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Studying Canine Fear–and Dog Owners

Updated: Jan 23, 2021

fearful dog being petted

A new study has come out about dogs’ fear responses to noise; well, that’s what the headline says, but as it turns out, the study is more about owner’s recognition of their dog’s fears of certain sounds. The study was conducted through surveys and interviews. Almost half of the interviewees said their dog displayed at least one typical sign of fear when exposed to fireworks, thunder, or gunshots. But only a quarter of those same people reported their dogs as being “fearful” of noises. So where’s the disconnect?

Owners recognized the more obvious signs of vocalization, trembling, hiding, and seeking out people. It’s suggested that these signals are more easily recognized because they are also seen in frightened humans. The more subtle signs of decreased activity and salivation were seemingly not as easily recognized. And urination or destruction were likely to be seen as nuisance behaviors rather than signs of fear.

I doubt it surprises any professional trainer that owners can be ignorant of their dogs’ emotional states. Some owners don’t even seem to pay attention to what their dog is doing, never mind feeling. It always shocks me to see the extent to which some owners ignore their dogs in public. I’ve been at crowded events where there’s plenty of foot traffic from people and dogs, and owners are checking out merchandise or chatting with each other as their dogs, on Flexi-style leads, roam around and all but get trampled by passersby, or attacked by other dogs. I’ve been at dog parks where owners stand around chatting and drinking their lattes, oblivious to the fact that Fluffy is being bullied by three other dogs, or that Ranger is on the verge of getting into a fight. And we expect them to notice subtle signs of stress?

I truly and deeply wish that the topic of canine body language, including fearful displays, was part of our school system’s early education curriculum. With so many homes having dogs, how is it possible that there is so little early education on understanding them? If we learn to recognize when a dog is afraid, we will not mistake it for being a “bad” dog, or in the case of fear-based reactivity, an aggressive dog. If we know when a dog is scared, we can help them to overcome those fears. And early education on when a dog is afraid would certainly lower the number of dog bites to children.

The reporting article says that “…less than a third of owners currently seek professional advice about treatment for their pet’s fear.” I’m sure more seek help when that fear turns into fear-based reactivity, more frequently reported as aggression. The article concludes by saying, “there is a need for veterinary surgeons to increase awareness among the general dog owning public that treatment is both available and effective in dealing with fears of loud noises, and to direct them toward appropriate sources of help.” Having had conversations with many owners who were helped by my Help for Your Fearful Dog book and Working with Fearful Dogs Seminar DVD, I couldn’t agree more. It’s up to those of us in the profession of dog training and behavior to educate owners about fearful behavior in their dogs, and to give them the tools and techniques to help. Suffering from fear is a terrible and debilitating thing. Whether we are professional trainers or simply dog enthusiasts who are awake and aware, we should all try to educate owners about what fear looks like in their dogs, and to spread the word that help is available.


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