Barking, aggression, destruction, separation anxiety, resource guarding, … Many behavior issues that directly affect the dogs welfare can be attributed to stress and fear. These emotions dominate the dog’s life experience and are often responsible for the human/dog relationship breakdown. Just like in humans, many attribute aggressive displays as signs of strength and character. In reality they’re an expression of underlying feelings of being threatened. We’re most likely to yell or fight at others when we fear that another person will keep us from getting our needs met. A confident and well-adapted person or dog rarely needs to resort to aggression, vocalization or destruction to regain homeostasis.
Studies have show that rage and fear feel bad and given the choice, animals and people try to avoid these feelings. ‘No animal or human enjoys the experience of persistent rage because the affective feeling simply is not pleasant’ (Panksepp, 2012). Many times though, there are no known direct causes to the dog’s reaction. Some dogs will go into a panic as soon as the owner steps out the door even though they’re not in any kind of real danger (from our perspective). The level of fear that some dogs will experience can be compared to a panic attack. Their vocalizations or destruction of property are mostly attempts to relieve themselves from the intensity of the emotion. Dogs will also stiffen, growl or bark at strangers or other dogs; even though they’ve never actually been hurt in their presence. Sometimes genetics, lack of socialization or both can be the underlying cause of otherwise unexplained fears. It’s also possible that aggression or anxiety is a manifestation of physical discomfort, so taking the dog to the veterinarian is always advisable.
There are other times where we’ve directly contributed to the level of stress and fear of the animal. When we chose to punish a dog in any way, including just saying ‘no’, we induce a certain level of anxiety. Let’s be real, it’s the goal. We’re trying to intimidate, in other words, to scare the dog into stopping the behavior. There are different levels of anxiety that the dog will experience of course, depending on his own sensitivities, but also on how often and how much we use punishment to control his behavior.
When animals are anxious or afraid, their number one priority is to feel safe again. We’re no different. Imagine trying to learn a new language while concerned about being yelled at or ridiculed by the teacher. Our primary concern is no longer to learn the language but to avoid the unpleasant treatment. When the animal feels safe, he can be curious, inquisitive and focused on a task. When he’s anxious, he’ll be distracted, less motivated, sometimes even resistant and shut down. When safe, the dog is relaxed and generally confident around people and dogs. When stressed, he can be destructive, hyperactive and reactive to people and dogs. A recent research showed that when dogs feel safe, their level of interest and ability to perform a cognitive task were also improved. Just like children, dogs seem to feel safer in the presence of their owner. When the owner leaves, the dogs were less likely to interact with the toys presented, even if they were rewarded with food (Horn & al. 2013). That feeling of course is also dependant on the type of training applied by the owner.
We’re concerned about our dog’s needs and we make sure that he gets plenty of food, water, toys, playtime, etc… At the very top of that list we need to also make sure the dog feels safe. In most cases, our dogs are physically safe and they’re rarely actually harmed. But feeling safe sometimes requires more than having a home. So what can we do?
Here are 10 steps that will help the dog develop a sense of security:
1/ Socializing the dog at an early age is critical, but it’s also important to keep exposing him to all sorts of people and dogs throughout his lifetime.
2/ Taking the dog out to different places and exposing him to all sorts of situations helps the dog develop confidence and adaptability. The more restricted the animal’s world, the more he’ll be likely to feel anxious when small changes occur in his environment.
3/ Desensitizing the dog to anything that we notice he can be afraid of. Avoiding a fearful situation instead of working on it can result in the dog generalizing the fear to other areas. The reverse is also true. Overcoming a fear in one area can help the dog generalize to another area.
4/ Avoiding punishing the dog through the use of aversives. There are many effective ways to diminish unwanted behaviors without scaring or hurting the dog.
5/ Engaging the dog’s mind. When the dog applies himself to processing information, whether through training (like in shaping) or any activity that requires him to think, he’s less likely to be focused on his anxiety.
6/ Developing our own confidence as a handler. Since dogs are very sensitive to our emotions, it’s important to display a calm and confident attitude.
7/ Respecting thresholds. When we push the dog through his thresholds where he’ll be likely to experience the unpleasant emotion again and again, we’re also sensitizing him to the situation, thus making that emotion more likely to occur in the future.
8/ Allowing the dog to get out of fearful situations. Providing the dog with a place to hide or to move away from something scary is critical so the fear can subside. In the same way, standing up for the dog, interfering with a person or dog about to invade his space also allows the dog to feel safe as you’re watching out for him.
9/ Avoiding overprotecting the dog. This may seem like the opposite of the previous point, but we can go too far in trying to protect the dog and if we’re anxious ourselves of the outcomes of certain interactions, we can trigger or contribute to the dog’s anxiety. Simply tightening the leash a little may very well set your dog on alert.
10/ Developing patience. If we’re pushy or frustrated, the dog is likely to build up anxiety and become resistant or shut down. Patience is essential to allow the dog to process the information presented in front of him.
Stress, anxiety and fear play a critical part in the wellbeing of our animals as they do in our own lives. Applying ourselves to reducing the opportunities for those emotions to develop may make the difference in the dog’s welfare. We can all benefit from reducing those emotions in our life. It’s not always easy to be mindful of what affects our dog’s emotions as well as our own, but the more we apply ourselves to it, the easier it gets, for the benefit of all.
Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.