Dogs of all ages can become fearful and/or frustrated, which leads to behaviour which we – the humans – find challenging. For example, fear may make a puppy reluctant to leave the house, to have their harness put on, to walk past a wheelie bin or someone standing in roadworks wearing high viz clothing. Frustration can lead to barking, whining, pulling, leaping, biting the lead, grabbing your clothing/hands and even into growling.
All of these are stress responses and cause the brain/body to respond to the ‘trigger’ by releasing stress chemistry. This clearly affects behaviour but also can lead to long term learning, structural changes in the brain, being more likely to respond in a similar way in the future and even disease and ill health. Understanding why our dogs behave in the way they do means we are more likely to see that we need to support and teach our dogs rather than getting cross with them or even punishing them (for some dogs, even telling them off is perceived by the dog as a punishment)
This is a loss of or restriction in access to something the dog perceives as valuable, leading to an emotional feeling and outward behaviours. This could be caused by
- Being unable to obtain or keep a valuable resource – a toy, food, something discovered (a treasure), a location (being on the sofa), a person (from the humans that the puppy is attached to) and many more
- Having personal space intruded into – such as another dog rushing up and jumping over them, having a vet/groomer handle them (especially if they don’t feel well or are hurt) – for some dogs even being petted is an intrusion. A lack of choice and control over the situation leads to frustration
- Barriers which prevent exploration and/or social contact – being on a lead (worse still a short lead) or other confinement (such as in the car, shut in their crate, shut in a room, behind a fence). All lead to a lack of choices, restriction in resources (access to toys, outside, social contact) and can be a lack of movement (obviously worse in smaller spaces)
This can lead to redirected aggression behaviours or even OCD type behaviours such as self grooming (to the point of mutilation) and repetitive behaviours such as fence running/walking (think tigers in zoo enclosures) or shadow chasing.
- Dogs need a safe, predictable, stable social group – a stable group of humans and dog friends. Think about Christmas, building work at home, going to dog day care, being away on holiday – this is often much less safe, predictable and stable for your dog so needs careful consideration of how to manage this to reduce possible frustration
- Dogs need well planned introductions – having an unknown dog come into their space (at home or on a walk on lead) is stressful. Meeting your cat for the first time is stressful (for both dogs and cats). Having a new puppy come home is stressful – again, this needs careful consideration and management to make it successful and reduce stress
- Having time to respond – to things you ask them to do, respond to another dog or situation. Give your dog thinking time.
- Who doesn’t like choice in their life? Dogs are no different – being compelled to do something (physically or emotionally) leads to stress chemistry being released. Give your dogs choices – shall we go left or right on our walk? Would you like this toy or that one? Be stroked/petted by someone or not?
- Reduce social isolation – dogs like the choice to sleep with each other or lay touching their humans – even when its only 1 paw touching. Shutting your dog away (without careful teaching) leads to frustration
- Reduce fear, punishment and stressors as much as possible. Your puppy isn’t being naughty, stubborn, bad or any other such negative term – they may be frustrated, afraid, anxious, uncertain or feeling another similar emotion. When children are like this, we don’t shout at them and punish them. We act to make them feel safe (give them a hug, give them space to calm, read them a story etc) and then we can address what has bothered them.
- Dogs need to eat in a safe, undisturbed environment – just like we do. Think about how much more relaxing it is to eat in a calm café than in a busy cafe. Consider what the negative impact is on your puppy if you remove their food and give it back?
- Dogs seek a variety of texture and taste – they have evolved to scavenge and use their nose and eyes to locate food and then eat it. How does what you feed and how you feed your puppy meet this need?
- Social eating – some dogs actually prefer having their owner in the same room and others don’t
- Not needing to compete – many dogs feel uncertain, frustrated – emotional – eating when other dogs are close at hand and they consider that they will need to compete for their food. If you have more than one dog, feed them apart (use a gate between them, or in different rooms) to reduce this likelihood
- Access to water at all times – some dogs don’t like the taste of our tap water (due to the chemicals it is treated with) so it may need to stand for a few hours before they will drink it. Keep a bottle filled up which can be used each time you empty their water bowl, wash it and refill it. This is thought to be why dogs will drink from puddles, buckets in the garden or the toilet – the water has stood for a while and tastes better. Obviously you need to be wary about dogs drinking water from puddles in case it is contaminated.
- Choices about being touched/stroked/handled/groomed – this needs teaching and observing by us
- Choices around where to lay to support temperature regulation – cold floor, warm bed – some dogs like laying in soil under a tree, or on wet grass – even in the snow
- Different textures/substances to roll on/rub against – wet snow, grass, carpet – your bed!
- Places which allow for safe and undisturbed sleep
- Choice about laying to sleep socially or not
- Appropriate surface with space to move (support temperature regulation), which allows the dog to stretch out and lay flat
- Option to lay in elevated position – makes dogs feel safe and comfortable (has nothing to do with dominance)
Have a read of this great bog by Welfare for animals which details the ‘4 F’s’ – Flee (flight), Fight, Fidget (fool around) and Freeze.
Fear is unpleasant emotion caused by threat of danger, pain or harm. It can caused by anxiety (anticipating threat or danger), phobic behaviours or even panic disorder. Can you see that this is all around emotional behaviour and not chosen behaviour? All the physical behaviours shown above are driven by emotion…
Stroking or comforting a dog (such as during a storm), or picking up a small dog which is afraid (if they allow you to) CANNOT reinforce the fear. Due to the part of the brain that is triggered, it is not possible to reinforce the fearful response.
Fear can be caused by
- New experiences – unfamiliar dogs, people, environments, things
- Unfamiliar smells and noises
- Known people or dogs
- Experience of punishment (something your puppy thinks is a punishment)
- Loud noises
- Previously encountered objects (like the hoover)
- Surfaces (stairs, steps, heights, slippery etc)
A lack of careful, well planned socialisation will exacerbate this list further, as will negative early experiences, adolescence (change of hormonal status) and inherited tendencies (if the pups mum was fearful then the puppies are highly likely to be)