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Cautious Canines
Understanding and helping fearful dogs
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For the first month after he was adopted, Sunny spent his time in the corner of one room, in which he ate, slept, eliminated and watched the world go by. Murphy whimpered, barked, and chewed the carpet and the door whenever she was left alone. Tucker growled and lunged at every man he encountered. Maggie was inconsolable during thunderstorms— pacing, whining, circling, jumping in and out of the bathtub. Zoe was so shut down that she was unwilling even to face the door of her crate. Molly yelped and trembled when a chair was moved to a new spot; the vacuum, dishwasher or washing machine was turned on; or the door was opened.

All of these dogs have one thing in common: their behavior problems are a result of fear. But because fear-based behavior can vary so widely—from cowering under the table when a truck roars by to lunging at and even biting visitors—people don’t always recognize that the dogs exhibiting it are fearful.

According to Nicole Wilde, CPDT-KA, canine behavior specialist and author of Help for Your Fearful Dog, “There are lots of fearful dogs, but people call because of the symptoms. They rarely say, ‘I need help because my dog is fearful.’ They call because their dog is barking at visitors or shredding things.”

These fear-based behaviors don’t improve until the underlying issues have been dealt with. Further, as the fear worsens, so does the problem behavior. Dan Estep, PhD, CAAB, notes that, unfortunately, early and perhaps subtle signs of fear—ears pulled back, tail tucked, avoidance—are often discounted as things that all dogs do. If these signs are ignored, the signals may become more obvious and include panting and dilated pupils. Even then, it may be possible to distract the dog from the fear source. But, over time, fearful dogs act more intensely, become harder to distract, and then become destructive or reactive. Only then, when the problem is much more serious and harder to resolve, do people seek help. That’s why it’s so important to recognize the signs of fearfulness in dogs and intervene before the behavior becomes more difficult to deal with.

According to Estep, “fears have behavioral, physiological and subjective components.” Some dogs flee in an attempt to avoid the stimuli that elicit fear; these dogs may hide under the bed or behind their guardian, or simply turn away from whatever it is that frightens them. The appearance of some dogs’ eyes change when they are afraid—the pupils may dilate, or more of the sclera (whites of the eyes) may be visible in an expression known as “whale eye,” which may be the result of a dog watching what frightens him by moving his eyes so he can see it without looking at it directly. Or, a dog may scan an area repeatedly in a highly vigilant manner.

Fearful dogs may also adopt telltale body postures: crouching in a lowered body position or lying down and freezing. Many dogs whine, bark or make other distress vocalizations. A fearful dog who is forced to confront or contend with what’s scaring him or her may become defensively aggressive while still exhibiting signs of fear.

Dogs who are fearful exhibit many physiological changes: the sympathetic nervous system becomes aroused, which means an increase in heart rate and respiration and possibly shaking, trembling or panting. As Estep observes, “No one of these signs by themselves is a reliable indicator of fear or any other emotional state. It’s the pattern of these things together that indicates fear.” Both Estep and Wilde note that most common canine fears are related to loud or sudden noises, separation anxiety, and unfamiliar people. A fearful dog can be afraid of just about anything new, whether it’s a man in a hat, an umbrella, a garden statue, a double stroller, a unicycle or a motorized toy.

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