For the purposes of this article, I am talking about fear (not fear [with] aggression, which has both positive and negative definitions in dog training, behaviors OR aggression behaviors). Nor the fear that a resource is going to be taken away, and not dominant behaviors (which in my definition are not necessarily undesirable). A dog's personality or temperament, IMO, can not be described as simply "fearful", "dominant", "abused", or "aggressive". Dogs have rich lives (or should have) just as we do, and are not put into one simple box definition. They may have behaviors that fit that definition (and will have other behaviors and characteristics beyond those), but dogs (themselves) can not be IMO defined this way.
There are many environmental, medical, neurological, and genetic factors that can push a dog towards fearful behaviors. It's important for owners to know that things they may do can make (one would hope inadvertently) a dog more fearful. Here are some possible common contributors:
- (Food, Toys or Play used incorrectly) Food, Toys, or Play may be the answer if done CORRECTLY. Too often people do not understand the training and behavior modification use of food or clicker training. Due to mistiming or thinking that food alone may bring the dog around, owners will often continue to trap their dogs in fearful behaviors by not addressing or understanding the ways to bring more confident behavior out. Instead owners should be rewarding the investigation of the fearful thing in steps rather than rewarding the avoidance of it. In another direction, "play" can sometimes be too rough and not enjoyable to the dog. This can also cause fear of "play" or for the dog to not view what you are doing as a "play" behavior.
- Not allowing your dog the freedom to investigate and discover (safely and supervised). One example of this would be a dog mildly startled by a sound. Before the dog can recover and investigate, the owner scoops them up or hugs them cooing to them that "it's okay". The grabbing away from the object as if it actually is scary, rather than allowing the dog to recover and discover for themselves starts to ingrain fearful responses. Dogs need the ability to do some independent learning on their own.
- Pushing a dog too far before he/she is ready. Dogs are all different and learn at their own pace. You ARE NOT going to make progress with a dog unless they are ready. One way to be sure that you do make progress is to break training or behavior modification into reasonable steps. However, that does not mean to stunt any progress that you could make either. The experience of a results based trainer can help you judge whether to stay a course or another simpler direction is needed.
- No socialization or poor socialization or exposed to unsafe socialization. Socialization is often misunderstood by people. It's not simply dragging the dog out the door a couple of times or walking them by dogs on the street. In my training and socialization plan, I have a minimum of four outdoor areas and two indoor areas that I actively use to train and socialize in. I do not allow out of control people or dogs to come up to my dogs in those areas. I keep my dogs safe and secure with me so they don't unnecessarily meet with a traumatic experience. This is a balancing act as you don't want to be so protective that your dog does not experience life, and yet don't want to be so blase that they experience something negative unnecessarily.
- Allowing or expecting a dog to withstand inappropriate contact. Despite our efforts to make a dog's life as stress free as possible, our dogs can become unduly stressed out if we are not watching out for them. Children, adults, and other dogs can all act either inappropriately with our dogs or in ways our dogs do not like. I am not talking about not socializing your dog here. Every dog can get too much of a good thing, or be expected to experience something that they do not enjoy.
- Not allowing the smaller dogs' paws to ever hit the ground. There are factors that make small dog ownership different than large dog ownership. They are smaller than others, and can be seen as prey drive or easy pickings for bullying. However, you still want a confident little dog that is enjoying life. Be sure to let them be a dog when it's safe and appropriate. Let their feet touch the pavement, the earth, and let them run through the woods and get dirty (again with training and safety in mind). Too many small dog owners scoop their dogs up when there is nothing to be worried about. Treating your dog like a cat, an accessory, or a delicate china object can make your dog fearful and act out neurotically. IMO, a dog that is acting out that much is not enjoying life very much either.
- Incorrect communication linked with opposite action. For instance using an endearing term, while doing something that is scary to the dog. If this term has been used to tell the dog it's okay before, it will begin to mean something else entirely to fearful dogs. It may actually come to be that they should be scared and they will be hurt. Instead I will use a command to indicate that something will be over soon, and their job is to hold still until it is (good for vet visit type of fears or grooming fears).
- The abuse excuse as a reason to trap a dog in a fearful state forever. If an adopter of a dog knows there is an abuse story in the dog's past, they may trap the dog in a fearful state inadvertently. Doing the "poor dog" and "coddling" can teach a dog that to remain in a fearful state is the way to get love and affection. Don't trap your dog there, and let your dog enjoy the unique experiences that come with being a canine.
- Not preparing a dog after or before unexpected sensory interaction. When you know that your dog is likely to over react to stimuli (that other dogs generally would not react to), there are ways that you can prepare your dog to enter into situations without being shocked by them. If for instance, you decide to just foist your dog into a family party situation, you will spend a lot of time struggling with your dogs reactions. Inadvertently, you may make your dog even more fearful, even though nothing really wrong happened. It's best to work a dog with fearful reactions up to big events before pushing them into them.
- Making a dog too dependent of being with you ALL the time. I love spending time with my dogs. I could totally spend 24 hours of each day doing stuff with my dogs. However, I don't want them to become neurotic should I need to go out, and leave them in. Some owners do not allow their dogs alone time, as time to figure out that they are safe when they are alone. This is a perfect set up for separation anxiety to occur.
- Removing a puppy from the litter and mother before they are ready. I like 11 to 13 weeks before I would remove a puppy. I believe the recommended minimum is 8 weeks.
- Serious veterinary procedures before a puppy has learned to trust hands. This is not necessarily an owner caused inadvertent harm. However, please talk to a trainer or vet about the consequences and be prepared should your very young puppy have a serious medical issue that needs to be addressed.