Thursday, October 1, 2009

More About Fear

The consensus, even with many positive trainers, is to ignore the dog when she is fearful to avoid that we reinforce the emotion. That never made sense to me. Most people I know have a fear, or several, and know that when confronted with it the emotion won't disappear just because the person next to them ignores it. Quite the contrary, they feel left alone and lose trust and become resentful. But if they find understanding and help, they might be able to work through a fear and eventually lose it. It's not any different with dogs - in fact, dogs rely even more on our help, because they are not cognitive enough to talk themselves out of a fearful emotion. Humans have an intellect that theoretically can overrule emotion and we know how good that works. And dogs don’t even have that.

Fear is the expectation of danger or pain based on past experiences and associations. The reasons why dogs have fears are plenty: genetic propensity to be overly sensitive, lack of or improper imprinting, mistakes made during the early learning phase, correction training, being attacked and so on. A dog can be fearful of many things that seem irrational to us. A quick reminder: most phobias people have are also irrational to the ones that don’t have them. You know that the nice neighbor with the cookie won't hurt your dog, but in her mind the fear is very real.
When a dog is presented with a fear trigger she has to do something. Doing nothing is biologically impossible. Naturally, she has following options: fight or flee. Which one it is depends on the dog's disposition and what got results in the past. So, it's partly inherent and partly learned.
In my opinion, to avoid and escape a worrisome situation is the preferred choice for most dogs, but because of training, owner control and leash restraints, a dog who might want to flee is often denied that and learns to offensively bark and lunge instead; fight, because flight was prevented by the human.
In addition, people who don’t comprehend the dog’s fear, or don’t care, make the mistake to force their dog closer to the trigger, or allow the trigger to approach closer. That increases fear and reactivity and decreases trust, and next time the same or similar trigger shows up, she reacts from an even greater distance.

To accomplish the opposite, decrease fear and increase trust, acknowledge when your dog gives fear signals like lip licking, lowered body and tail, folded back ears and eye contact. If you ignore your dog when she looks to you, and at you, for help, she is forced to take matters into her own paws. As a mindful leader, it is your job to help your dog out. If she can't rely on you, what is she suppose to do but to react the way dogs do and humans rarely like.
So, reciprocate eye contact and then take action. Signaling discomfort with eye contact should be a default behavior your dog uses as an alternative to freaking out, and she will choose that if she learns that you do something that is in her best interest. One way is to increase the distance to whatever worries her. Curving, or backing up a few steps is often enough. It is not an erratic flight, but a controlled retreat.

Bruce Fogle, DMV, in his book "The Dogs’ Mind", states that some control over a situation is the single best way to decrease stress - for all mammals. Interestingly Cesar Millan refers to Fogle and his book as one of the sources he has learned from. Obviously he either skipped that part or didn't comprehend it, cause he doesn't not allow a fearful and stressed dog any control.
Responding to eye contact and guidance into safety gives the dog a coping skill and through it, some control.
Dogs should also be allowed to look at whatever worries them, instead of being coerced to only “watch” the owner. It takes a lot of trust in someone before I could surrender myself and look away from something or someone I fear. That kind of trust can never be earned with coercion and punishment.
And a dog should always have control over his head movements; speak freely so to say. Dogs communicate mostly with their head and facial expressions. That is why any type of halter that goes around the dog’s nose is a counterproductive walking tool for fearful dogs.

There are a variety of behaviors a dog can learn and be guided into that will decrease fear and instill safety again. For example: retreating into a crate or safe place in the house, sniffing for a tossed treat, touch and target – sometimes even the trigger. Any cooperative interaction where dog and owner do something together in a task-oriented and positive way increases the bond. And any time the dog is successful in signaling fear and getting a response that helps her deal with it, she'll gain confidence, which further decreases fear. The owner, and by association the space owner and dog occupy and interact in, becomes safe. The owner is a leader the dog can rely on, not an erratic (from the dog’s point of view) punisher, or a stressed and helpless bystander.

Another way to help is to proactively informing the dog with known cue words what is going on in the environment. Will is afraid of buses, and if Mike or I hear one approaching, we say “bus”, and Will has time to move behind us. When I hear a jogger or dog come from behind, I’ll inform my girls of that also. That increases their trust in me cause they have learned that I am aware of things and they can let their guard down.

Acknowledging fear and guiding the dog calmly and confidently has nothing to do with being emotional. I am not suggesting fawning over and pitying a dog. There is nothing worse than an emotional dog teamed with an emotional owner; one who is fearful herself, or tenses up or becomes frustrated or angry whenever there is a potential conflict. Then the owner becomes a classical conditioned stress trigger for the dog, and command words, such as sit, the cue that signals that there is trouble. And the dog will react.


  1. Hi Sylvia

    Great article, but I have a question. My dog will sometimes become very stimulated, huffing and puffing, tail erect, lunging forward and somtimes barking at the end of the leash when some dogs approach. How do I know if this behaviour is a previously learned reaction from fear or just her being a little too over confident? After we get by the dog she'll sometimes look up at me with a big dirty grin like "wasn't that fun Mom, we showed them."

    In one of Turid Rugaas's books she said something about not interfering/correcting an insecure dogs attempt at assertiveness/connection with ohter dogs. I find it can be difficult to determine what emotion her reactions are stemming from and if I should be moving towards or away from the target. Her inital response starts out the same, but once we get to the target the outcome can really vary.


  2. Hi Majorie,

    my rule is always to move away from the target. You are correct that sometimes fear rooted reactivity and impatience/leash restraint frustration reactivity can look the similar. But even if the dog's motivation is to move closer, I don't let her if the expressions are offensive and stressed, cause if the dog is already in an aroused mood, what follows when the dogs actually meet can go either way - sometimes the dogs calm, sometimes there is more tension or arousal.

    I like Turid Rugaas and agree that I would never correct an insecure dog, but would also not reinforce assertive arousal by moving closer to the target, provided that it is what the dog wants, which we can't really be sure of.