Dogs and fear: The 3-part series

DSCF0021_2The following is a compilation of a series of blog posts on fearful dogs from Mutt About Town.

Fear: When nothing else matters

I have a keen interest in fear and anxiety. Working in the mental health field prior to becoming a dog trainer, I saw and experienced firsthand how paralyzing the symptoms of these conditions can be. Most recently, I have adopted a senior dog from Muttville Senior Dog Rescue who suffers from separation anxiety, so I see how his intense fear of being left alone renders him unable to cope with even the shortest of absences.

When dealing with a dog that is afraid, it’s easy to feel lost as to how to help. After all, we can’t give psychotherapy to our dogs, and the behaviors dogs exhibit when they are afraid can make them behave differently than we are accustomed to seeing. Although medication can assist fear-based behaviors, it is unlikely to fix the problem if not accompanied by behavioral intervention.

A favorite quote of mine regarding fear and dog training is from animal behaviorist Jean Donaldson. In her curriculum for her dog training students, she emphasizes, “When a dog is afraid, nothing else matters.” A powerful and radical statement, to be sure. Often, dog training becomes so focused on obedience and statements that start with “He should do this” or “He should know better,” that a dog’s emotional state gets overlooked.

So what’s the “nothing else” Jean is talking about? Often, dogs who are experiencing fear don’t want food. They could care less about their owner telling them to sit, go down or stay. They may start to display aggressive behaviors that aren’t present at other times. They are unable to cope and paralyzed by one thing: fear.

As James O’Heare, in his tome “Aggressive Behavior in Dogs,” gives an excellent description of this paralysis, writing, “Inhibition, impulse control, and previously learned coping mechanisms may become inaccessible by the dog, setting the stage for fight-or-flight operants such as escape or avoidance behaviors.”

When discussing fear, I like to use a personal comparison to one of my intense fears: flying. When I’m in an airplane experiencing turbulence, do I care about whether I want a beverage from the flight attendant, the number of my connecting gate, or whether someone in the neighboring seat needs me to move so he can use the restroom? Of course not. I could care less, because I’m scared. Flat-out, no-holds-barred scared. Nothing else matters.

Fear can be incredibly frustrating for dog owners and trainers alike. Understanding the concept of “nothing else matters” is also why it is critically important to recognize when a dog is upset, because it affects the approach trainers need to take.

When a dog is afraid, we need to tap into something called counterconditioning (technical speak for changing a dog’s emotional response to a fear-causing stimulus.) O’Heare explains this beautifully, writing, “…if a person has come to fear snakes, but loves strawberry smoothies, counterconditioning might involve presenting the snake, followed immediately by a sip of smoothie, and repeating this process until the presentation of the snake elicits a pleasant reaction instead of a fearful reaction.”

Another technique, systematic desensitization, is often coupled with counterconditioning as a treatment plan for fear-based behavior problems. Originally used for humans with phobias, it involves introducing a dog to the fear-invoking stimulus in gradual increments that he can handle, never putting him over his fear “threshold” in the process.

This can all sound complicated and overwhelming, especially when dealing with the immediate behavior problems associated with fear and anxiety. Rest assured that there are things you can do, right away, that will put your dog on the path to recovery.

If you suspect your dog has a fear-related issue, I recommend hiring a professional positive reinforcement trainer to work with you on using these techniques. In the meantime, the following are ways you can help your dog and prepare for your first training consult.

First, try to identify whether your dog is, in fact, upset. Behaviors that indicate a dog is in distress include: Excessive panting, dilated pupils, yawning, higher than normal frequency of bladder functions, vomiting, shaking, self-mutilation or excessive grooming, compulsive behaviors (like tail chasing or barking), stiffness, and hyperactivity. Note that these behaviors may not occur all at once, and if they do occur, may be fleeting in duration. Other behaviors not listed may also occur.

Setting up a videocamera and reviewing your dog’s behaviors after the fact can be helpful, as well as documenting any behavior patterns you see over time. Also helpful is trying to identify what happens immediately before the fear-based behaviors begin. In training, we call this an antecedent, and it can be critical in determining the source of your dog’s fears.

If your dog is afraid, the second step is compassion. I cannot emphasize this enough. Dogs that are afraid, anxious and in distress need our love and patience. They are experiencing an incredibly strong emotion that has the power to overshadow previous training, common behavior patterns and coping abilities. They need you and your love more than ever.

Finally, get professional support. While there are techniques you can do to help your dog in the interim, consulting a trainer will help you fine-tune your treatment plan for your dog’s specific needs. Living with a fearful dog can also take a toll physically and emotionally, and being able to have a support system in place will increase you and your dog’s chances of success.

