The Fearful Dog

By Ed. Bailey
Permission to reprint.
First printed Gundog Magazine
Xmas 1997

In spring I watched a dog through an entire day of testing. He pointed birds in the field, held steady when they were shot, retrieved nicely. His search pattern indicated he had a lot of hunting experience, working the likely cover along the edges of the fields, hunting the short, open cover quickly when his handler waved him into it. At the water he was used as the dummies picker-upper when the young dogs left them floating. He was cooperative, obedient, in good contact with his handler – a dog anyone would want to hunt over. Then came his turn at the water to do a search after a duck and the wheels fell off his wagon.

He tracked the released duck on land, into water and through emergent reeds and sedges, got to open water and swam a yard or two and returned to the handler. After doing a good job for 30 yards or so, he quit. The duck was shot on the open water and the dog sent to make the retrieve. He went to swimming depth water, 30 yards out and again returned to the handler. The duck drifted on the wind to the reeds on the downward side of the pond so the dog was taken around to get the scent of the duck.
When told to fetch he went a few yards into the wading depth water and returned to the handler. The gunner was told to shoot again at the duck to encourage the dog. By now the test result was obvious and this was a training session to help the dog and handler. The dog was standing in belly-deep water a short way from the handler when the shot was fired and he quickly came to heel, head down, tail down and with no desire to move toward the duck, the water or anywhere except closer to the handler. This was the classic picture of a fearful dog. But, fearful of what?

He acted fearful of water but he had been swimming to pick up dummies several times with no indication of fear of water. Fearful of a loud noise – a gunshot? He wasn’t earlier in the field and he had a bunch of birds shot over him last fall with no bad effects. But fearful he was, fearful of almost anything, but only when some pressure was applied. The owner verified that training had been difficult; the dog could take no pressure, needing to be carefully pulled through all obedience work, all retrieving lessons.

A raised voice or a jerk on the leash a bit too harshly and it was like major punishment, a cave-in. The dog’s fear was global, fear of all kinds of things; the fear lying there just under the surface, usually under control except when pressure reached the fear threshold level. Dogs of this sort are usually relegated to the category of “soft temperament” and left at that. But let’s call it what it is, a fearful dog.

Every dog or any animal with a reasonably developed central nervous system has fear. Fear is one of the basic drives, along with hunger, thirst, sleep, sex and sociality. Out-of-control fear is as much of a problem as any other drive out of control. But fear in the normal amount is essential as is hunger and thirst in the normal amount. Fear is what keeps us from having a pick-up game of ball on the freeway during rush hour, or keeps us from walking on thin ice both literally and figuratively. Fear helps us avoid certain disaster, keeps us alive longer. It does the same for dogs.

However, we and dogs both are not born with fear. Even those things all animals have an apparently innate fear of, like snakes (the nasty snake with the apple notwithstanding) take some time to develop, about two years in humans, several months in dogs. In the dog, fear begins between six and eight weeks of age. As an average figure, fear becomes noticeable in a pup and rapidly escalates in the seventh week, plus or minus one week. By three weeks after the onset of fear responses, fear plateaus out at a level normal for pups and for the specific genetic complement they have. In humans fear begins at about two years and isn’t fully developed until about 20 years later. Ever see a teenage boy who didn’t think he was indestructible?

So fear develops sometimes early in the life of a dog, but does not develop at the same rate in all dogs and obviously occurs at different levels in each individual. There are three factors which alone or in combination act to determine the level of fear any given dog shows.

The first of these is genetic. The dog inherits a predisposition for fear. If the genetic potential is for a high level of fear, or put another way, if the dog has a low threshold for fear-inducing stimuli, it will overreact to a fearful stimulus, or what is more often the case, to a whole gamut of stimuli. What would cause a mild startle response in a dog with a normal fear level will drive the over-reactor ballistic.

A second factor that causes uncontrolled fear is early environment, usually from improper or even total lack of primary and secondary socialization during the critical sensitive period from three to 12 weeks of age. Under the influence of this fear-inducing factor, the dog might be as solid genetically as that famous rock, but it missed exposure to people, various sounds, short periods of separation from Mom and the siblings when the socialization window was open. Therefore the dog has never formed the association between people, sounds and objects, and low anxiety prior to the development of fear, the only time the association can be formed. The dog will forever fear these things that will normally occur every day of its life.

The third factor is learned fear. It comes about by the chance association formed between some arbitrary neutral stimulus – say the ring of the telephone – and a negative reinforcement, something painful – like stepping on a thumbtack. If the ring happens coincidently with or milliseconds before the pain of the tack in the foot, the dog associates the ring with the pain and will show a fear reaction to the phone ringing. Learned fear is always specific for the stimulus associated with the negative reinforcement or to very similar stimuli in the same class. So any ring similar to the phone will cause a fear response in the dog. If the fear is only to the ring of a phone and very similar ring sounds, we can live with it, but if it is something that seriously interferes with the dog’s hunting performance like the fear of a loud noise [translation, a gunshot], it must be fixed, and it can be.

