Fearful dog – interesting project or lost cause

First, we should note that every fearful dog is special.
So you can’t assume that every fearful dog will develop the same way or respond to the same training ideas.

But let’s go back to the beginning.
What actually is a fearful dog?

To me, any dog that struggles with anxiety on a daily basis is a fearful dog. However, that line is getting a little blurry.
I’m sure you have a very specific image in your mind when you hear the words “fearful dog”.
Maybe it’s a dog you once met, maybe it’s your own, maybe it’s several different ones.
Certainly not every dog is affected by fears in the same way.
Many dogs are afraid of something, have a fear reaction (e.g. jumping away from it), and are completely relaxed again after the trigger has disappeared.
Such a dog probably does not suffer in our eyes.
Another dog that is very afraid of people, for example, and constantly cowering in a crate (because there are people in the house), even takes flight from the caregiver and constantly fears an attack, is obviously suffering.

Now you understand why I think it’s hard to say.
In any case, we can state that the less a dog is restricted by his fear in everyday life, the better he is and the easier the training will be.
Now, you might be thinking to yourself “that’s something you could look at when you’re placing a dog, right?”. Yep, that’s right!
If the dog’s fears are already recognizable by the animal welfare organization (this is not always the case, because rescue shelters are usually not located in the city center and many stimuli cannot even be tested there), it should definitely be ensured that the dog goes to a home where he is exposed to as few fear triggers as possible.
With foster dogs, of course, this is much easier, because a foster home can test many things over the duration of the stay.
A dog that is afraid of other dogs, cars, people, loud noises, or the like should therefore be placed in a very rural location at best.

But you can’t always see the fears beforehand.
And not always an assessment is possible at all, because the dog seems to be afraid of everything in the shelter. To find out the exact stimuli is completely impossible in such a situation.
At the same time, such a dog can react quite differently in a home.
The shelter situation was simply overwhelming and that caused the fear reactions.
It’s a bit like when we, after a vacation on a deserted island, suddenly get on the subway at rush hour… system overload.

So here we have found a possible trigger of anxiety: Overload with a (new) stimulus.
Other triggers can be
– Bad experiences (traumas)
– No experiences
That traumas cause anxiety is probably nothing new to you.
The fear reaction is triggered by different triggers (sounds, smells, sight, feeling,…).
For example, the feeling in the car going around a corner on a wet road can trigger a fear reaction if you have ever had an accident in such a situation.
The same situation can also trigger fear if you are aware of the possibility of an accident and are afraid of it.
Our dogs do not plan ahead, but they also have innate caution systems that recognize an imminent danger and put the animal on alert.
They are active, for example, in the case of loud, dark noises (ie: men with deep voices, thunderstorms), because they mean something big and potentially dangerous is approaching.
In these cases, the dog does not need to have any experience to show a fear reaction.

And this brings us to the subject of socialization.
Socialization refers to all the stimuli that the puppy gets to know during the sensitive phase (here we differentiate from habituation, but that should not be the topic here).
If a puppy gets to know many different sounds, animals, objects, surfaces, etc. in a positive way, he generally becomes more open-minded towards new things. So he expects something positive from unknown things in life.
In addition, learned strategies help the dog become more secure and be able to deal with something unknown.
If you want to compare this…

You’ve probably heard the expression “solution-oriented thinking.”
People who are solution-oriented thinkers don’t seem to have a problem with anything and somehow stroll through any crisis.
Because their brain automatically searches for a solution when it occurs, thus finding it more quickly and effectively bypassing the fear reaction.
Because if I know what I can do to prevent or soften the disaster, I don’t need to be afraid.

You have an appointment to which you want to go by train.
The train is 25 minutes late.
If you have a solution (e.g. enough time to wait, money for a cab, an emergency contact who can take you by car, the number of the person who is waiting for you to reschedule,…), you might get angry for a moment, but you won’t be afraid.
If you don’t have a solution, you will get frantic and maybe even fall into a fear reaction.

This is exactly how our dogs feel.

So what can we do to help them?

Generally speaking, anything that boosts confidence helps with anxiety.
Individually, this looks much more difficult.
The difficulty lies mainly in management for the time of training so that the trigger never triggers the fear response and overwhelms the dog.
Because that would mean regressing.

Perhaps you will notice that this is not always possible.
And that’s the problem.
We cannot control thunderstorms, insects, wild animals, etc., and thus cannot adapt them to our training needs.

In such cases, we must expect regression and adapt our management as best we can.
Also, in cases of impossible management, we absolutely must work with a behavioral veterinarian, because these dogs may need medication.

And it may even happen that the living conditions are so badly suited to the dog that a complete life change or rehoming the dog is necessary.
This is unfortunately the sad reality.

For example, if a dog is panic-stricken by gunshots and lives next to a shooting range, recovery is almost impossible. If no relocation is possible, a rehoming becomes necessary.

But most of the time we can change a lot if we are a bit open-minded and want to think outside the box.
A view from the outside is worth its weight in gold in any case.
So don’t be afraid to work with a professional or look at the different options.

Do you want to do just that?

Then let’s see how I can help: https://calendly.com/anita-dogtrainer/30min

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