Antecedents: Cracking the behavior puzzle

In my last post, I introduced the topic of fear in dogs, explaining how a dog’s emotions can override her ability to cope or adhere to previously learned training. Continuing my series on fear in dogs, this post will focus on the events that immediately precede the fear reaction in dogs, known as antecedents. My next post will focus on the events that immediately follow the fear reaction in dogs, known as consequences. 

Think of the last time your dog misbehaved. I mean really misbehaved. The time Fido embarrassed you when chatting with the new neighbors by incessantly barking. The time your docile girl turned into a big ball of bared teeth and raised hackles. Or maybe, the time you came home to what looked like the remnants of a natural disaster in your living room. We’ve all been there, and we’re all familiar with that feeling you get when you have no idea why your dog is behaving a certain way.

What are you focusing on when recalling this incident? Most likely, you’re remembering your dog’s behavior: the damage done in the living room, the barking, the bared teeth. As the most visceral stage in the chain of events that comprise a dog’s behavior, it makes sense that this would remain foremost in the mind. However, when it comes to behavior change, the behavior is just one of many factors that dog owners and trainers must consider.

This is even more critical when dealing with that most powerful of dog emotions: fear.  In fact, when it comes to dealing with “problem” behaviors in dogs, in particular fearful ones, I feel that too much emphasis is placed on a dog’s behavior without considering a critical factor in behavior assessment: antecedents.

Technically speaking, an antecedent is something that occurs before the behavior and also plays a role in triggering that specific behavior. For example: You lose your temper at work (the behavior). Right before you lose your temper, you pulled a muscle in your back. Because your pulled muscle occurred just before you lost your temper, the pulled muscle is an antecedent.

Renowned dog trainer Wendy van Kerkhove sparked my interest in antecedents when she led a webinar on the topic for the Academy for Dog Trainers, illustrating how antecedents can crack the code for many behavior conundrums.

In her chapter titled “Antecedent Events – Looking Past the Cue,” in The Dog Trainer’s Resource 2: The APDT Chronicle of the Dog Collection, van Kerkhove writes, “Behavior can be as functionally related to antecedents as it can be to consequences. This fact can help explain why some behaviors seem to be impervious to changes in consequences. If the behavior is a function of an antecedent, then it is that which will need to be changed in order to bring about a change in behavior” (48).

Applying this to the example of losing your temper, attending anger management likely wouldn’t be an efficient solution to ensuring you keep your cool at work. Nor would disciplinary action from your boss. A more effective and simpler solution would be to reduce the pain of the pulled muscle, or avoiding pulling a muscle altogether.

The topic of antecedents is a vast one, so for the sake of brevity, I will focus on its basic applications to fear in dogs. Often, dogs are misdiagnosed as “aggressive” or “dominant,” when in actuality they are scared (hence the term fear-based aggression). When a scared dog reacts, it can certainly look aggressive to us; his teeth are bared, he might bark and pull at his leash, his hackles might raise. But these signals don’t automatically mean you own a dangerous dog. What’s more, if we don’t focus on the antecedents, we won’t be able to solve the behavior problem (or, more importantly, assuage the dog’s fear).

So, we know what antecedents are and why they are important. But how can we use them in a real-life scenario? Let’s look at a case example. Maggie, a recently adopted adult dog, has been doing the following behaviors in the home during the mornings, when her owners are still home: urinating in the house, destruction of household furniture, whimpering, pacing, and panting. She does not show these behaviors in the evening when her owners are home.

If we were only to look at the behavior, we would likely go down the wrong path toward solving the problem. Housetraining, a visit to the vet regarding a potential anxiety disorder, and punishment for chewing on furniture are all interventions that fail to get to the root of the problem.

But what if we looked at what happened before Maggie commenced these behaviors? We might find that Maggie’s owners are getting ready to go to work, performing the same morning ritual each day, and then leave for six hours. This information paints an entirely different picture of what’s going on with Maggie. We are no longer dealing with a dog that needs basic obedience training or housetraining. On the contrary, we’re dealing with a dog that has separation anxiety. Our previous interventions of housetraining and behavior modification for chewing furniture wouldn’t get us very far.

Antecedents and behavior analysis can be more complex than the example above, but the fundamentals remain the same: antecedent leads to behavior.

You can apply this procedure to a myriad of behaviors in your own dog. Once you know the antecedent, you and a dog trainer can treat the behavior and work on your dog’s fear by avoiding the antecedent altogether, working with your dog so that he is no longer afraid of the antecedent, and so forth. Not only will you gain more insight into your dog’s behavior, but you’ll more accurately recognize and treat your dog’s fears.

Consequences and fear: Does the punishment fit the crime?

Last week, I discussed the role antecedents play in dog training, specifically when it comes to working with fearful dogs. The week before, I discussed the foundations of fear in dogs, and what happens to a dog when fear takes hold. Today, I’ll bring the topic full-circle by discussing what happens immediately after a behavior or event:  the consequence.

