What’s New?

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The leading cause of fearful behavior in dogs is the lack of appropriate socialization when the dog is 3-16 weeks of age. I use the term ‘appropriate’ specifically because many people have the idea that simply exposing a dog to lots of people and other dogs when they are young is enough. However other causes of fearfulness in dogs may be- a genetic predisposition to be easily frightened and fears learned through trauma or abuse. If a young dog is scared by early exposures to people, or other dogs, they are more likely to carry that response with them as they age.

Identifying the tendency to be easily frightened in young pups is important, biology needn’t be destiny and a dog can learn skills for coping socially. Forcing a timid pup to ‘deal’ with things that scare them quickly backfires should those experiences frighten the dog. Protecting a young pup from inappropriate greetings from other dogs is important. Puppies are learning what things predict in their life, and if another dog predicts being pounced on or startled, the pup will come to anticipate this when seeing other dogs, and may respond with their own inappropriate greeting of lunging and barking.

This lack of exposure to different people, other dogs and novelty, during early puppyhood, is irreparable. Some dogs, those with more tolerance and resiliency (i.e., they weren’t as scared by things as other pups were) can learn to be comfortable in their worlds, while others may always carry proof of this deficit in the way they respond for the rest of their lives.

Dogs at greater risk for being fearful are those: bred at puppy mills or puppy farms or by any breeder who does not provide early enrichment or socialization of pups; puppies born to hoarders; and feral or ‘street’ dogs. In my own experience the pups with the best chance of being able to learn new skills are the dogs born out of captivity, but around people-the street dog. Dogs born in confinement also suffer from the lack of movement and exploration a street dog is privileged to experience.

The following video is of my own fearful dog Sunny. It was filmed after Sunny had lived with us, in the same house, for over 5 years. I had introduced a novel object to the environment, a leather bag drying by the wood stove. When he first encountered it he left the room and was only willing to return through coaxing and my invitation to ‘go outside’. You can see his concern in his movement and posture.

With time and experience Sunny would ‘get used’ to the bag, but as with many dogs who suffer from neophobia-fear of new things or experiences- changing the location or position of the bag would again provoke similar concern. As a dog’s comfort level increases in a specific environment their ability to cope with novelty can increase, but change too many aspects of a situation and you can see a rise in sensitivity.

9 thoughts on “What’s New?”

  1. I had the same kind of thing happen at my house. I normally have table lamps in my house. I decided I needed more light in one corner of the room, so I bought a floor lamp. When I turned it on for the first time my dog freaked out thinking I had just released a scary monster. She is getting use to it but still not entirely comfortable with it. I know my first thought was, what is there to be afraid of. It doesn’t matter what I think, she is afraid of it and so we will work together to help her adjust and become comfortable with it on.

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  2. My beloved Mandy

    I got Mandy as a puppy from what turned out to be a very submissive litter, so I know that nothing I did created the following situation.

    Mandy was as sweet a dog as any that ever lived, and she also had a very, very submissive and sensitive temperament. She did very well when introduced to new situations and people, as we made sure that these were positive experiences. However, when she was seven months old, she developed what the breeder felt was panosteoitis (sp) and apparently was also going through a second fear period. A rather tough and dominant female friend came to my house to visit, and Mandy jumped up on her to lick her in the face to show that she was submissive. I say this only because she maintained this behavior throughout her life, and I firmly believe this was the driving force behind the behavior.

    When Mandy jumped on my friend, my friend roughly shoved her down onto the floor on her sore leg and held her there. This not only physically hurt Mandy, it traumatized her. As time went by, she generalizd her fear of that woman and became more and more fearful of people who looked like my then-ex-friend and then extended this to sudden movements, sudden noises, etc., acting as one would with PTSD. I did everything I could to help her overcome her fears but finally gave in and allowed her to stay in her safe zone where she would not have to encounter situations that frightened her. She led a long and full life, with many positive experiences and lots of activity and fun.

    We had Mandy’s older half-sister and took in a severely abused 2-y.o. male of the same breed when Mandy was only 4 1/2 months old. The male had a fundamentally very stable temperament, and he was submissive and fearful only when confronted with people that were similar in appearance to his first owner, who had gotten him from a backyard breeder as a puppy. He turned out to be the best dog that we have had and became a registered therapy dog, but he never got over his fear of his former owner.

    Two dogs, two different temperaments – one stable and one unstable, different outcomes from trauma.

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  3. I neglected to say that it took us about two years of positive work with him before he fully and truly trusted us. Love coupled with knowledge can and does work miracles…

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    • Yes. We have three now, one that would have frozen to death in Kentucky the night he was rescued; one that was very, very sick and would have died on the streets of Austin; one that was a state seizure due to abuse and neglect. The last one has been with us for a year this month. She still has a very long road ahead before she will be able to open her heart and mind to truly love and trust people. We’ll never give up, regardless of how long the road. We feel privileged to have the opportunity to give these three a home where they are loved, respected and treated with kindness. They are all wonderful dogs.

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