Every day I work with dogs that are anxious. Sometimes they come in because their people think they are “aggressive”, “stubborn”, or “shy” when they are anxious or afraid. Just like people, all animals will go into “survival mode” when they are anxious or afraid. The main three ways that a “survival mode” is exhibited is with fight, flight or freeze. When a dog is responding to fear with “fight” they may be labeled aggressive (they will often bark, growl, lunge or bite). If a dog responds with “flight” they run away and are often labeled escape artists, or they pull on leash. Dogs that “freeze” are typically called stubborn or stupid..
Once my clients realize that their dog is anxious or scared, they often want to know why. Dogs can have anxiety or fear for many reasons but there are 3 ways that I see most commonly. Believe it or not, genetics play a significant role in the personality of your dog. If the mother and/or father dog were anxious or fearful, the pups will often inherit the trait of being anxious or fearful. The next reason that dogs may be insecure is if they were not socialized well during their prime socialization period (approximately 6 – 12 weeks). During the prime socialization period, puppies should be exposed to novel things, people and other dogs so they can learn that things in the world are not scary. Unfortunately, many veterinarians tell people that puppies should not leave the house until after they are fully vaccinated (approximately 16 weeks). This suggestion is equivalent to a pediatrician telling a parent that a child should not leave the house until they are 8 years old! Another reason dogs become fearful is if they experience a frightening event. This is exacerbated if it occurs during a “fear period” (typically between 4 – 6 months and 8 – 12 months). During these periods, dogs are more sensitive if something unpleasant happens and the unpleasant experience can become a lifelong fear.
Prevention is the best way to manage fear and anxiety. If you adopt a puppy that seems shy, early socialization is vital. These puppies need to be safely socialized early and often. It is also important to keep them safe during their fear period and try to prevent anything scary from happening during that time. if your dog becomes fearful after a traumatic event, it may be necessary to seek help from a qualified professional. These dogs often need “therapy” rather than just training to overcome their fear. When looking for a professional to help with a fearful dog, the professional should have education beyond just how to train basic behaviors. They also need to understand the psychology of dogs.