There are numerous causes for fear, but the most common are: genetic inheritance from a fearful mother; inadequate exposure to positive experiences with people, dogs and a variety of stimuli during the crucial first fourteen weeks of life; negative experiences; and the use of punishment during training. Fear of thunderstorms is also common, and this could be due to a combination of the sudden loud noises of thunder, and the effect of static in the air that affects the nerve endings at the base of each hair on your dog’s coat.
Other causes of fear can be harder to pinpoint, and it’s always best to have your dog thoroughly checked out by a veterinarian if he or she suddenly becomes fearful for no apparent reason. Health issues can have a powerful impact on behaviour, so it’s important to arrange for a physical examination to rule out pain, and to have a full blood profile done.
Fear manifests in several ways, and your dog’s response is likely to depend on the situation, the level of fear experienced, and who he is with. For instance, a fearful dog will feel safer if you are confident, and even more scared if he senses that you are anxious, worried or afraid. A dog who is fear-reactive towards something specific, such as other dogs, will continue to react in the same way each time if he is given opportunities to repeat the behaviour. This then becomes habitual and engrained.
The body responds to fear by releasing a surge of stress hormones, namely adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine. This chemical cocktail triggers what is termed “the four f’s”: freeze, flight, fight, and fool around. So, your dog may stay very still or flatten to the ground, or try to escape, or exhibit aggression, or act the clown. He can’t help this behaviour because it’s an immediate instinctive response, but you can help him change his perception, and therefore his behaviour.
If your dog’s fear signals aren’t recognised, he may feel forced into a position of having to use his teeth to defend himself.
As fear inhibits the ability to learn, and stress chemicals take at least three days to subside after an event, it’s important to create a calm, relaxing atmosphere for your dog, so that he can unwind. Give him space to rest and recover, avoid putting pressure on him, and try not to subject him to known triggers. You can use this quiet time to work on building his trust and confidence in you.
Trust is the primary quality in any good relationship.
Your dog needs to look to you for guidance and protection, and to learn that you are his champion. Kindness, consistency and understanding are the keys to earning your dog’s trust. Try to look at the world through your dog’s eyes, so that you can understand why he behaves in certain ways. Consider what could be causing his fear, and take action to avoid exposing him to these triggers while you deepen your relationship with him.
Dogs communicate very eloquently through body language. Learning how to interpret his silent signals will enable you to instantly recognise early signs of fear. Low body posture, pinned back ears, lip-licking, closing his mouth tightly, panting excessively, drooling, yawning, looking away, and showing the whites of his eyes are just some of the signals given when a dog is stressed, anxious or scared. When you recognise these, you can remove him from the situation that’s causing discomfort before his level of fear escalates further.
Careful desensitisation and counterconditioning involves pairing a very low level of the stress stimulus with something good, such as food or a game. For instance, if your dog is afraid of other dogs you can help build a positive association by letting him see them from a safe distance, offering a reward and then moving him away. As he becomes increasingly relaxed, you can gradually reduce the distance while offering rewards. Any signs of stress mean that you’re taking things too fast. Slow and steady works best.
Lisa Tenzin-Dolma is principal of The International School for Canine Psychology & Behaviour, founder of the Dog Welfare Alliance, and Chair of The Association of INTO Dogs. She’s the author of 26 books, four of which are about dog behaviour and training. Her latest book, “Charlie, the Dog Who Came in from the Wild”, is about how she helped her very fearful Romanian feral dog to adjust to domestic life.