling noise can become associated with the frightening sound and so elicit those same behaviours. Over a period of time, she may become afraid of other things in the environment that she associates with the noise that frightens her. For example, dogs that are afraid of thunder might later become afraid of the wind, dark clouds and flashes of light that often precede the sound of thunder. Dogs that are afraid of firecrackers may become afraid of the children who have the firecrackers or may become afraid to go in the backyard if that’s where they usually hear the noise.

Create a safe place

Try to create a safe place for your dog to go to when she hears noises that frighten her. The location should be safe from the dog’s perspective, not yours. Notice where she goes or tries to go when she’s frightened. If possible give her access to that place. If she’s trying to get inside the house, consider installing a dog door. If she’s trying to get under your bed, give her access to your bedroom. You can also create a “hidey-hole” that’s dark, small, and shielded from the frightening sounds and sights. Running a fan or playing a radio can help block out the sound. Encourage her to go her hiding place when you are home and the thunder or other noise occurs. Feed her in that location and associate other good things happening to her when she is there. She must be able to come and go from this location freely. Confining her in the hidey-hole when she doesn’t want to be there will only cause more distress. The safe place approach does work with some dogs, but not all. Some dogs are motivated to move and be active when frightened and hiding out won’t help them feel less fearful.

Distract your dog

The distraction method works best when your dog is just beginning to get anxious. Encourage her to engage in any activity that captures her attention and distracts her from behaving fearfully. Start when she first alerts you to the noise and is not yet showing a lot of fearful behaviour. Immediately try to interest her in doing something that she really enjoys. Get out the tennis ball and play fetch (in an escape-proof area) or practice some commands that she knows. Give her a lot of praise and treats for paying attention to the game or the commands. As the storm or the noise builds, you may not be able to keep her attention on the activity, but it might delay the start of the fearful behaviour for longer and longer each time you do it. If you can’t keep her attention and she begins acting afraid, stop the process. If you continue, you may inadvertently reinforce her fearful behaviour. Playing the television or a radio can help to delay the fear responses while you are distracting your dog.

Behaviour modification

Behaviour modification techniques of systematic desensitization and counter conditioning are often successful in reducing noise fears and phobias. For example:

  • Make a tape with firecracker noises on it.
  • Play the tape at such a low volume that your dog doesn’t respond fearfully. While the tape is playing, feed her dinner, give her a treat or play her favorite game.
  • In your next session, play the tape a little louder while you feed her or play her favorite game.
  • Continue increasing the volume through many sessions over a period of several days or weeks. If she displays fearful behaviour while the tape is playing, STOP. Begin your next session at a lower volume, one that doesn’t produce anxiety, and proceed more slowly.

If these techniques aren’t used correctly they won’t be successful and can make the problem worse. For some fears it can be difficult to recreate the fear stimulus as with thunderstorm phobia.

There are non-prescription products available that can help relieve lower levels of anxiety and help with the desensitization/counter conditioning treatment. Thundershirts are an anxiety wrap that do help some dogs. DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) is available as a plug in, spray, or collar. DAP is a synthetic form of a pheromone that naturally occurs in dogs. Both of these products are available through pet stores and veterinary clinics. They are helpful in some cases and not in others.

Consult your veterinarian

Medication that can help your dog feel less anxious might be available. Your veterinarian is the only person who is licensed and qualified to prescribe medication for your dog.

Don’t attempt to give your dog any over-the-counter or prescription medication without consulting with your veterinarian. Animals don’t respond to drugs the same way people do, and a medication that may be safe for humans could be fatal to your dog. Drug therapy alone won’t reduce fears and phobias permanently. behaviour modification and medication used together might be the best approach.

What not to do

  • Attempting to reassure your dog when she’s afraid could reinforce her fearful behaviour. If you pet, soothe or give treats to her when she’s behaving fearfully, she might interpret this as a reassurance for her behaviour. Be there for her but try to behave normally as if you nothing out of the ordinary is happening.
  • Putting your dog in a crate to prevent her from being destructive during a thunderstorm is not recommended. She’ll still be afraid when she’s in the crate and could injure herself attempting to escape.
  • Don’t punish your dog for being afraid. Punishment will only make her more fearful.
  • Don’t try to force your dog to experience or be close to the sound that frightens her. Making her stay close to a group of children who are lighting firecrackers will only make her more afraid, and could cause her to become aggressive in an attempt to escape from the situation.
  • Obedience classes won’t make your dog less afraid of thunder or other noises, but could help boost her general confidence.

Animal behaviour specialists

If your dog has severe fears and phobias and you’re unable to achieve success with the techniques we’ve outlined here, you should consult with an animal behaviour specialist and your veterinarian.