Understanding & Modifying Fear in Dogs

Understanding & Modifying Fear in Dogs

What is fear? According to the dictionary, fear is an unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain, or harm. Dogs exhibit fear in a variety of different ways. Depending the dogs' innate drives (breed and genetics), past experiences and learned behaviour, some dogs will attempt to flee, some will fight and some will freeze (or a combination of all three). Based on my professional experience, some dogs will even attempt to defuse the perceived conflict by using play behaviours. It is fair to say that despite the dogs' response to the fear, it is an uncomfortable emotion that can often times lead to dangerous and unpleasant interactions. 

In order to modify dogs’ fears or phobias certain individual data must first be collected. Firstly information regarding what specific stimuli, events and/or environments are eliciting the fear response (part of the antecedents for the operants), secondly what physical behaviours take place as a result of the conditioned emotion response (CER), and lastly what consequences are maintaining the behaviour. 

These are what are called the A-B-C’s of behaviour modification and the information, which will be use in creating an appropriate and effect behaviour modification protocol.

Although an understanding of the 'cause of' (event or events that initially provoked it) the fear- related problem can be helpful in determining how successful of an outcome there may be or to prepare us to entirely avoid placing the dog in similar situations, regardless of what grounds the fear or phobia was originally initiate it will be treated in the same manner (Hett, 1999, p. 153). We do not need to know the precise history of the development of fear (although it can help sometimes in telling us about how resilient the response is likely to be). 

Habituation may occur on occasion with minor fears, meaning that the dog will begin to become comfortable in a particular situation due to continued exposure with neither positive or negative results making the consequence neutral.  Habituation occurs when an unconditioned stimulus repeatedly elicits an unconditioned response and the respondent decreases in magnitude as a result. Overtime the neutral consequence can cause the dog to divest of his pervious CER. An example of this is when a specific object in a home initially yields a reaction from a dog and in time just becomes a part of the 'furniture' (neutral) in the environment. 

Desensitization can occur unintentionally through sporadic exposure to the feared stimuli. The concept being similar to systematic desensitization procedure, only occurring by coincidence as apposed to being systematically calculated; and without the intentional component of counterconditioning. The end result would be similar to if the dog had undergone a planned systematic desensitization protocol. Instances of this occurring are few and far between seeing as every situation of exposure would have to produce either an enjoyable of neutral outcome (consequence). Obviously this is not a behavior modification technique but a fluke occurrence of idealistic events.

Counterconditioning without the use of systematic desensitization may be necessary in situations where stimulus and environment control are not possible. For example if a dog has developed a phobia to thunder or other loud noises, unless the trainer has superhuman powers, the occurrence of these events are uncontrollable. Of course management procedures can be used to minimize the dogs’ exposure to the sound of thunder once a storm has begun or even before it begins if the owner followed the weather forecast.  Making sure the animal is in the most sound proof part of the home such as a basement laundry room or such would minimize the intensity of the sound somewhat.  Regardless, this does not offer the amount of stimulus control necessary to properly employ systematic desensitization (SD), therefore the main technique that must be utilized to alter the dogs’ current CER is counterconditioning.  Pairing the fear eliciting stimulus (in this case the sound of thunder) with something enjoyable such as food, play, petting, or even grooming if this is enjoyable for the dog will overtime change the conditioned fear response into a conditioned pleasure response.

This brings us to systematic desensitization. In my opinion this would be the ideal procedure to implement in most cases of fears and phobias. This process is designed to expose the dog to various intensities of the fear-eliciting stimuli beginning from a small variation to an extreme variation of intensity while allowing the dog time to become calm and relaxed in the presents of the stimuli at each level of intensity before increasing intensity. Relaxation and calmness replaces anxiety and joy replaces fear generally. Systematic desensitization combines the use of stimulus intensity control, counterconditioning and relaxation techniques.. Every level of intensity must be tolerable for the animal, if the animal exhibits the problem behaviours associated with the fear the intensity is too strong. Even using a medication at first and weaning it off can be thought of as a gradient so in cases where the response is strong and levels are difficult, then this is an option.