Dogs can express fear in a variety of ways. Because they have several options, a dog might do it one way at one time and another way at a different time, depending on the dog’s mental state at the time, the intensity of the fear inducing stimulus, the stimulus type, what has gone on just prior to the “last straw,” the cumulative effect of several apparently innocuous stimuli, and other more or less obvious contributory factors.

Most commonly the dog adopts a submissive posture, head down, ears back, tail tucked tightly between its legs. Or the dog might lie down and roll over on its side, lifting the top hind leg.

The dog could show a high level of excitability, panting, salivating, dribbling urine, or it may whine or bark while showing a low level submissive posture. The fearful dog might take flight if he is able to by running away from the fear-inducing stimulus. If confined in some way, the dog might pace, circle or whirl in a “make believe” running away. The most dangerous expression of fear is aggression in which the dog might growl, raise its hackles, bare teeth and could even nip or in the extreme, launch an all-out attack with vicious biting, especially if escape is not an option. Any one or any combination of these signals indicates fear levels from slightly above to a whole lot above normal.

The cure for fearfulness will depend first on recognizing the underlying cause – genetic, early environment, associative learning or some combination of these.

Considering these causes one at a time, the first, genetically determined fear or the inherited predisposition for fear, is the most resistant to change and is therefore nearly impossible to completely cure. The best we can hope for is to mask the fear of some things so the dog is at least a satisfactory citizen. Because in inherited fearfulness the fear is usually global – that is, the dog fears everything – we can never hope to mask all of it. Some will always be there.

The most insidious aspect of genetically determined fear is that it might not appear full-blown until the dog is four or five years old. The dog might act close to normal, take training perfectly well (though usually not; in most cases the owner will notice a “soft temperament”), perform well in tests and in the field until suddenly the dog switches from apparently normal to fearful spook. Presumably something, and it would need to be the exactly correct trigger for a particular dog’s fear, one day happens. From then on the dog is obviously fearful of just about everything. The big problem is if the dog has already been bred and a whole new generation of fearful dogs is on the way or maybe already reproducing even another generation. Obviously it would take a lot of detective work and good records for several generations to get on the top of this scenario.

Because the underlying cause is genetic, the fear will always be there. But it can be made to take a back seat. The first steps on the road back to a better than just so-so hunting dog is careful, gentle, obedience training starting right back with the basics.
The training or in most cases retraining, should begin with walking at heel on leash, come, sit and whoa, working up to where the dog will sit or lie down and stay for up to 10 minutes with the owner out of sight. The dog must gain self-confidence and self reliance.

All training [learning] must be done in a gentle way without pressure, and with plenty of positive reinforcement including food treats. The dog must learn to want to do everything. He must learn that to please his handler is priority stuff. When he feels all the basic obedience things are the next best thing to a quarter-pounder for lunch, the more rigorous training or retraining for retrieving on land and in the water and the rest of the field work can begin.

Always do the training gently, with only positive reinforcement. Never punish. If the dog makes a mistake, ignore it rather than punish for it. Take every precaution to never allow anything that would cause a fear response to occur when training or retraining a dog with genetically induced fear. If something does happen, don’t make a federal case of it; ignore it and back off for a bit before trying again. Nothing fearful may be associated with the relearning process. The object is to replace the dog’s fear of doing things with an enjoyment in doing them. Sure, it’s a con job on the dog, but whoever said you shouldn’t let the dog think the things you want were all his idea?

For any specific thing the dog fears, cure it with desensitising and counter-conditioning. Desensitising to a specific fear stimulus, such as fear of a loud noise, is to present the fearful stimulus at a very mild level, at an intensity below the dog’s fear threshold, then gradually increase the intensity (loudness in the case of noise fear). The purpose is to approach the fear threshold gradually enough that you can go right through it without the dog noticing, getting him used to the stimulus so he is no longer sensitive to it.

Counter-conditioning is accomplished by rewarding the dog for not responding fearfully to the low intensity stimulus and to every increment of increase in intensity. The dog learns a new response (non-fear) to replace the old one (fear). Or, if the dog is showing fear aggression, replacing fear with non-fear and aggression with friendliness. These combined techniques are often referred to as behaviour modification.

Fear induced by improper early environment should have been avoided and indeed could have been avoided in every case by proper primary and secondary socialization during the critical age period. Puppy mills and super lazy, extraordinarily stupid, unenlightened breeders are the primary producers of dogs that are fearful because of improper socialization. When we consider that only 30 seconds of people attention per puppy per day from weeks three through 12 is enough to produce pups that have no fear of people (given the pups are genetically normal), there is no valid excuse for early environment caused fear problems. Add to the people exposure proper management of a litter, judicious exposure to all sorts of experiences at low intensity – all before the onset of fear – and normal pups will be produced as surely and certainly as anything can be.

But early environment is not always what it should be, so fearful dogs do occur, far too many, in fact. Because a litter of pups did not have the correct exposure to people and things during the window of socialization opportunity, it has never formed the association between people and things and low anxiety (anxiety is always low prior to the development of fear). Relearning is difficult at best and environmentally-induced fear, like genetic fear, can never be totally cured, but as in a genetic predisposition to fear, it can be masked.

