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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Ask the Dog Trainer About Fears

by Michael Baugh CDBC, CPDT-KSA
courtesy bennopictures via
Dealing with Dogs' Fears

Dear @AllThingsDog Daily,

Can someone give me a little advice on my buddy MEAT?? He's an almost 2-year-old 80 pound English Bulldog. For the most part he's an excellent dog, but he has some quirks that I just don't and can't understand. All of a sudden he's become spooked by just about every strange outside noise that he hears. A little bump or something that he doesn't know, and it's grumbling and fussing, all in the form of barking. Sometimes he'll look at me first and if I just shake my head no and tell him it's okay, he'll lay back down. 

And also, for some reason he believes in shape shifting, I guess. The other day he was laying in the floor looking straight at me while I put on a hat and looked in a mirror. I turned and looked at him and he starts growling at me. Sounded ferocious until I spoke to him and pulled of that hat. He doesn't think that hats are evil because my brother in law always wears a hat and he never gets that reaction. It's only when someone puts a hat on and he sees them afterward. Is he crazy or what??

Jerry Cartwright via @AllThingsDog Daily newspaper

Dear Jerry,

Here’s how it goes with most of us humans. If you’re about as crazy as I am, then you’re pretty much normal. If you’re crazier, then yeah you’re really crazy. Not so crazy? Then wow, you’ve got your act together. So really, what is crazy? Is Meat crazy? I don’t know. From your letter he sounds like one of the many varieties of “normal” in the world of dogs. But, we can do better than normal. Hats off to you for reaching out for help (get it, hats off?)

Lot’s of dogs have fears. The ones you describe are pretty typical: sounds, and people who wear hats (yes, even if it’s you). Other dogs are afraid of children, visitors who ring the doorbell, people who deliver packages, tall men, women who wear sunglasses – the list goes on and on. Crazy? Sort of, but not really. You see, if I’m born a dog then there’s a 100% chance my mother was a dog. If I had siblings, they were all dogs too. I came into the world as a dog, expecting to be fully a dog and do dog things. But then, guess what? When I was a couple months old I was plopped right into a family of humans, full of human activities, and all the weirdness that comes with living with intelligent bipedal primates. How crazy is that?

Stay with me here. I’m still a dog, a puppy actually. Up until I’m about 4 ½ months old I’m taking in all this data and figuring out what’s what? Whoa, vacuum cleaner. Is that safe? Okay, maybe. There’s a visitor. Cool, she likes me. Now we’re on a car ride. It’s a bit scary, but then we end up at puppy class and that’s fun. So, car rides check out. They are good. As a puppy in this early stage of my development I’m constantly evaluating events in my life and I only have one criterion. Is this good for me, or not?

Why? Because I’m a dog. Like all animals, I have precious little time to experiment with things that might be dangerous. We expect most animals to be afraid of us and the things related to our human lives. Birds, squirrels, coyotes, and deer are all afraid of us and our stuff. The one’s who aren’t are the exception. Crazy bird, landing on a guy’s extended finger. Crazy squirrel, letting that lady pet him. Crazy coyote get out of here. And, oh deer. Why do our dogs’ natural fears surprise us? Should we expect anything else?

Let’s get back to the Meat of the matter. We have to work very conscientiously to introduce our puppies to the twists and turns of life with humans. Honestly, most of us do a pretty crummy job of it. We skip puppy class. We don’t give our young dogs a variety of experiences. We basically coddle and shelter him from the world he’s going to have to deal with eventually. We miss the importance of doing these things when he’s young, when it’s easiest, when our efforts have the most lasting impact. If this was you, you’re not alone. My guess is you tried your best, and maybe it just wasn’t enough. That happens to a lot of us as well. We have a few weeks to teach our dogs how to live with us in our wacky world, and then the fears start creeping in. I’ve been on this planet nearly 5 decades. I get it. Even that hasn’t been enough time to figure all this stuff out. How can a puppy do it in just a few weeks? Okay, I’ll say it. It’s crazy.

What happened? Our dogs missed experiences in their important early stages of development. Stuff we don’t understand scares us and the same is true for our dogs. They grow into their fears, not out of them. Around 6-18 months we might notice our puppies hiding from certain sights, sounds and experiences. It’s not a big deal. We do nothing, or maybe we think it’s cute. Worst case, we push our dogs to “get used to” the scary thing. We laugh at their fearful reaction. We shoot video. We post it on YouTube and get 17 million hits. It’s funny, until the dog starts barking, or growling, or worse.

I’m sure this wasn’t you, but it happens so often. Let me play the role of the dog again one last time. I don’t know what those sounds are; they scare me. I was born a dog so I’ll do the dog thing and bark to scare them off. I don’t know who that is – he looks different – why is he in my house. I’ll growl to make sure he doesn’t come any closer. Oh wait it’s you. Can you help me? I don’t understand what’s going on.

Of course you can help. Don’t let this blog post be a replacement for working with a qualified behavior consultant. I have some ideas for you, but you’ll need to get some in-person help to guide you through the process. We should teach Meat a few things right off the bat: 

  • Dad’s got your back. This means you’re going to teach Meat some simple skills he can perform when scary stuff happens (usually this includes interacting with you in some way). Use food, toys and praise. Using any kind of force or coercion will only make the problems worse. Having his back also means you won’t force him to handle a scary situation he’s not ready for.
  • Everything’s cool. Because we are teaching Meat using reward-based methods, we are automatically associating food, play and praise with formerly scary things. Your behavior consultant will call this counter conditioning, and it’s the path we want to walk with our fearful dogs.
  • Meat has choices. I love teaching dogs to make appropriate choices to help them calm themselves. Again, this often means interacting with you – and it almost always means teaching calm relaxed behavior as a winning choice. Catch him in the act of getting it right and guide his behavior with your feedback.
Chances are these sudden changes in your dog’s behavior have actually been brewing for several months now. We frequently see a tip toward more offensive behavior related to fear at 18-36 months. That said, check with your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist to rule out any health problems.

Assuming that checks out, visit to find a behavior consultant in your area. You will be asking him or her about noise phobia, and sudden environmental contrast issues (hats off / hats on). Both are not uncommon issues. Your trainer / consultant will probably ask you several questions about other fears you may not have identified yet.

used with permission
It’s not too late. Help is available. We just need to teach Meat that he’s safe – beef up his confidence a bit. (See how I did that?). I know. I’m crazy.

Michael Baugh CDBC, CPDT-KSA helps people with fearful and aggressive dogs in Houston, TX. He’s afraid of suspension bridges and reckless drivers in pickup trucks, the combination of which causes immediate emotional meltdown.

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Michael's advice does not replace an actual consultation with a qualified trainer.


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