Why is fear and anxiety such a big problem with dogs today ?
It seems like fear and anxiety are getting worse in our dogs. There are medications for it, pheromone sprays for it, relaxing music for it (Relax My Dog on YouTube), and even clothing for it (Thundershirt). What seems to be missing is the answer to the question, where is it coming from ?
First I will explain what fear is (in people terms), and then discuss some reasons I feel fear is such a problem in dogs.
What is Fear ?
Fear is natural and normal. Fear is a necessary emotional response that keeps us alive. If you were not scared of fire, heights, poisonous spiders or even dark alleys, you may make choices that could injure or even kill you. Fear exists to help you avoid danger or potential danger. Fear can only exist in response to something (called a stimulus). The stimulus is present, you become scared.
Phobias are irrational fears. It makes sense to be afraid of poisonous spiders, it doesn't necessarily make sense to be immensely afraid of NON-POISONOUS spiders. It makes sense to be afraid while standing 150 ft. up a ladder, but not so much 3 ft. However, with a phobia, you still need SOMETHING to be scared of (the stimulus).
Anxiety is an irrational fear WITHOUT the presence of a stimulus. If it is ok to be afraid of poisonous spiders, and less acceptable to be afraid of non-poisonous spiders, someone with anxiety may not leave their house because there MIGHT be a spider in a tree that they MIGHT have to walk under.
How do dogs respond to fear ?
Fight, flight or freeze. Many of us realize that when a dog tucks its tail and tries to run away and hide, that is it fearful. However, not as many of us realize that when a dog reacts aggressively (such as a reactive dog on leash) or bossy (such as a bully at daycare or the dog park) that they may ALSO be fearful. These dogs have learned that flight isn't an option or was not a very successful option in the past. Other dogs will freeze up, which we often see at the veterinary hospital when dogs come in for an exam.
So what do we do with fearful dogs ?
#1. LEARN to recognize what your dog is fearful of. Noises, strangers, other dogs, garbage bins, skateboards, etc.
#2. DO NOT FORCE THEM to interact with what they are afraid of. Dragging a child into the arms of a clown will not make them un-afraid of clowns. If your dog is scared of strange people or unfamiliar dogs, they DO NOT need to interact with them. This attitude that our dogs need to meet everyone and every dog is just unrealistic.
#3. KEEP your distance. Most dogs will not get upset if the scary stimulus is far enough away. Spiders aren't as scary when they are on the other side of a baseball field, and clowns aren't as scary when they are in a different province The distances will be different for each dog, but the distance your dog needs is the distance that doesn't cause them to have a reaction to the stimulus.
#4. ALLOW your dog choice. If your dog wants to leave, leave. If your dog wants to approach, let them approach. They might change their mind part way through, this is OK as well. Anxiety stems from the thought process of not having control and choice. Giving your dog the choice to approach or not can help greatly with fear issues.
(This is NOT recommended for ANY dog that reacts aggressively or is in a highly excited state. If your dog can’t control itself, it does not get to say “hi” regardless of what they want to do. They lose the option of choice when they lose control of themselves.)
#5. TEACH the dog to associate their fears with positive emotions. Feed treats when strangers are nearby. Play a game of tug or fetch when your dog sees a skateboarders. In order for this to work, your dog needs to be more interested in whatever you have than whatever is scaring them. If your dog is taking the treat but eyeballing the stranger, it will not be successful. In this situation, you need a better reward and/or more distance from the scary stimulus.
Other things that contribute to fear
Owners – Yes, us. Our own emotions are being projected onto our dogs. We see on social media dogs running away, getting injured, choking on food, getting their leashes caught in elevators and so on. As a result, we micromanage our animals and panic over everything. I actually once saw a warning to protect your dogs from the WIND. Yes, the wind. !! “Did you know that the wind can break a tree branch off and it will fall and hit your dog in the head ? Or rip out your fence and your dog will run away and get hit by a car. When it is windy, it is recommended that you use lavender essential oils, a thundershirt and play relaxing music to calm your dog.” This kind of junk being spread around social media makes owners anxious, and as a result dogs are being micromanaged and feeling our anxiety in certain situations.
Socialization - Lack of socialization or too many negative experiences. Sometimes I wonder if no socialization is better than bad socialization. When a dog has an experience with a new situation, one of three things can happen. It can be positive, it can be neutral, or it can be negative. Positive and neutral experiences create less fear, negative experiences create more fear. Socialization needs to change to a quality and not quantity mentality. Do not expose your puppy to as much as you can as fast as you can. Exposure should be positive, at the dog’s pace. Remember the choice rule. Not all people are good with dogs, and not all dogs are good with each other. If you can prevent your dog from interacting with the well-meaning (but negative) dogs and people out there, you’ll have a much more confident dog.
The Dog – Genetics plays a role too. Some breeds are less social because that is how they were bred to be. Some dogs have anti-social parents, or may have had negative interactions with their own dam and litter mates. Some dogs are shy, just as some people are shy. An owner with a fearful dog needs to realize that some of that fear may have come pre-programmed.
**Danielle is available for private consultations, please email us for information