Fear in dogs

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Quite a few years ago, I was sitting in a sizeable Veterinary clinic with one of my dogs, and a couple came in with a young Cattle dog. I could see them struggling with him from the moment they got him out of the car. To get him through the door, they had to beg and drag him to come inside. The poor dog was terrified in the presence of other dogs inside the waiting area. Once they eventually got the dog inside, they sat down on an extended bench seat. The husband picked up the dog, sat him on his lap and cuddled and praised him. The dog was full of fear, but this was also being displayed as aggression. Even though he was shaking uncontrollably, he was also growling, barking, baring his teeth and I could see the white of his eyes. Two thoughts were going through my head. One was I really felt for this dog, and two, the owners were unintentionally keeping this dog a prisoner in his current state of mind. This was a classic case of avoidance-motivated aggression.

In 1983 Daniel F Tortora published the results of a study into avoidance-motivated aggression. He interprets the development of aggression in terms of avoidance learning, arguing that what many dog behaviour consultants refer to as dominance aggression is better understood as avoidance-motivated aggression (AMA). Social aggressors may not necessarily be dominant; instead, they may merely be incompetent and unable to respond appropriately under social pressure. Tortora argues that aggressive dogs appear to lack a repertoire of confident skills with which to cope and manage everyday challenges and stressors: (Lindsay 2013)1

Soon it was my turn to see the Vet who I knew quite well, and I immediately told him about what I had witnessed between the Cattle dog and his owners. I told him of my frustration, and he nodded and agreed with me. He went on to say people will spend a fortune on their dog’s medical needs yet will not invest a cent into the dog’s psychological or emotional needs. This Vet had a stack of my business cards and would give them out daily to those he thought would benefit from training, but I only received around one call a month from his efforts.

I remember reading a survey performed by an Australian University that researched how many dogs attended any dog obedience school or professional dog trainer. Out of the 45,000 people surveyed, less than 1% of dogs received formal training. Even though this survey was from over ten years ago, I don’t believe these statistics have changed much over time.

Providing examples of untrained dogs is all too easy. All I need to do is go out into the general public, and I will see it pretty much every day. The unfortunate thing is that out of all the dogs that come to me with issues; I rarely get to treat this behavioural problem. The dogs that come to me for training are usually the confident, outgoing and out of control dogs that are deemed to be more problematic. Why do people refuse to do anything about it?

I have asked many people this question, and the most common answer is they feel it’s unfair or cruel to put their dog in a stressful situation. The other prevalent answer is they’ve obtained their dog from a rescue service or a shelter, and they don’t want to place the dog under any further stress. Their reasoning is the dog has experienced enough hardships already, and they want any future experiences to be positive.

People don’t recognise fear as a behavioural problem. They don’t understand what causes it so they don’t understand the behaviour can be modified. They think comforting the dog in these stressful situations will help, when in fact, it does the exact opposite.

The harsh reality is this reasoning and misunderstanding only keeps the dog in a constant place of stress. The dog has never had the chance to control itself, nor has it been taught to see the world for what it is.

So why is the dog behaving in such a way?

Fear which leads to avoidance-motivated aggression is a form of maladaptive behaviour. Maladaptive behaviour in turn stops a dog from adapting to new or difficult circumstances. It is a direct result of no education on the dog’s behalf and in most cases a lack of early socialisation. When the dog learns to react rather than think his way through a process or experience, the dog has not learnt to read and understand the situation. Without intervention, no dog will ever be able to navigate through these situations on their own without stress. As I witnessed with the Cattle dog at the vet, the owner was rewarding him for undesirable behaviour. The owner thought he was doing the right thing by comforting the dog. However, it was those exact actions that allowed the owner to keep the perceived threat away from the dog and the dog was relying on the owner for security, rather than being able to deal with the situation himself. Through constant reinforcement, the dog learnt that this sort of behaviour was correct. This in turn, becomes a self-reinforcing behaviour and keeps the dog in a vicious circle of relying on external dependencies to get him through the situation, rather than being able to deal with it confidently himself.

What can be done about this issue?

Regardless of any dog’s behaviour problem, I always start with basic obedience training in an environment that has minimal distractions so that stress is kept at a bare minimum. Most dogs listen well in a quiet environment and once basic commands are taught and learnt, I can then start to introduce more distractions. Working with the owner and dog, this basic obedience training allows the creation of a passage of communication that is functional. Dogs that have never really had any formal training have zero impulse control. Here is where we can teach the dog to control himself as this gives the dog a chance to slow down and think. Training also allows me to teach the dog all the necessary cues, signals, commands paired with the desired behaviours. Because of the simplicity of teaching basic obedience, it creates predictability, and therefore it will generate confidence in the handler. There are so many benefits to training as the dog learns real impulse control.

Once the dog has basic obedience training and impulse control, I start working on desensitisation using counter conditioning techniques and managing the dog’s exposure to stressors. It’s important to be able to read a dog and work within their limits. Dogs are impressively adaptive and can cope with new environments and situations if we set things up correctly, and don’t reward bad behaviour. As with any learning, it just needs to be structured, incremental and consistent.


1. – Lindsay, S., 2013. Handbook Of Applied Dog Behavior And Training, Volume Two, Etiology And Assessment Of Behavior Problems. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.