Technically speaking, the ABCs in dog training (antecedents-behaviors-consequences) are called the “three-term contigency.” In dog training terms, a consequence is an event that happens immediately after a specific behavior. We give our dogs consequences all the time, sometimes unintentionally. Common punishment consequences include time-outs, and withholding of treats or playtime until the dog performs a specific behavior. Common reward consequences include treats for sits, down-stays and tricks.

As discussed the first article in this series, dealing with emotions in dogs requires a different methodology than what we typically use in obedience training. When a dog experiences a powerful emotion like fear, everything else goes by the wayside. Nothing else matters. This doesn’t mean that consequences aren’t relevant. On the contrary, consequences are intricately linked to whether a dog’s fear strengthens over time.

Dogs are excellent at telling time. Animal behaviorist Pamela J. Reid explains this topic brilliantly in her book Excel-erated Learning writing, “The delay between the response and the punisher greatly influences the degree of learning …The ‘wait until your father gets home’ approach to punishment is not effective.” In this example, Reid is referring to the delivery of punishers in obedience training. However, the same concept can be applied to treating fear in dogs. Think about how you felt as a child when you were afraid. Would someone saying, “Wait till your father comes home, and we’ll give you a hug” work? Probably not.

Similarly, comforting a dog minutes, even seconds after the onset of the fear stimulus (science-speak for the scary thing) is less effective. Why? Because the dog will not necessarily connect the consequence with the scary thing.  With poor timing, the dog will experience a scary thing and then experience a treat as separate events. What we want the dog to think is: A scary thing occurred but immediately led to a good thing, and over time, each time that I encounter that scary thing a good thing happens. If done correctly, the scary thing starts to feel less ominous for the dog.

One critical element to keep in mind when dealing with fear is identifying its presence. In other words, we have to ask ourselves, “Does the punishment fit the crime?” Often, a scared dog appears to be “misbehaving.” (A trainer can help you determine whether your dog’s body language is communicating fear. For those who are really interested in dog communication, I suggest James O’Heare’s book Aggressive Behavior in Dogs. It gets a bit technical, but has a great section on what dogs are communicating with their various behaviors.)

If we think a dog is misbehaving and exercise a punishment, chances are the fear is going to continue and potentially increase, because the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. In the case of fear, a better question to ask ourselves is: “Does the consequence fit the emotion?”

To illustrate, take the example of a leash-reactive dog. Each time the dog encounters another dog on leash, he snarls, growls, lunges and barks. Here are two different scenarios that could occur:

Case 1: Owner sees dog displaying unwanted behavior, scolds dog with leash correction and shouting “No! Bad dog!” and keeps walking. Similar punishment occurs whenever dog displays leash reactivity.

Case 2: Owner realizes dog is afraid, brings tasty treats on walk, and each time dog notices another dog on leash, immediately marks behavior with a verbal cue or click from a clicker and supplies treat. In situations where dog is over threshold, owner happy talks/gives dog treats and walks to quieter side of street.

In case 1, the consequence doesn’t fit the emotion. Chances are, the dog’s leash reactivity will worsen. The owner is assuming that the lunging/barking/snarling behavior is the “crime,” and is implementing a form of punishment to eliminate the behavior.  From the dog’s perspective, the leash corrections and yelling actually reinforce the fear of meeting other dogs on leash. Each time the dog meets another fellow canine, he has to deal with the already-present fear plus a yelling owner. It couldn’t be clearer to the dog that meeting other dogs while on leash is not good!

In case 2, the owner realizes that the dog’s lunging/barking/snarling behavior isn’t a crime at all, but an emotion. The dog is reacting to his fear of seeing other dogs while on leash. By using good timing, the owner is slowly teaching the dog that encountering other dogs on leash leads to praise and treats. The clear link between the antecedent (encountering dogs on leash) and the consequence (praise and treats) will positively affect the dog’s behavior (snarling/barking/lunging). In situations where timing can’t be used with precision, the owner does a good job of “getting out of dodge” with the happy talk and treats so that the dog doesn’t remain in a scary situation.

Often, treating fear can appear counterintuitive. It can look like you’re rewarding an unwanted behavior. You may get some stares from your neighbors. This is ok. Just remember that you’re dealing with an emotion. For your dog, nothing else matters when he’s scared.

Treating fear in dogs is by no means easy, which is why even the most experienced trainers ask for support from their colleagues on fear-based cases. If you suspect your dog’s behavior at fear-based, don’t worry if you feel muddled and at a loss as to how to help. Get support in the form of a trainer, and start jotting down the antecedents, behaviors and consequences you see. By doing this, you’re already putting your dog on the path to success and giving yourself some peace of mind.

–  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  To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog