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FEARFUL FACTS: SOME DOS AND DON'TS!


When tackling an existing fear of something, it is often thought that exposure alone is sufficient to help our dogs get used to something. It seems logical that if they experience something enough times, they will eventually realise that there is nothing to be scared of after all, and get over their fear. This tactic may work for a confident dog who is experiencing something novel and has no existing feelings towards it, but with a more pessimistic, fearful dog, the most likely outcome is that the dog becomes more fearful. They do not have the ability to reason and rationalise, and are very much reliant upon us for responding with empathy and kindness, regardless of whether we may view their fears as illogical or silly. It may not seem like a big deal to us, but to them, it's huge!





In order to explore further, we need to take a look at a few terms and consider what their implications are.


HABITUATION

This refers to gradually becoming used to something through repeated exposure.


FLOODING

Full-intensity exposure to something scary. This can be a deliberate action, in the hope that the dog will overcome his fear, or it can happen inadvertently, when we mistakenly place our dogs in situations they cannot cope with.


SENSITISATION

An increase in fear of a stimulus which is caused by repeated exposure to it, creating a negative conditioned emotional response.


SOCIALISATION

This is a big topic in itself, and is something which is often so misunderstood. I think that many people equate it to the kind of socialising we tend to do as humans; going to noisy, busy places with lots of people, loads going on, highly distracting, often with loud music, etc - not my cup of tea at all, and a very stressful scenario for many of us. For those of us who do not like this type of thing, we can empathise and understand how a little puppy might easily feel overwhelmed if we don't pre-plan what we expose them to and how. Socialisation should involve being introduced to new experiences, environments, people, animals, vehicles etc in a very structured and controlled way so that the puppy is able to have positive experiences which will build his confidence and resilience. It does not involve exposing them to anything and everything as quickly as possible, at full intensity. They need to feel safe in order to learn, which means a neutral level of exposure to help promote an optimistic outlook. We need to avoid overwhelming them because fear is easily created, yet very difficult to overcome.






Critical learning periods are still much-debated, along with the existence of fear periods, but it is generally accepted that there is roughly a 14-16 week window where puppies will be more inquisitive, naturally more resilient, and open to new experiences, after which, they will become less receptive, and the risk of sensitisation increases. At this point, socialisation is no longer possible, and behaviour modification will be needed to address any issues which occur.


However, this 14-16 week timeframe does not take into account breed differences in terms of rate of physical maturity, whether they are genetically pre-disposed to fear, early experiences etc. There is no flag waving at the finish line to denote when puppies are entering the stage where they might become more sensitive. So, with this in mind, what can we do to help reduce the risk of our puppies becoming fearful, and how do we know which of those four processes are occurring when we socialise our puppies?


The short answer is that, on the whole, we don't. Even with planning and management in place, we cannot predict when something might happen to startle or frighten our dogs, and what our dogs might be worried by. So, if we rely on habituation alone, it is a risky business!


Through the use of food, play, and praise, we can be proactive and help this process along through classical conditioning. Associations are being made and learning is happening all the time, regardless, so by pairing anything novel or worrying with something tasty or fun, we are not going to make things worse. Puppy hears a loud noise and startles? Follow it up with a tasty treat. Someone reaches out to touch them and makes the puppy jump? Increase distance and feed treats while they watch from a safe distance. Providing that we aren't putting our puppies and dogs in situations where they are unable to cope, we cannot increase fear by pairing something with food in this way. In fact, fear is more likely to occur if we do nothing.






When worry or fear of something already exists, habituation is very unlikely to happen. If we were to continue exposing the dog, even with the addition of food, the most likely outcome is that we increase that fear, through flooding. This is why we need to always aim for a neutral level of exposure, which means being far enough away to avoid eliciting a stress response. In order to achieve this, careful planning and management of the dog and his environment is essential. A stressed dog will not feel safe, therefore will not have the mental capacity to learn. Working below threshold at a pace dictated by the dog, in graduated baby steps , is the key to success.


You can read more about modifying behaviour with counterconditioning and systematic desensitisation here:


We cannot increase fear by using food, providing that we aren't using it to coax and lure, therefore over-exposing our dogs, being too close to feel safe, or producing food before the appearance of a trigger. Nor will we make our dogs more vigilant or draw attention to things by adding food afterwards. If this were true, counter conditioning would not be a major component of behaviour modification. With the use of positive reinforcement to create pleasant associations, we can tip the balance of the scales in our favour, rather than waiting until a fear has taken root.


Management is a major component of helping our dogs to feel safe. They need time to decompress, so protection from exposure to triggers when not training is vital. Management could mean cutting out walks completely, or changing routes to avoid triggering situations, using child safety gates as barriers at home, having a choice of bunkers/safe spaces to prevent access to triggers, putting up window film to reduce access to visual triggers, using household appliances to mask other sounds, and so on. You can read more about management here:


Fear needs to be addressed carefully, ideally with a knowledgeable and skilled qualified professional on board. A thorough veterinary check is always warranted, in order to check for anything medical which may be contributing to fearful behaviours, and to ensure any necessary medication is given time to take effect before attempting to modify behaviour.





We must avoid "throwing our dogs in at the deep end" at all costs, because the most likely outcome is that they will sink, rather than swim.





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