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)

Comments

You know how bacon often splatters hot grease out of the pan and onto the stove and probably onto the floor? I would never cook bacon shirtless (or pantless, for that matter)! It's possible she was burned.

I have a command ("go out", I know this should probably be reserved for more general things) to get my dog to exit the kitchen and go out to the carpet when I'm doing something dangerous. I use it whenever I'm using a knife. We've all dropped a knife on the floor at least once, right? I'm paranoid, but he's just as happy watching me from six feet away. Although he will come running in sometimes if I drop food on the floor.

Julia McDonough's Shy Dog Primer has an excellent article on this. She is a dog trainer, and former director of Doberman Rescue Unlimited in Sandown NH. Her behavioral articles are staples in many shelters.

http://www.fortunatek9.com/Articles/Shy_Dog_Primer_Julia_V_McDonough.pdf

Many well meaning rescuers and owners trap their dogs in a fear period. The sudden onset of concern that is visible to the dog in so many ways (remember most of our communication to dogs is through body language) begins to suggest that they should be afraid. And maybe they should, if, as the previous poster suggested they were splattered with hot grease before.

Sometimes it's something perceived soley by the dog and hard to figure out the beginnings of, such as with my dog Jazz that never liked the sound of the waffle iron, and we know she was never injured nor abused with (well anything) the waffle iron.

I use obedience exercises to have the dog begin to accept that the "scary thing" is no big deal, especially when I am in the room with them. So I make sure they can't be splattered with hot grease et, but that they do need to stay in the kitchen with us. Another very unconfrontational way is to close off rooms where puppy may try to hide for the rest of the day (this is if you have a more serious case of the jitters), and go about your business watching for signs of the puppies re-emerge.

My goal is to get the puppy or dog past the "scary thing" so that we can get back down to business or fun. Or funny business.

Robin Rubin
Mannerly Mutts
York Beach Maine
IACP Professional 1942

My 10 month old male Ridgeback is DEFINITELY in a fear period. It has been accelerating for about 2 weeks now. There have been MANY incidents of irrational fear, which I won't take time to list now. It clicked in my mind what was going on when he suddenly became terrified of a plastic bag that was sitting on my dresser. We worked through that, but I am wondering if I need to take a break from our agility training. We are in an Introduction to Agility class, and this week, every time I raised my arm to point towards a jump he cowered away as if I was trying to strike him. I don't beat my dogs-I SWEAR-but also last week, I was patting him firmly and he squinted his eyes, put his ears back, and recoiled as if I was really causing him pain. Of course I apologized, and patted him more gently, and told him he was being silly. I am just wondering if I should lay off the training for a bit and wait for this goofiness to pass. Also, does anyone have any advice for facilitating the end of this fear period? I am ready to move on.

Proud mom of Gouda, Sala and Junior

I'm wondering if anyone can help or advise.

My 8yr old dog, who is usually a pretty tough cookie, has all of a sudden become afraid of our backyard. Normally she loves it out there, sniffing in the wind, lying in the sun or waiting for birds or squirrels to come near so she can chase them away. But now she won't go outside at all and if I do drag her out, he leg starts to shake like mad. She is obviously terrified of something and I now have my suspicions but I don't know how to get her over this.

It started 5 days ago. We got home from a fun walk on the beach with her best doggie pal and everything seemed fine except about an hour after we got back I wanted to feed her and found her upstairs cowering in the corner and she wouldn't come downstairs. I thought maybe she was sick (her poop was a bit runny that day) or she hurt herself but I checked her over and didn't see anything. I just assumed it was maybe her tummy so just watched her closely but she wouldn't come down until that night and only after a lot of coaxing when she did finally eat and drink and went for a walk but quickly ran back upstairs after that. 

Watching her for a few days, she seemed fine physically but she just didn't really want to come downstairs and wouldn't come out back at all.  Thinking back on that day, when we got back from the beach there was a big balloon bouquet for my son (it was his 2nd birthday) and he was running around with it and out back going a bit wild with excitement.  One balloon did pop but I was more concerned at the time that my son would be frightened so I didn't look at where our dog was at the time.   This wasn't the first time we have had balloons in the house and the dog never seemed bothered before so I just wasn't thinking to watch her at all but I'm wondering now if this is why she is now so afraid. 

Once I thought it might have been the balloons, I got rid of them without the dog seeing so I didn't actually confirm if these were scaring her, by trying to get her to go to them. Perhaps I should have done that, I'm not sure, but I really don't know what to do to help her get over this and feel more secure.  She is now coming downstairs but still will not go out back unless made to. I'm trying to bring her out there for a few minutes a few times a day to get her used to it and comforting her to make her feel secure but I'm not sure if this is helping or making things worse.

Does anyone have a suggestion of what to do in this case? I feel horrible because she loves to be outside so much and we had just bought this house 8 months ago specifically because I knew she would love the backyard. Now I'm wondering if she will ever go out there again or will we have to move?  She would even chase a squirrel the other day that was out there, which means she must be seriously upset:(

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