Fear in dogs and human perceptions: What matters and what doesn’t

IMG_0251Since becoming a professional certified dog trainer, I’ve encountered and worked with many fearful dogs. One myth I’ve heard over and over is the idea that dogs shouldn’t be afraid of certain stimuli. Unfortunately, this cognitive roadblock interferes with both effective training protocols and empathy for the intense physical and emotional sensations dogs feel when afraid.

As humans, some canine fears make more sense to us than others. For example, loud noises, scary veterinary procedures, and household intruders typically fit into the “this makes some sense” category. But what about the fears we can’t quite understand? The perceived threats that we clearly see as innocuous? What about these actual fears from some of my past cases: Feathers, blowing sand, a large dog afraid of small dogs, open windows, the sound of leaves rustling on the sidewalk, crunchy treats, and birds flying past?

The symptoms of a dog whose fears fall into the more obscure category are just as intense and just as real as a dog whose fears appear more logical.

“Evolution seems to have gone with an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ rule when it comes to the fear system of the brain. The things that make rats and people afraid are very different, but the way the brain deals with danger appears to be similar. We can, as a result, learn quite a lot about how emotional situations are detected and responded to by the human brain through studies of other animals,” writes The LeDoux Lab at the Center for Neural Science at NYU.¹

The fear-invoking stimulus triggers chemical processes in the amygdala, which then send messages to the dog’s brain cells indicating perceived danger. Whether we find a dog’s fear relevant or obscure doesn’t matter. Nor does the approach to dealing with the fear (desensitization and counterconditioning) change. When a dog is afraid, nothing else matters.

The ways dogs develop fears differ. They can become fearful due to omission of socialization. They can experience a traumatic event and become conditioned to fear a particular stimuli or group of stimuli. They can also acquire fear genetically. But in an article discussing the role of the amygdala in fear and fear acquisition, prominent neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux indicates that fear, whether conditioned or unconditioned, triggers the same neural processes in an animal:

“They are innate, species-typical responses to threats and are expressed automatically in the presence of appropriate stimuli. Fear conditioning thus allows new or learned threats to automatically activate evolutionarily tuned ways of responding to danger. The ease of establishment, rapidity of learning, long duration of the memory, and stereotyped nature of the responses all speak to the value of the Pavlovian learning as an approach to the study of fear mechanisms…”²

We can’t choose what our dogs should or shouldn’t be afraid of, or decide which are valid and which are silly. We can use trust, love and science to help our dogs overcome these fears and feel safe in their environment.

For more information on fearful dogs, visit FearfulDogs.com.

–  Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and Muzzle Up! Online. To get in touch, email her at muttabouttownsf@gmail.com. She will be presenting about Muzzle Up at this year’s Pet Professional Guild Summit in Tampa, FL. Get in touch at muttabouttownsf@gmail.com.


¹ The LeDoux Lab. (2015) What the Lab Does and Why We Do It. http://www.cns.nyu.edu/labs/ledouxlab/overview.htm.

² LeDoux, J. (2003) The Emotional Brain, Fear, and the Amygdala. Cellular and Molecular Neurobiology, 23: 727-737.

One thought on “Fear in dogs and human perceptions: What matters and what doesn’t

  1. Pingback: Fearful dogs are not broken – Mutt About Town

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