What in the world is going on?
To comprehend the present behaviors or your dog, you need to understand the previous experiences of your dog. Animal behaviorists are experts in dog behavior, many having spent several years in formal education on the subject, combined with apprenticeship or other practical experience. They are the psychologists of the dog world. The universal advice from animal behaviorists is that puppies should safely meet at least 100 new people and at least 100 new dogs in the first 16 weeks of their life. Those meetings must be safe and secure, and should include all sorts of variables in size, age, shape, energy level, clothing, behaviors and so on. In short, the puppy should be exposed to as many things as possible that it will be required to cope with for the rest of its life.
The 16 week timeframe is based upon puppy brain development. During that initial stage of development a puppy is most inclined to appreciate new people, dogs and experiences. The process is called socialization. After the 16th week a puppy naturally tends to fear those “new” things they had not previously experienced. Fear is a default survival mechanism of biology and what a puppy has not learned to appreciate and enjoy, it will fear. A dog sorts those things that are familiar and safe, and those things that are unfamiliar and unsafe.
To better understand this, consider a wild animal. A young deer will learn to feel safe and secure with its immediate family, but naturally fear other animals due to the end of the socialization process. That is what keeps a young deer from naively approaching a coyote in the wild. Lack of fear would result in a short life. Wild animals have an even shorter socialization period than domestic dogs. In addition, abusive or traumatic experiences can teach a puppy to fear other dogs or people.
Biology Trumps Behavior.
The first thing to understand is it is not the dog’s fault. As Anders Hallgren writes in “Stress, Anxiety and Aggression in Dogs” stress is a component of all problem behaviors. Your dog is not being defiant, stupid, and intentionally aggressive or trying to dominate you. Your dog is stressed. As a result of that stress your dog is desperately struggling to find a way to restore balance and reduce the stress. Avoidance and escape behaviors or threatening and aggressive displays are ways that an under-socialized dog tries to relieve itself of stress. A third option is total shutdown and surrender. Clearly none of these options are healthy, but the dog is not to blame. It is simply trying to endure a situation that it was not prepared to deal with. It is human beings who are responsible for the dog’s predicament, but blaming is not helpful so let us focus on solutions.
When a dog is faced with a suddenly stressful situation the autonomic nervous system takes control. That response is not controlled by the dog’s conscious thought any more than it is in humans when suddenly faced with a terrifying situation. Stress is a sign of internal or external change. When a dog (or a person for that matter) experiences an alarming event, the
brain first releases adrenaline and noradrenaline, which is followed 30 seconds later by cortisol. Those stress hormones remain in the bloodstream about 15-20 minutes and gradually reduce, unless another alarming event occurs in the meantime. A stress reaction is followed by a recovery phase, and then by exhaustion. If one alarming event follows another in a short time then no recovery can occur.
Hallgren describes five important aspect of stress.
1. It is the sum of all stress factors, not just a single stress factor.
2. Short-term stress reactions are designed to deal with temporary difficult situations, but prolonged stress is harmful. The duration of stress is quite important.
3. Reactions to stress differ between individuals. Dogs with an active lifestyle and a family that supports them are better equipped to deal with stress.
4. Stress reactions depend upon how the stress is perceived, and human behavior influences how a dog perceives any given situation.
5. Stressful situations depend upon how you deal with them, and so a dog can learn how to successfully deal with stress, or just the opposite.
Hans Seyle described General Adaption Syndrome in three stages:
1. Alarm. All bodily resources are mobilized to meet a threat.
2. Resistance. A dog tries to control the threat.
3. Exhaustion. After the event the body requires time to rest and restore spent resources. Continued stress events prevent the recovery process. Consequences include the heart working too hard, the stomach shrinks and produces a higher acid level, muscles are strained, the liver releases too much sugar into the blood stream, and the immune system is compromised.
None of these things are controlled by the dog, so if your shy dog lunges and barks or snaps at “new” people or dogs, punishment is not the solution. In “Aggressive Behavior in Dogs: A Comprehensive Technical Manual for Professionals” author James O’Heare clearly explains the basis of canine behavior and concludes that 90% of dog aggression is based in fear. People who use shock collars and other aversive methods are harming their dogs and compounding the problem. Dr. Sophia Yin, DVM posted her article “New Study Finds Popular ‘Alpha Dog’ Training Techniques Can Cause More Harm than Good” on her web site and clearly explains the hazards of such methods. My summary of th article is simple. First, they simply do not work. Second, they cause unexpected fallout such as neurotic behavior and instability, and can even cause aggression. Third, there are much better alternatives.
A Positive Solution
If fear is the underlying reason why shy dogs act out, then reducing fear and instilling confidence is a positive first step. Dog-friendly training methods accomplish those goals and improve the human-dog bond. That means dog owners become better at recognizing when their dog is stressed and can do something to help their dogs, while their dog learns it can depend upon their owner for help and do not have to resort to default behaviors such as barking, lunging and snapping at perceived threats. Second, dogs can readily learn new Conditioned Emotional Responses to stimuli that previously caused alarm and fearful emotional reactions. A knowledgeable trainer will help identify the various triggers and then systematically counter-condition each one. Dog owners also learn how to pre-empt reactive behavior so the dog does not continue rehearsing old stress responses and learns new constructive responses to stressful social situations. A simple way to understand this is to reinforce wanted behaviors and prevent or interrupt unwanted behaviors.
By seeking help from a dog-friendly trainer or Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist you can free your dog from a life of stress, anxiety and fear. Of course there is no guarantee that each and every dog will recover, but choosing to not even try is a sure way to condemn your dog to a miserable life. Please choose to be your dog’s best advocate.
Daniel H. Antolec