Sometimes a dog's fearfulness is obvious. Perhaps he lays his ears back, tucks his tail between his legs and hides behind his owner when visitors come into the home. Or maybe he refuses to approach a stranger closely enough to get a treat. However, the symptoms of fearfulness sometimes can be deceptive and look more like aggression: growling, raised hackles, and even biting. A dog's fear may be a response to any number of stimuli, including humans, other dogs, bicycles, etc.
In this four-part series, we will examine the nature of fearfulness and discuss appropriate ways to manage fearful dogs and help them cope with their phobias. To start the series, let's look at why dogs may become fearful.
• Genetics and Poor Breeding. Reputable breeders of pet dogs focus on developing animals with stable temperaments. However, puppy mills and backyard breeders typically churn out pups in quantity and put virtually no effort into creating dogs with quality personalities.
• Abusive Treatment or Trauma. Understandably, dogs who have been abused or traumatized (either by humans or dogs) can develop fearfulness. Mistreated dogs often become reactive to, or timid towards, certain types of movement, people, or objects. They may react to a baseball bat, or a hand coming towards them, or a male or female human, or large brown dogs, etc.
• Improper Socialization. In my experience, the most common cause of fearfulness is a lack of socialization with humans and/or dogs. If a dog has been sequestered from people and other animals, it is only natural that he will be leery of them. Improperly socialized dogs often will warm up to people or other dogs, but it may take much longer than a properly socialized dog.
• Human-Reinforced Fears. There are a number of things well-meaning humans can do to actually worsen a dog's fearfulness. For example, forcing a scared puppy into a stranger's arms to show him there is nothing to be afraid of can add significantly to the stress he already feels, and it may compromise his trust in you. Or shocking a dog with an e-collar when he barks at a human may cause the dog to stop barking without fixing the underlying fearfulness; or worse, it could teach him to associate humans with the extreme discomfort of the e-collar, making him even more fearful of people. And while there is a lot of heated debate on the topic of trying to provide human-style comfort to fearful dogs (one who is afraid of thunder, for instance), many reputable trainers and behaviorists believe doing so could possibly reinforce the fearfulness. At any rate, there are better ways to address fearfulness, and we will discuss them throughout this series.
• Medical Issues. When a dog's fearfulness cannot be traced categorically to one of the above causes, it is a good idea to have the dog thoroughly checked by a veterinarian, as sickness, pain and aging can also lead to fearful behavior issues.
There are other causes of fearfulness, but the above reasons are the ones I most commonly encounter in the course of my work. The good news is, these issues are rarely insurmountable. With patience and correct training, there is always hope. Next, we will discuss the appropriate management of fearful dogs.
About the writer: Thomas Aaron is a certified dog training instructor and the owner of FetchMasters, LLC in Denver, Colorado. He is a strong advocate of positive reinforcement training, believing it provides the most humane path to a well-trained dog and nurtures an appropriate and strong bond between people and their dogs. He has trained hunting hounds since childhood and currently specializes in off-leash obedience training, behavior modification and positive gun dog training. FetchMasters.com