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The Science of Fear: What that means for you and your dog

Cowering, looking away, lip licking, ears down, whale eye, growling, hackles raised, snarling, withdrawing, petrified, lunging, tail tucked, yawning, hiding, panting, hyper-vigilence, the list of bodily communications could be endless.  These are just some of the common behaviors we see when a dog is afraid.  These behaviors are not just behaviors, the deeper level of communication that is taking place is the dog feels this way.  All of the bodily communications we see are outward manifestations of where the dog's head is at. This is an important part of fear. It is felt in the mind and body.  It is both mental and physical, even physiological.  Increased heart rate, dilated pupils, and increased respiratory rates are all common medical measurements of fear, anxiety and stress.

BLOG Body-Language-of-Fear-in-Dogs-Poster

We always have to remember that fear has mental, physical and physiological components to it.  And whether we understand the why or how a dog has become so fearful; we have to at least ask ourselves, "How can we help?"

I like to use FEAR as a shorthand for:

F- Find the dog's baseline comfort level.

E- Earn trust.

A- Achieve small progressive goals.

R- Reinforce everything.

Finding a dog's baseline comfort level is about respecting that fear serves a function for the dog and setting up situations that promote less fear-conditioned responses and more neutral to positive feelings over time. For example, if a dog is scared to ride in a car picking up the dog and putting the dog in the car does not respect that the car causes the dog to have mental blocks for processing the car experience as good and it does not help the dog feel differently about the car.  Instead of jumping straight to the end goal and doing more psychological harm we want to find a distance that the dog can simply approach the car for sniffs.  When the dog is willing to move toward the car and explore the scent we have a dog that is showing a baseline comfort level for the car and in this space the dog is still reachable and teachable.  And if a dog is in a reachable/teachable mental state we can build from that foundational comfort level overtime to get to our end goal of having the dog eventually look forward to car rides and even decide to jump in on their own.

Earning your dog's trust can be situational with nervous dogs.  We want to take the time to make sure we are not forcing any behaviors.  If we skip the stage of helping the dog trust us in different contexts we will have a harder time coaching our dogs when things get tough for them.  Being a source of familiarity, confidence, reassurance and security can allow our energy to be healing when our dog is stressed and struggling.  You can earn your dog's trust by making sure your behavior is predictable and positive.

Achieving small progressive goals is one of the most important steps to take. People too often mistakenly push straight to the end goal without creating baby steps to get there along the way.  Baby steps are vital to a fearful dog's mental recovery.  If we breakdown the behavioral objective to small goals our dogs can slowly become successful at feeling differently towards what has caused them panic and uncomfortable feelings.

Reinforce everything.  The more we can find ways to pair negative associations with positive ones the better are dogs can cope with triggers.  Don't be shy about using food, treats, your voice, physical praise and a favorite toy to help your dog connect a scary perception with a better one.  Over time with repetition and consistency we see conditioning set in and what was once a scary thing can become predictive of wonderful things.

A dog's perception is it's reality.

The reality for a dog is that they are always taking in stimuli from the environment and historically fear has had an adaptive purpose.  Fear tells a living thing to move away from harm for self-preservation.   It even activates the fight or flight response.  "Fear, by definition is an emotion that induces an animal to avoid situations and activities that may be dangerous" (, 2014).  When a fear-response becomes pathological and impedes normal functioning then we are ethically obligated to help alleviate and reduce the animals stress.  Many people feel overwhelmed when trying to help their fearful dog.  I want people to feel empowered to help their dogs.  I want people to know it is possible to strategically and mindfully start a behavioral plan that progresses their fearful dog to enjoy life together just a little more.  In addition to FEAR, as outlined above, structure, routine and regularity to a dog's day can help a nervous dog know what to expect.  Adding predictability and controllability to an everyday routine can create more resilience.  We want resilent dogs!  The capacity to recover from difficulties can actually be shaped in the brain.  Grisha Stewart outlines in her book , Behavior Adjustment Training 2.0 (2016), respondent extinction- a response extinguished because it no longer preditcs anything biologically importatnt; can actually silence fear neurons, and that, "a dog's brain may process signals about fearful simuli in a different way due to an increase of synapses that inhibit the fearful response.  a change in brain structure makes sense, because, of course, change in behavior is only really possible with some sort of shift in the brain."

"Fear doesn't exist anywhere except in the mind." -Dale Carnegie

Overall, we love our fearful dogs and we want the best version of their self to develop.  I am telling you that it is possible to help your dog overcome situations, triggers and feelings that cause them to lash out.  Take your time, remember behavioral modification is a journey and process because we are not just changing behavior, rather we are always planting seeds to shift their mind to healthier perceptions, and from healthy perceptions come healthy behaviors.  Don't just take my word for it, it is science!

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