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Understanding Fear In Our Dogs


On one occasion while taking my dogs for a walk, I encountered a man on the side of the road near to where I had parked the car. I let the dogs out on lead and although the man was several metres away and the dogs could not reach him and had no interest in him, the man’s response was quite astonishing. He screamed as though he were being murdered, ran away and flailed his arms around in a full-blown state of panic. While I was pretty horrified at his reaction, there was a time when it would have made me quite annoyed and I would have thought along the lines of how ridiculous the man was being…..

Many of us feel like this about our dogs’ behaviour. We see something that in our opinion is completely harmless and yet our dogs react as though it is the end of the world. For example, we cannot understand why, when another dog is clearly being friendly and wants to play or is even totally ignoring our dog, our reactive dog explodes or why our fearful dog runs away. It is natural to feel confused, frustrated and even annoyed when our dogs have extreme emotional reactions to things. Why can’t they see reality? Why can’t they get over it and see that the dog or person over there has no interest in them or is actually being nice? Why do they need to overact? Why can’t they control themselves and think clearly?

I have worked with dogs for 20 years. Over that time, I have had very occasional minor injuries as a result of interactions with dogs, but these were mainly unintentional scratches or nips from getting in the way at the wrong time and not as a result of aggression being directed at me. I have always been calm and relaxed in my job, while also respectful and mindful of the potential risks of working with animals with big teeth. As a force-free trainer, I do not get into confrontations with dogs, so most dogs take to me easily and never have any reason to see me as a threat.

However, almost two years ago, I was mauled by a dog. On the Dunbar bite scale, it was a level 5 incident: multiple bites, deep punctures, shaking and tearing. I was admitted to hospital and underwent plastic surgery to repair my upper arm and clean wounds around my ribs. At the time of the attack, I was not interacting with the dog – in fact I was not even looking at him. He simply walked up, sniffed me calmly and the next thing I knew my arm was in his mouth and he was biting and shaking me - there was no prior freeze, growl or any indication that he was not happy whatsoever. I won’t get into all the details of why the incident happened (the information that had been kept from me at the time is a story for another day!), but it was a very unexpected and horrifying experience that threatened to break my “trust” in dogs.

At first, I was fine. In fact, on the way to the hospital all I could think about was whether they’d patch me up in time for me to get to my own dogs’ training class that afternoon (possibly I was in shock!). However, in the weeks to follow I started noticing certain things: If I saw a dog approaching a person and sniffing them (even if I saw my own dogs sniffing a friend) I got the absolute heebies! I could feel my skin prickle and the adrenaline response start to kick in. I couldn’t even pinpoint what it was that was worrying me, because my rational brain had seen this a thousand times before and was arguing with my emotional brain and telling it not to be stupid. Over the next few months, I wrestled with a lot of these sudden and unexpected adrenaline responses – I was always able to talk myself through them and put the feelings aside well enough to continue my job, but it was a constant battle and I became more reluctant to do private consultations (the setting in which the attack took place). I eventually went for trauma counselling and was able to process what I had been through and learn to deal with the after-effects. I have managed to put the incident behind me, but there are still very occasionally triggers that catch me unawares and I am guessing this may always be the case to a certain extent. I have never and likely will never scream and run if I see a dog, but I will probably always have a slight autonomic arousal to encountering the particular type of dog that attacked me (until I get to know the individual).

The difference between myself and a dog who is reactive because of a bad experience or past trauma, is that I can RATIONALISE. I can talk myself out of my emotional response to a certain extent. My larger cortex can pat my amygdala on the head and say “actually it’s okay, it isn’t the same dog and this is not the same situation, dogs don’t usually try to just take people out for no reason, you know this, you’ve worked with dogs for 20 years and one bad experience does not mean all dogs are dangerous etc etc….” A dog cannot do this. A dog cannot rationalise in the same way that I can when confronted with the trigger of a conditioned fear and so they simply react to what their brain has learned is a threat in the way that most likely guarantees survival: FIGHT /FLIGHT. While careful and gradual exposure UNDER threshold can give a dog the chance to assess the situation without the full blown fear response and pairing something positive with the low level exposure can counter-condition a new positive response, simply expecting the dog to change his mind or rationalise when over threshold is completely unrealistic. Yet, this is often what we think they should be able to do.

Having been through trauma helps me to understand what a fearful dog experiences. I know that they cannot help it – just as I cannot help having a slight adrenaline response to certain situations, because of my experience. Without being able to rationalise, that response is more raw - just like the man who screamed and ran when he saw my dogs (possibly he had no other alternative history with dogs to rationalise his fears against). It is good to remember this at times when we feel impatient or annoyed by our dogs’ seemingly irrational behaviour – yes, it is irrational, but that is because the emotional brain has hijacked everything and there is no logical thought. So, let’s be kind to our dogs and avoid putting them in situations that cause these extreme reactions. Instead of flooding them to try and “fix” the problem or ignoring their feelings and expecting them to just get over it , let’s use gentle desensitisation and counter-conditioning to replace the fearful response with a positive one, wherever possible.

Photo: Our old boy Judah, who struggled with a fear of strangers after a traumatic experience in adolescence. With careful introductions he was able to accept, trust and love new people and I learned so many valuable lessons from him.


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Kommetjie Canine College

Kommetjie

Cape Town

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