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Doggy in Bed

Fears and anxieties 




For humans and dogs, fear is a perfectly normal reaction toward stimulus which may potentially cause harm, and clearly a useful mechanism to keep us safe. Unfortunately for dogs (and us to a certain extent), an irrational fear of the unknown, or even an everyday event, may easily turn fear into anxiety. It is the irrational, or learned, fear, which affects dogs and is harmful to development.  


For us humans, we have the ability to speak about our fears, and learn from another, perhaps more rational person, that the particular stimulus is not harmful. Continued exposure, which create no harm, teaches us that these things are everyday occurrences and not to be feared. We become desensitised. Thunderstorms, spiders, or even clowns are good examples; this is a learning process which we take for granted, and continues throughout our development.  

Dogs learn in a similar way, but for our canine companions the way they learn is very much associated with us. They pick up on our emotions, moods and anxieties, and learn to be fearful

even when there is little requirement.  


Fear and emotion are stemmed from learning; during socialisation (or lack of), and may even be genetic or predisposed in origin. We may even ‘teach’ our dogs that an exited state is correct, think coming home from work, or games designed to reward excitement rather than focus. High level, continuous, and regular excitement is very much linked to anxiety.  


A fearful state evokes three reactions: fight, flight/avoidance or submission. Most dogs will not choose the former, unless there is little choice or has learned otherwise to strike first to rid himself of the threat. Leash aggression is very much linked to this, some dogs have even learned to preempt their fearful emotion and using this method, a form of control.  


The learning process related to fear is ongoing, may be learned and unlearned throughout their lives. Unfortunately, if the fear is not unlearned, it will only get worse, creating a phobia. We humans are very much associated with this learning process; we offer reward at incorrect times, either by use of emotion (reassurance, fuss), excitement, or becoming fearful ourselves as to the result of an interaction. In essence, we reinforce fears and anxiety, albeit unwittingly. This then becomes a conditioned response, which is the same as training, just not the kind we are seeking.  


Conditioned responses may be unconditioned and another response taught instead. We can effectively unlearn a response, and teach another, as long as we understand how dogs learn, especially from us. Using operant conditioning techniques through desensitisation we may offer a positive association with whatever stimulus is creating anxiety. Avoidance, which is often chosen by both owner and dog, will never address the issue, and may even exemplify anxieties.  


Of course, anxieties are not always related directly to the owner, high energy dogs do exist, and as mentioned previously may be pre disposed genetically. Speaking of genetics, all dogs possess predetermined motivation for hunger, thirst, sex, dominance and submission, social structure, territory and protection, hunting, play, exercise, and many more alongside basic love and companionship. There are many breed differences and specifics, but if these are not realistically met, anxieties develop. Anxiety and fear may not always be related to the actual stimulus in front of you, in fact, this is often the case. 

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