Relaxation and calming techniques that are an element of systematic desensitization can also be used independently to systematic desensitization.  In most cases these techniques would be used simultaneously to the presences of the fear eliciting stimuli, making them a part of the counterconditioning procedure. Examples of these techniques would be massage, t-touch, and soothing voice.

Flooding is a behaviour modification technique where the animal is continuously exposed to the fear-eliciting stimuli at full strength until the animal no longer reacts to the stimulus behaviourally (respondent extinction).  An example of this is playing loud music incessantly to a dog that is fearful of loud noises until the dog no longer display the previously displayed stress behaviours.  In my opinion there are several reasons why I do not endorse this as a behaviour modification method. Firstly, the experience in generally extremely stressful for the animal, and in turn may cause the animal to become distrusting of the owner or people in general. Secondly, most dogs (depending the severity of their fear) will attempt to escape or avoid the fear-eliciting stimuli that could cause self-injury or destruction of property, not to mention injury towards anyone who may stand in the way. Thirdly, because we are dealing with an emotional response there is a possibility that even once the fear indicating behaviour has dissipated the emotional fear may still remain. The dog may begin to exhibit behavior similar to learned helplessness as an attempt at survival.  The forth reason that I don’t encourage this method is that it is easily preformed inappropriately. If the trainer does not continue to present the fear-eliciting stimuli until behaviour has cease than they could inadvertently cause the problem behaviour (and emotional fear response) to worsen dramatically.  That being said, there may be situations where highly experienced handlers have seen great success with this method in modifying diminutive fear related behaviour problems. It is simply not my first choice, although I may choose to use this method as a last resort or in situation where circumstances will not allow for other methods to be successful. 

Behaviours are the indicator of a conditioned emotional response whether it is fear or else wise. 

Without the display of certain behaviours owners/handlers may never know how the animal is emotionally reacting to stimuli. Some of the exhibited behaviours may be voluntary (preformed on a conscious level) while other are merely reflexive (occur on an unconscious level). Behaviours which may indicate a stress or fear response are: 1) vocalizations-barking, whining, yelping, whimpering, growling 2) body postures-ears down or back, tail down or tucked, head held low, body crouched or curled up, rolled over on back, exposed inguinal area 3) physiological- dilated eyes, shaking, drooling, panting, freezing, eliminating, footpad sweating, shedding hair, expression of anal sacs 4) other manifestations- hiding, avoidance (escaping or fleeing), destructive behaviour, threats or aggression, pacing (Hetts, 1999, p.135 box.11.2).

There is a component of fear-related behaviours which is not often discussed and generally not classified as behaviour modification, but I feel that it plays an essential role in changing the occurrence and/or frequency of displayed problem behaviours. Group dynamics specifically relating to personal relationships with human and other animals can alter an animal’s sense of safety, security, independence and confidence.  Creating positive experiences with people and other animals will overtime help a fearful animal learn to trust and learn that they will be always be able to seek out safety.  This may not cease the display of the problem behaviours but may help the animal to come down from a highly aroused (stressed or feared) state more quickly (in other words develop good recovery skills).


If one thing can be explained to owners to help them better understand their dogs’ fear behaviour it is to relate the dogs' fear to a common human fear. Snakes, spiders and heights are all very popular fears that coincidently are most often unreasonable. "Ask yourself how you would respond if a 40 foot anaconda were to slowly slither down the hallway towards you, then ask how much more heightened your behaviour would be if you were also being physically and/or psychologically restrained and unable to flee." This sometimes can helps owners to relate more clearly to what their dog is experiencing.  No matter what behaviour modification methods are employed for fears and phobias, helping owners to develop a clear understanding of the antecedents, and consequences will encourage a more successful outcome. 



Hetts, S. (1999) Pet Behavior Protocols. Colorado, USA: AAHA Press



Visit us at www.petintel.ca to work with a behaviour and health coach.

Check out the group 'Dog Things to Consider' on Facebook for more tips.

Get Jessica Eden O'Neill's newlt published book here: https://amzn.to/3Q2p4qR