FEARS AND PHOBIAS: ANIMALS AND PEOPLE
My dog seems to be afraid of people and or other animals - why might that
There are many reasons why dogs can develop a fearful reaction to people and
other animals. Firstly, the dog may have had limited or minimal exposure to
people and/or other animals when it was young. Socialization is an important
aspect of raising a puppy. Without adequate, constant and positive interactions
with people and other animals dogs may develop fears. In fact, fears may be
very specific, so that a dog that has been adequately socialized to a particular
"type" of person, such as adult males, may still show fear toward children,
women, teenagers, or people of other races. Similarly, dogs that are well socialized
to other dogs may show fear toward other species such as cats. Secondly, dogs
learn from the experiences that they have and it may take only one intense or
traumatic experience for the dog to generalize that experience to many similar
situations. This can occur for example with a bad experience with a small child
which then makes the dog fearful of all small children, or a fight and subsequent
injury from another dog which results in apprehension and fear in the presence
of any other dogs. Sometimes a number of unpleasant events "paired"
or associated with a person or animal can lead to increasing fear. For example,
if a pet is punished when it is exposed to a person or other animal, it may
begin to pair the stimulus (the person or other animal) with the unpleasant
consequence (punishment). This is especially true with the use of a painful
device such as a pinch or shock collar.
Can I prevent fears from developing?
As mentioned above, socialization is the cornerstone to raising a dog that
is comfortable with people. Early, frequent and pleasant encounters with people
of all ages and types can help prevent fears later. This exposure should begin
before 3 months of age and continue throughout the first year. In addition,
the dog should be exposed to as many different environments, sights and sounds
as possible so that they become accustomed to an ever changing environment early,
before fears emerge (Fear and phobias - noises and places).
What signs might my dog show when it is afraid?
When frightened, a dog may cower, look away, tuck its tail between its legs
and perhaps tremble or pant. At other times the signs may be more subtle. A
dog who is very frightened may duck its head and look away when a stranger approaches
to stroke it and it may tolerate stroking at first. However, if contact persists
or the animal feels unable to escape there is a very real danger that it will
snap. It is important to watch your dog for signs of uneasiness such as backing
up, hiding behind you, licking lips and yawning. Growling, or snarling are usually
well recognized as indicators of aggression, but they may also indicate fear.
What information do I need to identify and treat my fearful pet?
Professional intervention by a veterinary or applied animal behaviorist is
needed for dogs that are showing extreme fears especially when there is aggression.
If the fears are mild, then owner intervention may help and prevent them from
progressing. Firstly, it is important to identify what the fear inducing stimulus
is. This is not always easy and it is important that you get it right. What
people or animals is the dog afraid of and where does the fearful behavior occur?
Often there are certain situations, people, and places, which provoke the behavior
more than others.
For treatment to be most successful, it is important to be able to place the
fear inducing stimuli along a gradient from low to high. In other words, you
want to identify those situations, people, places and animals that are likely
to cause minimal fear as well as those situations, people, places and animals
that are most likely to cause a more severe response.
Next, you need to examine what factors may be reinforcing the behavior Some
owners actually reward the fearful behavior by reassuring their pets with vocal
intonations or body contact. Aggressive displays are a successful way of getting
the fearful stimulus to leave and removal of the stimulus is a very effective
reinforcer of the behavior Any ongoing interactions that are provoking fear
need to be identified. Examples might include teasing behaviours, painful interactions
including the use of punishment (discussed previously), or overwhelming stimuli.
After I have identified the stimuli, what do I do next?
Before a behavior modification program can begin, you need to be able to control
and communicate with your dog. This will require some training and in many cases
a head collar will be needed. Head collars allow control of the dog's head and
neck to ensure that the dog responds to the given command (sit, quiet, heel).
Teach your dog that when it sits and stays it will receive a delicious food
reward. The aim of this training is to allow the dog to assume a relaxed and
happy body posture and facial expression on command. Once this is established,
then food rewards are phased out.
Lastly, begin counter-conditioning and desensitization to accustom the dog
to the stimuli that usually cause the fearful response. This needs to be done
slowly. This is where the gradient that you established earlier becomes helpful.
Start by exposing the dog to very low levels of the stimulus, in fact ones that
do not evoke any fear. The dog is then rewarded for sitting quietly and calmly.
Gradually, if the dog exhibits no fear, the stimulus intensity is increased.
It is extremely important that this is done slowly. The aim is to reward appropriate
behavior, and teach the dog how to associate the once fearful stimulus with
calm relaxation and rewards. If the dog begins to show fear during training,
you are progressing too fast and could be making the problem worse. Always set
up the dog to succeed. The use of the lead and head collar can greatly improve
the chances of success and because of the additional control, will often help
the owner to succeed in getting the dog's attention and calming it down; faster
than with commands and rewards alone.
But my dog may still encounter the fearful stimulus when we are not in a
training exercise. What should I do then?
Each time the dog experiences the fearful stimulus and reacts with fear, the
behavior is further reinforced. If possible, you should try to avoid the fear-producing
stimulus during the treatment program This may mean confining the dog when children
visit, or the house is full of strangers. Alternatively, walks may need to be
curtailed or taken at times when encounters with other people and animals can
If you do find yourself in a situation where the dog is responding fearfully,
you should refrain from using reassuring vocal intonation and body contact.
This does not "soothe the savage beast" but rather serves as reinforcement.
As long as the dog is wearing a lead and head collar, it may be reoriented to
face the owner, respond to a sit command, and learn to ignore or accept the
approaching stimulus. Only if the dog cannot escape and can be made to calm
down before the stimulus leaves, will the dog learn that the stimulus is not
to be feared and will do no harm.
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