Fears have been high up in doggy discussions recently. It’s the Fireworks season in the UK and this is what’s brought them bubbling to the surface again.
Remember, remember, the 5th of November - gunpowder, treason, and plot!
And one thing common to a lot of these discussion threads was the surprise registered by owners of reactive dogs who were not upset at all by the noise. Some of these new owners had got prepared for the onslaught and were expecting the worst - then were utterly astonished that their dog couldn’t care less about it all.
So perhaps a little look at the subject of fear would be helpful here.
Is all fear the same?
Humans are born with only two fears: fear of falling and fear of loud noises. And these fears are stimulated in the Apgar tests for newborns, to elicit the startle reflex and check that all is well neurologically with the baby. All other fears are learned.
So fear of ghosts, planes, spiders, heights, and so on, are acquired on our journey through life. Many of these fears are developed early on, and can be heavily influenced by our family's response. A mother who is afraid of spiders can quickly transfer this fear to her children, while the mother who is happy to pick up an insect and take it to a place of safety is likely to have children who are curious about the other species in their environment and not fearful of them. It’s also true that a natural predisposition to be cautious around predators means that people are more likely to be afraid of creatures than of … bicycles, or trees.
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Now the jury is out on whether dogs are born with any fears. Certainly there will be a predisposition to fear certain things, and the social influence of the mother and the environment in which the pups are reared are definitely going to have a big effect. Hence the supreme importance of early and proper socialisation for puppies up to the age of 12-15 weeks (jury is out on the timescale too).
But we can certainly influence this fear by showing extreme fear ourselves.
Will I make my dog worse if I cuddle her?
Fear is an emotion. And you cannot reinforce an emotion. It’s either there or it isn’t. You can only reinforce a chosen behaviour. While it is not possible to reinforce the emotion of fear - that is, to reward it and encourage it and make it stronger and more likely to occur - by giving comfort to a frightened person or dog, it’s certainly possible to plant the idea that fear is the correct response to something. Hence the general firework advice to mask the noises and flashes as much as possible (loud tv, curtains drawn, prepare a den) and carry on as normal yourself.
And this advice also extends to not making your dog afraid of other dogs by being afraid yourself! So many people anticipate a bad outcome at the sight of another dog - maybe because their dog is reactive and has barked and lunged in the past - that they will tense up, breathe quickly, panic, tighten their grip on the lead, winding it six times round their hand to shorten it. This is telling your dog that you are afraid of the incoming dog, and that strange dogs are inherently dangerous. As you’ll see in the Growly posts on this site, your first response at sight of an incoming dog should always be
- Relax hands
- Relax shoulders
- Breathe out
- Relax lead
This will be telling your dog that you are ok with the incomer. (Whether you are or not is beside the point!)
What’s conditioning? And what’s counter-conditioning?
So fears grow in people and in dogs through experience, through social learning, and from a pre-disposition - self-preservation is all-important, so being afraid of things about to pounce on you is sensible. There’s also genetics to factor in. Some dog breeds are more alert to strange things in their environment than others, and are going to be faster to develop fears - unless that careful socialisation, familiarisation, and habituation, is done.
So your puppy is being conditioned to certain fears through his life experience. A snake appears and mum runs away from it: noted - snakes are dangerous.
Counter-conditioning is when we weigh in to lessen a fear, or lessen the impact the fear will have, by changing the association in the dog’s mind to something good. If every time that pup sees a snake you stuff pork pie in his mouth - his emotional response is going to change, over time! No, we don’t want him getting curious about the snake and approaching it - but we equally don’t want him to panic and run off - into the path of our modern-day killer, a car.
Your dog is going to be afraid of things he’s learnt to be afraid of. It follows that without that experience he’s not going to have the fear in place. Of course there are dogs who are so psychologically damaged that they have a generalised fear of everything. But even these can be brought to a level of comfort with patience and dedication, and possibly medication.
So being afraid of snakes is not going to make your dog also afraid of cars. And being afraid of other dogs is not going to make him afraid of horses, or sheep, … or fireworks.
Cricket will sleep through a thunderstorm!
In my own household I have two (Lacy and Coco) who will ignore most fireworks, but bark at a very loud bang - it’s an “alert bark” not a panic attack - one (Cricket the Whippet, the professional sleeper) who is not at all bothered, and Rollo the usually independent Border Collie who gets very unhappy and worried.
During the firework season Rollo sticks to me like a limpet, wedging himself under my legs and following me pathetically wherever I go. It’s at least reassuring that I am considered a place of safety. The situation is manageable without medication, as he doesn’t panic and damage himself trying to escape - as some dogs do.
The interesting part - for the purposes of this discussion - is that Rollo is not what is commonly termed “reactive”, while Lacy and Coco most definitely are.
Border Collies are a sensitive breed with superb hearing. So if they’re going to be worried about anything it’s understandable that loud and sharp noises would be up there. But it’s not automatic that a Collie would be noise-sensitive, any more than the dog who is afraid of men in hats, for instance, should also fear children.
So what you can take away from this is that fears will exist in your dog; you can minimise those fears with appropriate socialisation at the correct age; you can help make those fears manageable with careful training; and that a fear of one thing does not automatically imply a fear of anything else.