Without a Scare in the World? - Training tips to overcome fear

When a dog isn’t afraid, every day is more enjoyable. Its performance in the ring and sports improves, it may even live longer. Help your dog overcome fear with Kate Mornement’s training tips.

One of the most common problems I treat in pet dogs is excessive fear. While a fear of objects and situations that pose real danger is healthy and can keep dogs safe, excessive fear can prevent owners taking their dogs for walks or to particular events, can make it difficult for dogs to compete in conformation or sports, and can even affect a dog’s health and longevity.

But fear is treatable. Using simple training techniques, owners can teach their dogs not to be afraid of particular objects and situations that are not dangerous.

What is fear?

There are almost as many causes for fear as there are dogs that experience it, but the diverse causes commonly fall into two broad categories: learned fear and instinctive fear. In the majority of cases, fear is learned through experience, especially during the critical period for socialisation between three and 16 weeks.

Sometimes, older dogs experience traumatic events and, as a result, develop extreme fear of something they associate with the trauma. For example, a dog run over by a car may develop a fear of all cars. Fear of strange sounds and objects may also develop over generations in response to particular elements of animals’ environments that pose a risk of injury or death.

An existing fear can then be reinforced by an individual dog’s experience. For example, the sound of a vacuum cleaner followed by the dog’s paw being accidentally run over by the vacuum head will reinforce a fear. The dog learns that the stimulus must be avoided at all costs.

Resolving excessive fear

Animals in the wild become familiar with fear-provoking situations if they commonly occur and they do not result in pain or injury. If an animal did not become used to such situations it would continously be afraid without reason, which may affect its ability to survive.

Applying these concepts to the home environment, dog owners can expect puppies to initially be fearful of most new stimuli, especially if these are loud or intense such as household appliances, cars, skateboards and fireworks.

After experiencing repeated exposure to such stimuli without being harmed, dogs (especially puppies) usually habituate just as animals in the wild would – their fear responses stop or are markedly reduced.

For example, most dogs would be initially fearful of thunderstorms or the vacuum cleaner but should only show mild reactions after repeated exposure.

Helping a dog to overcome excessive fear, whether instinctive or acquired, and whether the result of separation, an inanimate object or people, involves systematic desensitisation to stop the unwanted emotional response (fear), followed by counter-conditioning to produce a new, desirable, response (such as calm). Some dogs may also require medication during these processes.

Step one: systematic desensitisation

The first part of helping a dog overcome its fear, systematic desensitisation involves gradual and incremental exposure to the fear-provoking stimulus over a number of trials, starting at a very low intensity level that evokes little or no reaction. The dog is desensitised by repeatedly encountering the stimulus at this intensity.

For example, a dog that is afraid of strangers would be presented with a stranger at a distance and for a short time, as the intensity of the fear experienced by the dog can be affected by how close the stimulus is to the dog, and how long the dog is exposed to it.

If the dog remained calm at this level, the intensity would gradually be increased. In the example above, the stranger would be presented at a shorter distance and the process would be repeated. If at any time the dog displayed fear, the intensity would be reduced to the level at which the dog last remained calm; that is, the stranger would go back to a distance the dog was comfortable with.

Step two: counter-conditioning

In counter-conditioning, something highly rewarding, such as a favourite treat or affection, is paired with gradually increasing levels of exposure to fear-evoking stimuli.

The dog in the example above would be presented with a stranger at a distance that evokes no fear. The dog would then be presented with something highly rewarding, such as a favourite treat or affection. The stranger would then gradually and incrementally move closer towards the dog. If it remained calm, the dog would receive treats.

Rewards produce a positive emotional reaction. If the stimulus is presented at a level that elicits little or no fear response, the positive emotional response produced by the treats dominates. The dog is thereby taught to associate the stimulus with something positive and, in the process, learns to enjoy it rather than fear it.

Drug therapy

In some cases, medication may be necessary to facilitate the treatment of behavioural problems such as extreme fear. Unless the dog is medicated permanently, however, drug therapy alone will generally not resolve the problem of excessive fear.

For this reason, desensitisation and counter-conditioning sessions should continue for the duration of the drug treatment. Once it is evident that desensitisation is working, the dosage can gradually be decreased while behaviour modification continues.

After drug therapy is discontinued the dog should continue to be exposed to the stimulus until there is little or no fear reaction.

Symptoms of fear

Animals that are afraid usually exhibit a fight or flight response; that is, they display aggression or run away. Signs of fear in dogs can include dilated pupils, panting, wide eyes, lowered body posture, shaking, sweaty paws and holding the tail between the legs and the ears back or flat against the head.

What Causes Excessive Fear?

There are four general causes for excessive fear in dogs.

  • A lack of prior habituation to the fear-provoking stimulus, especially as a puppy. As adults, the fear can be exacerbated because the negative experience of the fear itself reinforces to the dog that the stimulus should be avoided.
  • Inadvertent reinforcement by the owner. Many owners actively comfort their dogs with attention and affection when they display fear. This rewards the dog for showing fear, and trains it to continue the behaviour.
  • Traumatic experiences. Physical abuse may result in an acquired fear of the person responsible for the abuse. The dog may also fear people with a characteristic in common with that person (such as a beard, hat or glasses).
  • A physiological abnormality in the brain resulting in an unusually intense reaction to fear-provoking situations. These cases are rare and can be very difficult to treat.

It is important to note that there can be a genetic link to these fear reactions. Some dogs may inherit a genetic predisposition for displaying excessive fear from one or both parents. For this reason, puppy buyers are encouraged to view and interact with the parents of their prospective new pup.

Fear and health

Excessive and persistent fear reactions are not normal and can be detrimental to the health and longevity of pet dogs. Indeed, a recent study found that the acute stress associated with living with fear is related to a shortened lifespan.(1.)

It is the responsibility of dog owners to ensure their dogs live happy and healthy lives so, when behavioural problems such as excessive fear develop, it is important that these problems are addressed quickly.

(1.) Source: Dreschel, N.A. (forthcoming). ‘The effects of fear and anxiety
on health and lifespan in pet dogs’. Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

Kate Mornement is an Animal Behaviourist.