Training To Recognize Canine Fear

Mixed results on its effectiveness
By Karen B. London PhD, October 2018

In large scale scientific studies based on surveys, people are frequently asked to report information about fearfulness in their dogs, but it’s hard to determine whether people are able to do so accurately. A new study called “Effect of training for dog fear identification on dog owner ratings of fear in familiar and unfamiliar dogs” asked 1) Which fear behaviors can guardians reliably recognize in dogs? and 2) Does training people how to recognize fear in dogs change the way that they rate fearfulness in familiar and unfamiliar dogs?

The first finding of this study was that people are able to recognize many signs of fear in dogs, but not all signs. Over 700 people watched a series of videos of dogs and were asked whether various behaviors indicating fear were present or absent. The behavioral indications of fear that were reliably noted include lowered body posture, lowered tail, ears back, panting, yawning, lip-licking, avoiding eye contact and attempts to hide, escape or retreat. People did not reliably cue into a number of behaviors indicating fearfulness including head position, stiffness of the tail or body, trembling, furrowed brow, whale eye, squinting, or pulling the corners of the lips back.

The behavioral indications of fear that people successfully detected were used to make a training video that was used in the second part of the study. There were descriptions, pictures, videos and explanations of which of those behaviors are usually associated with various levels of fear.

To assess the effects of the training video, over 1400 people completed the fear and anxiety portion of the Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ) for their own dogs. Half of this group then received training with the video on recognizing fear in dogs and the other half received no training. All participants were asked to rate the severity of fear in nine different videos of dogs and then asked to fill out the C-BARQ for their own dog a second time.

The results of this part of the study were that people who received training about recognizing fear in dogs performed better when asked to assess the severity of fear seen in videos than those who received no training. Specifically, they were better at correctly rating the videos that showed mild or moderate fear and high or extreme fear. There was no difference between the two groups in their likelihood of assessing dogs in videos displaying no signs of fear.

Neither the people who were trained to recognize fear nor those who received no training showed any significant change in the way that they assessed their own dogs’ fear. It is possible that their ideas of fear in their own dogs were too established to be changed by the training videos, and it may be that they would need to observe their dogs after training and before taking the C-BARQ again for any effects of their training to show. It is also possible that people are already accurately assessing their own dogs’ fear, even if it is harder for them to detect fear in unfamiliar dogs seen in videos.

Do you often see signs of fear in your own dog or in other dogs?

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.

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