Dogs can exhibit fearful behavior in a variety of circumstances. Some common dog fears and phobias include thunderstorms, men or children, riding in cars, and more. There can be several contributing factors involved in the development of a fear or phobia in dogs.
Importance of Finding the Cause of a Dog's Fear
If your dog is suffering from a fear or phobia, it's important to attempt to figure out the cause. The effects of a dog's fear are stressful for both the dog and the owner, and discovering the source of the fear is often the first step in resolving or easing the problem. Overcoming the fear is beneficial because it will end the anxiety and suffering that dog and owner go through. Since dogs can become aggressive as the result of fear, managing a dog's fearful behavior can go a long way in keeping everyone safe.
Lack of Early Socialization
One of the most common causes of a fear or phobia in dogs is a lack of early socialization. Dogs go through a critical period of development when they are between the ages of 8 and 16 weeks. Dogs that aren't exposed to new things during this period may become fearful of new things later in life. This is one of the main reasons dogs become fearful of things such as riding in the car, meeting strangers, and going up and down stairs.
Phobias and fears that develop due to a lack of early socialization may be remedied by exposing a dog to the things he is afraid of using lots of positive reinforcement. By slowly getting your dog used to unfamiliar people, places, and objects, you may be able to eliminate the fear or phobia entirely, or at least ease the degree of the dog's fear.
Negative experiences are another reason dogs develop fears and phobias. Sassy, a black Labrador Retriever is a good example of a dog who developed a fear because of a bad experience. As a puppy, Sassy was left home alone while her owners were at work. Without the owners being aware of it, some workman came one day to make repairs to the roof of the apartment building. Sassy was alone and frightened as she heard continuous banging on the roof for the entire day. Her owners came home to find their usually exuberant pup cowering in a corner, trembling and drooling. After some investigating, they came to realize the cause of her fears, but for the rest of Sassy's life, she had a severe fear of loud noises. She often needed to be medicated during thunderstorms and on the 4th of July, and the backfiring of a car could send her skittering to hide in the bathroom.
Sassy's story is not uncommon. If a dog pairs a person, place, or object with a traumatic experience, it's possible that the dog will develop a fear or phobia to that thing. The degree of trauma needed for a dog to develop a phobia differs from dog to dog. Some dogs may be abused early in life, and still greet every stranger he meets with a wagging tail. Another dog may have his tail pulled by a child once or twice, and it is enough for him to develop a fear of young children.
Genetics also play a role in fearful behavior. Just as a dog can inherit coat color and size from his parents, so can he inherit personality traits. It makes sense that a shy and timid dog is more likely to produce shy and timid offspring. It can be difficult to determine whether a dog's fear stems from genetics, but one clue is that a dog whose fear stems from a genetic predisposition may appear fearful to many things rather than having just one specific phobia. There are also some breeds that are generally more skittish than others.
Fear that is due to genetic factors can be difficult to overcome. It can be beneficial, however, to work with a dog trainer or behaviorist who has experience working with fearful dogs. While they may not be able to put your dog's fears to rest entirely, it is possible to change the degree of the fear in order to make your dog happier and more comfortable in a variety of situations.
Edited by Jenna Stregowski, RVT