Just as the behavior exhibited by fearful dogs can vary, so can the reasons for the fearfulness. This may be because fear is such a common emotion. As Patricia B. McConnell, PhD, writes in For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend, “Surely fear must be the universal of emotions, given its importance to survival. Without it, even civilized urban dwellers wouldn’t live to pass on their genes, because they’d stroll in front of buses and forget to lock their doors at night.”
McConnell’s example is apt: fear has an important function. Without fear, it would be difficult to recognize dangers to which the appropriate reaction is critical for survival. So, fear is not itself a bad thing. It becomes a problem when individuals of any species, including dogs, are scared of so many things, or the fear is so intense, that it interferes with their enjoyment of daily life.
Why Is My Dog So Fearful?
This, alas, is the million-dollar question. The reasons that dogs are fearful are exceedingly complex and are very difficult to determine for an individual dog, much less for dogs in general. Any dog—purebred or mixed breed, male or female, young or old, rescue or from a reputable breeder—can develop fear-based behaviors. That said, there is compelling evidence that any one of several factors can result in fearful dogs, including genetics.
Experiments done with Pointers in the 1960s demonstrated that you can breed for fear of people in dogs.* Additionally, many dogs who are fearful have littermates or other relatives with this problem, which suggests a genetic predisposition. It’s hard to tease apart the effects of early experiences and genetics. For example, an entire litter of puppies could also be fearful of people because they were raised with no opportunity to meet them; proper socialization could have resulted in puppies without such fears.
Socialization is indeed important. It’s critical to expose puppies to new people, places, animals, sounds, objects and anything else they are likely to encounter throughout their lives. As Estep succinctly says, “Positive early experiences are critical for preventing fearfulness.” From ages three to 12 weeks, puppies are especially receptive to learning that the unfamiliar is not to be feared.
Not all fears develop in puppyhood, however. At age eight, a Miniature Schnauzer named Maxine suddenly developed a fear of other dogs, reacting with barks, lunges and growls whenever a dog approached. She even reacted to her companion dog—a four-yearold Miniature Schnauzer who had been her playmate since being adopted as a puppy. I met Maxine when I was working at a dog camp, and wondered if she were in pain, since sudden reactivity at an older age is consistent with the presence of pain. When the camp veterinarian examined Maxine, she discovered inflammation along the dog’s spine and noted that she yelped when that spot was touched. A canine chiropractor treated Maxine, and once her health improved, so did her behavior. A dog who knows that it is going to hurt when dogs leap on her or roughhouse with her could become one who reacts with behavior that’s intended to make them go away.
Not surprisingly, negative experiences may also lead to fear. For example, a dog who is hit by a car may become afraid of cars. Similarly, a dog who accidentally knocks over a bunch of two-by-fours in the garage may develop a fear of any long object such as wood, brooms or shovels, or become afraid of the garage.
Can Dogs Get Over Their Fears?
The good news is that yes, dogs can overcome their fears. The bad news is that it takes a lot of work, patience and understanding; it also requires a high level of proactivity, since these problems rarely resolve on their own. As Debbie Jacobs, author of A Guide to Living with & Training a Fearful Dog, puts it, “Fear is an emotion and changing how a dog, or a person, feels about something is a challenge.” In most cases, professional help from a trainer or behaviorist who uses positive methods is a fundamental part of recovery.