Fear in dogs

The other night for supper my husband cooked us some french toast and bacon. (MMmm it was good.) We noticed part way through his cooking that Jenny, our pug, was acting weird. Her tail was down and she was in the hallway sitting, looking towards the stove. She would not be called back into the living room area that is next to the kitchen. Then we remembered, she always acts scared when we cook bacon on the stove. Since we don't cook it that frequently it isn't something we automaticly think of as a trigger for her. She doesn't seem to have the same reaction to the kind we microwave, just when it's cooked on the stovetop. I'm thinking it is about the sound possibly coupled with the smell. She sure has no problem eating some of it if offered. (she is a huge chow hound, a typical pug trait)

So we employed some classical conditioning by pairing something really good (I usually use extra yummy treats) with the scary thing. In her case the scary thing is bacon cooking. Remember, it is about what the DOG perceives as a scary event that is important. Not our perception of what they should be scared of.

Dogs being scared of something can stem from an event that happened in a fear period during their puppyhood, a normal developmental phase. All dogs go through them. Some more than one. What is important to know about fear periods is that anything that happens to a puppy (a dog under a year old) during that phase has a more lasting effect than if it happens at another time in their life. Example: a puppy is meeting new people and a man in a baseball hat swoops down just a little to quickly and startles the puppy. This could mean forever after the puppy is leery of man in baseball hats. Did the person abuse the dog? No, but to the puppy it was a very scary event that made a lasting impression. If the same event happened while the puppy wasn't in that specific developmental phase it might be scared for a few minutes, but have no issues with men in hats in the future.

The hard part of dealing with fear periods is knowing when they are happening. All breeds mature slightly differently so the age for the fear period can vary. One clue can be if the puppy suddenly acts afraid of something they previously didn't act afraid of. It may be something as benign as an end table, or boot rack. Something they may have seen and walked by every day until then. Or if they seem extra nervous about things in general suddenly.

What is also important to know is how to handle a puppy in a fear period. Do not force the puppy towards the scary thing. If possible throw tidbits near the item and act normal, see if they will approach on their own and figure out it isn't scary. (this is all going to depend on what it is the puppy is afraid of) You can praise them for any forward movement towards it. If it is about an item that can move make sure the item will stay stationary while they check it out, remember we don't want to add to the puppies fear. Once they are more comfortable with the item we can add the movement later.

If we force a puppy to confront the scary thing we may stress them out causing them to shut down. A dog that is to stressed is incapable of learning because it has gone into fight or flight mode, instinct vs rational thought. Forcing a dog to confront something scary is called flooding. While there may be times it is necessary, in most cases you'll end up with a dog that goes into something called learned helplessness. The dog acts like it accepts it but it has in fact learned it has no options. It doesn't take away it's fear, it only changes its reaction to it. (at least for that moment) Flooding MAY be used in a treatment plan, however it should only be done by a professional that is familiar with canine behavior to avoid the learned helplessness response. Not all trainers are qualified to do in depth behavior work so a certified canine behaviorist may be your best option for this issue. When in doubt research the trainer working with your dog to find out if they are qualified. (What behavior seminars have they attended? What specific behavior training do they have?)

Is all fear in dogs related to fear periods? No, it is just one facet to fearful behavior in dogs. And it may be an explanation for Jennys reaction but I have no way of knowing for sure. Dogs can be scared of specific things at any age depending on how traumatic the event is. (again, in the dogs perception) Luckily for us she will work for food, even when the bacon is cooking, so classical conditioning with her should be pretty easy in this case. I just need to put a note on the bacon to remind me before I start cooking it next time.

(Want to know if a dog is really stressed? Try offering a really good tidbit they normally would love. A dog that is to stressed to eat may be to stressed to learn. Fight or flight causes a physiological response in the body to shut down as self protection. (and they may also evacuate their bladder and bowels, part of the F/F response as well) This means it is physically impossible for them to eat as a result.)

*Got a fearful dog you need to work with? For more in depth info check out the books available at http://www.dogwise.com/ (simply type the word fear into the search area)