We all know that kids can go through a stage where they are scared of ‘things that go bump in the night’ and other imagined horrors. It’s part of growing up and being human. So, when our dogs seem to be scared of ‘silly things,’ it’s easy to pass it off as “Oh, he’s just being daft, he’ll get over it”. And many times, the dog does just that. But not always…
‘Monsters’ Come in Many Forms
A few days ago, I asked on FB for people to tell me the weirdest thing their dog had ever been scared by. There were indeed some surprising things in the answers (their own loud fart?!?!) but I was amazed at how often certain things seemed to come up again and again. Here is a list of the top ‘types’ of scary things:
- Appliances that make loud or sudden noises (stick blender, printer, etc)
- Things that are new and ‘suddenly’ appear (new BBQ, pile of grit on a walk etc)
- Things that randomly move (flappy signs, carrier bags in hedges etc)
- Random beeping (bread machine, washing machine etc)
- Things that seemed to have eyes!
In most cases, if the ‘monster’ didn’t move or change, over a bit of time the dog in question would get used to (habituate to) it. Sometimes this only took a few minutes, sometimes it would take days – but eventually habituation did happen and life would continue as normal.
It is the random stuff; the flappy, noisy, out of the blue, things that can cause our dogs grief. The biggest problem is that for many dogs the fear ‘spreads’ to other stuff.
The Usual Progression
It often goes something like this:
The first time the scary thing happens, your dog goes from chilled out, doing their own thing, to a quivering mess in a split second in response to the scary event, noise, or whatever.
Depending on your dog, their response may continue to be only evident when the ‘thing’ happens, at least in the short term. However, over time you may notice that they start to look scared about ‘unrelated’ stuff. The truth is, those ‘new’ scary things may not be unrelated at all.
Let Me Explain
The first time your dog is scared by something they will only react to the actual ‘scary event’. After it’s happened a couple of times, they start to notice the events that PREDICT that the scary thing is going to happen. Some dogs do this incredibly quickly!
Once they’ve noticed those predictors, those now become scary as well (a type of learning called ‘Classical Conditioning’ or ‘Learning by Association). The fear ‘flows backwards’ from the initial scary trigger event to the events that precede it. The more times the scary event happens, the further back the fear ‘flows’ until a whole host of seemingly unrelated events are now also scary.
Let’s take an example of a noisy blender and what might happen over repeated exposures to it:
This is a clear case of Classical Conditioning. In this case, the apron comes to predict the scary noise and so becomes scary itself.
If your dog is naturally prone to being worried by things, they will gradually become more and more worried in a general sense. The world is no longer a safe place and the oddest of things will cause stress and anxiety.
‘Sideways’ Spread (Generalisation)
Fear can also spread ‘sideways’ to things that resemble the initial scary thing (technically known as generalisation). Again, with the video:
Some dogs generalise VERY easily, some hardly at all.
So now you know where your dog’s monsters come from, what to do about it?
No Quick Fixes
The most common techniques, used simultaneously, are called systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning – you are GRADUALLY conditioning/teaching a counter/alternative response to the one your dog currently displays. Over time you’d gradually progress through the chain of predictor events, keeping each step small enough that your dog is NOT scared again.
I don’t have room here to cover all aspects of systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning but in essence you find the trigger in the sequence your dog is LEAST scared of and then pair that with great stuff such as roast meat or BBQ chicken! In our earlier example, that would mean touching the apron (not putting it on yet!) and THEN giving the goodies. You wouldn’t go near the cupboard at all just yet.
Moving forward, once your dog was looking happily excited as you moved towards the apron, you could start putting it on – and then delivering the great cookies. Gradually you’d move through the sequence until eventually you’re giving huge amounts of great stuff each time the blender is switched on – the sight/sound of the blender now predicts fab things for dogs, not scary stuff. The key here is that the ‘trigger’ predicts the arrival of the goodies. The good stuff is not shown up front – it ALWAYS comes after the trigger you are working on.
Patience and Vigilance Win the Day
This can take MONTHS! It’s not for the faint hearted and for it to work you MUST ensure that your dog is never exposed to the full on scary trigger – until you’ve systematically worked up to that point in the sequence.
This isn’t as hard as it sounds as many of the things that freak our dogs out around the home are completely predictable. You’re unlikely to surprise yourself by suddenly having a blender going in the kitchen; you have to plan to do some cooking first! So, when a scary event is going to happen, just take your dog out the room for the duration and give them something else to occupy them. Leave a TV or radio on to muffle the scary noise if sudden sounds are the problem. You’d then work on the fear using counter conditioning.
Please don’t try this technique by yourself if your dog has major fear problems. I’ve really only skimmed over the surface; get a qualified in-person trainer to help you.
This post only gives a very simplified overview of the way fears can be acquired through classical conditioning and generalisation. You could study this process for months, if not years! However, I hope you now have a better understanding of why fear ‘spreads’ and some dogs become generally anxious. You dog is genuinely frightened, not being ‘silly’ or ‘attention seeking’ or ‘a wimp’.
Fears and phobias are best prevented while your puppy is very young but even the best upbringing can’t prevent all problems and life happens.
However, It’s worth noting that some fears and phobias are much easier to acquire than others. Noise phobias seem to be in a class of their own in this way. Many dogs are sound sensitive; it is believed that genetics may play a part in this and some breeds seem to be over represented in sound sensitivity studies.
If your dog seems to be developing a noise phobia, or generalised sound sensitivity, speak to your vet ASAP as it can be hard to treat with systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning alone. Also, noise phobias have a tendency to get worse pretty quickly and rarely resolve themselves. Swift intervention is always recommended for any fear based behaviour problem – it’s a very real welfare issue and should be taken seriously!
Prevention is Better Than Cure – ALWAYS
If you’re interested in learning how to prevent these problems check out some of my puppy blogs like this one. I talk about preventative exposure with puppies a lot – it’s a big thing of mine!
– Sarah and the Gang
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