Pets that are fearful
Dark skies and rumbling thunder is often a stressful time for many dog owners. In all likelihood, it is even more stressful for the dogs themselves! Fears and phobias in our companion animals are more common than one might imagine, ranging from fear of loud noises and new places to the fear of people and other animals.
There are many different components and reasons for a fear response in an animal. It can be an innate response, meaning that it is genetically programmed into the animal’s behaviour, such as fear for a predator. If there is a lack of proper socialization to different people and environments when the animal is young, it may be fearful of unfamiliar situations when it is older.
The temperament of the animal may play a role, something that is influenced mainly by genetics and upbringing. An animal can learn to fear certain situations, for example, meeting new people.
If the stimulus produces an undesirable situation for the animal and if the animal’s response (such as biting) is successful in removing the stimulus, the animal will learn to avoid such situations. Finally, fear can be a combination of some or all of these factors, often leading to difficulty in treating fears.
A fearful animal is usually easily recognizable to the experienced owner. The animal may tremble when the stimulus is present. Dogs will place their tail between their legs and lower their head and body. The hair on the upper and back neck may stand erect, known as “raising his/her hackles”. The animal’s ears may be pinned back, flat against the head. Drooling and wide eyes with dilated pupils may be observed, and uncontrolled defecation and urination may also occur.
One of the largest contributing factors to a phobia is reinforcement over a period of time. When an animal is frightened, the instinctive response is fight or flight. Running and hiding is one solution to blocking the frightful experience, but the other more dangerous alternative is fear aggression. If the animal chooses to remove itself from the stimulus, and it is successful, then it has reinforced its fear of the stimulus. If aggressive behaviour results in removal of the stimulus, such as an unfamiliar person, then the dog learns that the behaviour is rewarding.
Owners can often play an important role in reinforcing a fearful behaviour without meaning to. An owner contributes to the fear when they attempt to comfort the animal when the stimulus is present. Comforting gestures, food rewards, and attention only lets the animal know that it is “ok” that it is displaying a fear response. This in turn bolsters the animal’s fear of the stimulus, likely making the situation worse each time. On the other hand, punishing a fear response can increase an animal’s uneasiness with the situation, which also reinforces the phobia.
Fear of Noises
One of the most common fears, especially in dogs, is a fear of loud noises. It can be all loud noises, or perhaps only something specific. Common stimuli include: thunder, trains, and loud appliances. Often, these are easy to recognize but difficult to control, and correction may require some creative techniques.
Fear of People
Animals that are not socialized adequately to different people when young may develop a fear when older. They may be afraid of unfamiliar people, especially if the new person is different in appearance. For example, a person with a beard or glasses may frighten a dog not accustomed to such accessories. Animals can also develop a fear response associated with an individual in which a traumatic example has occurred. The classical example is the veterinarian who administers vaccines to the animal. However, an animal can associate fear with a person even if the individual is not the source of the trauma. For example, if a dog stepped on something sharp and someone just happens to be within view at the time of the trauma, the dog may develop a fear of that person by association.
Fear of Animals
An animal may be frightened of individuals of the same or other species if it was not properly socialized when young. A kitten or puppy should be exposed to as many different animals as possible, between four and twelve weeks of age, within the limitations of vaccinations schedules. For example, a kitten that is not introduced to a dog when young may be fearful of all dogs when older.
Fear of Places
Different environments can sometimes be a challenge for animals unfamiliar with the surroundings. For example, common places that can provoke fear include rooms with slippery and shiny floors, large crowded areas, and of course veterinary clinics. Again, an animal not exposed to different environments when young may develop a fear when placed in an unfamiliar place. An animal may also associate a place with a traumatic experience, such as a veterinary hospital.
The main objective of treatment of a phobia is to teach the animals that the stimulus it is frightened of can be associated with something good, such as a reward. This is often easier said than done, requiring persistence and patience. The most important thing to keep in mind is that you must not reinforce fearful behaviour by petting, reassuring, or rewarding the animal.
The approach to any type of fear is the same in principle. The first step to treatment is to identify what the stimulus is and when it occurs. When the trigger has been identified, attempt to avoid all encounters with this if possible. If your dog is afraid of thunderstorms, start your training at a time of year where they are less likely to occur, such as the winter. The next step is to desensitize the animal and teach relaxation in the presence of the stimulus. This must be done slowly and systematically. If the dog is fearful of unfamiliar people, ask a friend to help with training. Place the dog in a crate and ask the friend to enter the room but keep a great enough distance that the dog remains calm. Reward the dog for good behaviour with food or affection. The unfamiliar person can attempt to desensitize the dog by throwing food from a distance, avoiding eye contact, and approaching sideways. Gradually, over the course of several training sessions, ask the friend to approach closer each time to a distance in which the dog can remain calm. Remember to only reward calm, relaxed behaviour and not to reinforce inappropriate reactions. The animal should slowly learn to associate the stimulus with good things, such as treats, resulting in a less fearful response.
The prognosis for successful treatment is dependent on several factors, including age, duration of the fearful behaviour, and the owner’s diligence with training. Generally, the younger the age of onset and the longer the duration, the less chance there is of correcting the behaviour. That is not to say, however, that correction is impossible. Again, it is important to be able to recognize the triggers and be patient throughout the training process. With appropriate training, an animal can learn to be relaxed in the presence of previously frightening situations.
By Beverly Wong – Pets.ca writer