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Dealing with fear in dogs

Fear is a very common emotion, responsible for a lot of unwanted behaviour in our pet dogs. Despite what many people may think, scared dogs aren’t always withdrawn and timid, they can be proactive and use aggressive behaviour too. These dogs that are more outspoken about how they feel, are usually more successful at increasing space and getting away from the scary thing. All too often those who shy away, hide or freeze, are taken less seriously.

Fear is a very common emotion, responsible for a lot of unwanted behaviour in our pet dogs. Despite what many people may think, scared dogs aren’t always withdrawn and timid, they can be proactive and use aggressive behaviour too. These dogs that are more outspoken about how they feel, are usually more successful at increasing space and getting away from the scary thing. All too often those who shy away, hide or freeze, are taken less seriously.

Fear is a big problem for a dog, even if the way a dog shows it isn’t a big problem for the people around them. As a society we don’t really like it when dogs show fear in more overtly aggressive ways, therefore we really should be listening to them when they show more subtle passive signs. If you can’t avoid a problem, then you need to do something to get rid of it. If being passive doesn’t work, dogs may well change their approach and start using aggressive behaviors instead.

It is vital when considering fear-based behaviour that we do not fall into the trap of saying things like ‘oh that’s not scary’. It is not about what we as humans find scary, it is about what that individual dog finds scary, whether there is a genuine risk or threat is actually irrelevant. Animals should never be made to face their fears. Techniques such as flooding (overwhelming the animals with triggers to try and get them used to them) are dangerous and can have very detrimental effects on the animal’s welfare and future behaviour.

As an owner it is so important that you offer you provide your dog with emotional support. There is absolutely no harm at all in giving your dog attention if they are asking for it, and it makes them feel better, when they are scared. Continuing to ignore your dog’s distress does little more than weaken your relationship and teach them that you cannot be relied on in times of need. If dog’s learn that nothing they do helps them, then they may develop ‘learned helplessness’ where they essentially ‘shut down’ and give up. This tragic state is extremely damaging to their welfare.

There is no point trying to reason with or train a dog who is in a state of fear. Until an animal feels physically and psychologically safe, they simply do not have the brain capacity to focus on anything other than survival. Whilst awaiting help from a professional you should always do your best to avoid your avoid exposure to anything they find scary. It is also sensible to take precautions to minimise risk if they are suddenly frightened and panic, for example keeping them on lead and ensuring your garden is secure. 

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