Stress & Fear-Based Reactivity in Dogs
Updated: Oct 6, 2020
You notice your dog’s tail shoot under their rear, their eyes widen, and they are obviously looking for an easy escape route. Suddenly, the playful dog that you normally know is not so playful anymore. They stop wanting to take treats and you can’t help but feel bad as you watch their legs tremble in fear. These are only a few signs of fear and stress in a dog's body language. More so, dogs will likely tell you they are getting stressed before this point and it’s up to the human to listen and understand.
For dogs, fear is a very common issue. Just like people, dogs feel uncomfortable around certain stimuli, like new people, new environments, or a certain sound. This is especially true with what they weren’t exposed to in their early life.
In fact, the critical socialization period in puppies is roughly from three to sixteen weeks of age. Some socialization periods even start closing at twelve weeks. So it’s up to the breeder and the new owner to get into socializing a puppy right away. This means holding the puppy in safe and various ways, handling the puppy’s paws, and brushing a hand down their back. As the puppy continues to move through the socialization phase, at 8-12 weeks of age, they go into the fear period. At this stage, it’s important to get the puppy used to certain sounds, people of all ages, genders, ethnicities, body types, and appearances. The same remains true with other animals that may be approached on a normal basis, like other dogs and cats.
Since the puppy is so young, it’s important to take a slow and steady pace with them. These early experiences must be positive. One of the main ways a dog learns is by association. Pairing new people with a delicious treat, for example, leads to new positive associations in the future. People equal good things.
Starting at 5 or 6 months of age, depending on the size of the dog, they go into the second fear impact stage. This fear period is followed by curiosity from the puppy, as they are initially trying to understand the world. It’s expected to see the puppy start chewing on furniture, and become interested in a variety of floorings, such as the kitchen floor or the outside grass. They may show signs of initial fear with new strangers or barking at other animals. This stage must be handled with patience and kindness. This is one of the more important times to start positive reinforcement training as it will lead to the dog’s self-confidence and proper curiosity. Training also equips the owner with the knowledge and skills of tackling behavior problems in a more effective manner. This stage ends at roughly 14 months of age.
Now that we addressed the early stages of dog development, where does that leave the rest of the dogs and their owners? You aren’t in the slumps just yet if your dog is just getting out of these early periods. Behavior is formed over time with habit. By no means am I saying old dogs can’t learn new tricks or habits, but the likelihood of your dog becoming happy-go-lucky to a fearful stimulus is almost non-existent. Instead, the dog can learn mechanisms to cope. This will include reverse conditioning, also described as counter-conditioning and desensitization.
Counter-conditioning means to change the pet's emotional response, feelings, or attitude towards a stimulus. For example, for a dog that lunges at every dog that walks by, pairing the sight or sound of a dog coming with the dog’s favorite treat would change the emotional response to the trigger. Understanding what the trigger is, whether it be the sight or sound, is key. The critical element of success with counter-conditioning is it can only be encountered during training times and no other times. Don’t leave any element up for surprise when working with counter-conditioning a fearful or reactive dog.
Desensitization relates to the gradual exposure to the situation or stimulus that would bring undesirable behavior but not overload the dog. A trained eye will watch for stress signals in a dog, such as hackles raising, whale eye (white in the eye) or hard eye, yawning, drooling, or licking, change in posture (forward or backward), sudden vocalization such as whining, barking, or growling, etc. When these signals are displayed, the dog can be saying “this is too much”. Proper desensitization takes place at the beginning stages of these signals. An overload of this specific trigger (or any trigger) would push the dog into its natural fight, flight, or freeze response. The goal is to find the threshold for a dog and gradually expose the dog to such stimuli where the dog is comfortable with.
These two techniques used simultaneously in a variety of exercises will set us up for pairing a differential reinforcement of an incompatible response. This is where the dog learns to engage in something else, such as walking on a leash with you or sitting on a mat instead of lunging at another dog or person or hiding behind your leg. It's up for the pet owner to reinforce all the good choices that the dog is making. If the dog can look at the trigger and look back at you, reinforce that and create distance away from the scary situation!
This will accomplish three things: having the dog know that they could do something else, pair the once scary situation with a way to cope by using a game or cue, and have the dog engage with you for overall guidance. Done correctly, this can induce your dog into a more positive emotional state.
Do note that as pet owners, we must listen to our dog's signals. Do not force your dog into areas they are not comfortable with. This can end up making the problem worse as it can easily overwhelm the dog. Slow, gradual experiences are key.
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