For example, let’s say a pup that was reared by its mom in a barn on a farm is four months old when taken to its new home. The pups had lots of exposure to noise of buckets clanking, machinery running, cattle and other animals making all sorts of farm-type noise, but little or no exposure to people. The dog will be fearful of the owner at first but with time and effort the dog will overcome fear of the owner through a process of habituation, but will be just as fearful of each new person it meets.

Through repeated exposure with nothing bad happening, the pup will habituate to each new person individually, gradually getting over much of the fear of people in general, but never all of it. Having been exposed to all the noise, there will be no fear to banging as in shooting or thunderstorms or any fear of loud noise. The fear will be specific to only those things that it was exposed to. The fear will not be global as it is in genetically caused fear. Therefore it is a bit easier to work on in that there are fewer things to worry about. The hard part is identifying the fearful stimuli and correctly diagnosing the root cause.

Fear can also be learned through association of a negative reinforcement such as pain, trauma, punishment, or anything else that hurts with a normal neutral stimulus such as an auditory cue (example, phone ringing), a visual cue (example, flash of light), olfactory cue (example, smell of cooking meat), or tactile cue (example, touching dog’s foot). To the dog the neutral stimulus is the cause of the hurt, so he develops a fear response to the stimulus.

Fear responses can also be learned because the dog is rewarded for responding fearfully to some stimulus. If a dog shows a startle response to some object, sound, or any other aspect of the environment and the well-meaning owner rewards the dog’s sow of anxiety by soothing, petting, comforting or allowing the dog to avoid something he doesn’t want to do, the dog is being rewarded for being fearful. On the next presentation of the same stimulus situation, the dog will show more anxiety than the first time and so will again be comforted by the owner. The anxiety will escalate each time the dog gets the particular stimulus situation and to make things worse, he will generalize to similar stimulus situations.

Dogs might not have invented the idea that if a little bit is good, more will be a whole lot better, but they have done a bunch of improving on it. If a little anxiety gets all that belly rubbing and ear scratching, more anxiety gets even more attention and so full-blown fear gets the whole nine yards, with the dog eventually crawling right up there in bed with the old boy.

Another example of how fear can be learned occurs when anxiety in a fearful dog is reduced as the dog runs away from a fear evoking stimulus. The anxiety reduction is positive reinforcement for running away, thereby increasing the probability of running away when that fear stimulus next occurs. Or a dog fearful of people might growl, raise his hackles and show his teeth at a strange person. Any sensible person or anyone who doesn’t know a lot about that particular dog will back off. The dog fearful of people quickly learns that growling and acting aggressive makes people back away, giving the dog more personal space. That’s the positive reinforcement he needs. Can fear biting be far away?

Learned fear, then, can be acquired from several different directions, negative reinforcement coinciding with a neutral stimulus, or positive reinforcement in the form of comfort from the owner, or anxiety reduction by running away, hiding, seeking a human for comfort, or even learned aggression to get more space. The cure is easier and more effective for learned fear than for either genetic or early environment-induced fear. Learned fear is always a specific stimulus-response situation, never global. It doesn’t have the genetic hard wiring, or the indelible stamp on an environmentally challenged central nervous system. Because it is a one-cause, one-effect situation, desensitising and counter-conditioning work well.

The dog I talked about at the outset showed its fear by adopting a submissive posture and came to the handler for comforting –for anxiety reduction. But what is the underlying cause of the fear in this dog? Quite obviously the cause is genetic. Everything in the temperament suggests a mild fear that surfaces any time there is pressure, real or imaginary, put on the dog. I saw the handler comfort the dog with petting and soft talk so there was also a learned aspect on top of the genetic potential for the fear response. And the fear was global in that it was shy of the water, shy of the sot and even shy of the duck.

This dog learned he can get out of doing things by turning on the submission and returning to the boss for comfort. This dog would be judged as having a soft temperament. However, knowing the dog has a mild genetic predisposition for fear with a bit of learned fear superimposed suggests an approach for treatment and cure. Handled correctly the dog could become a perfectly adequate hunter. Handled incorrectly the dog could be anything from useless to a basket case.

Because the underlying cause is genetic, the fear will always be there and he will always be a “soft” dog, but the genetically-induced fear can be made to take a back seat. The learned fear can be unlearned and fearful responses replaced by positive behaviors. The first step on the road back to a much better than just so-so hunting dog is the careful, gentle obedience training outlined for masking genetically-induced fear. The dog must regain self-reliance and self confidence before the rest of the retraining can continue.

For all the things the dog apparently feared during the test, we would need to be especially careful, but they could be quickly cured by desensitising and counter-conditioning techniques. However, what will work to cure this dog is individual and situation specific. Each cure must be tailored to the fear problem at hand and to the history of the particular dog involved. If you think you have a fear problem talk it over with an animal behaviourist and even get a second and third opinion on how to handle your particular dog’s problem. And, with a little bit of luck, you might not have as big a problem as you think you have.

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Updated 2nd Januray 2005