Fearful Dogs

Last week we discussed brittle dogs, those dogs who have a hard time coping with stress despite the best start in life. The dogs we discussed were born that way, and couldn’t deal with scary or uncomfortable situations even with their golden-spoon upbringing. But brittle dogs can also be created in spite of a solid genetic basis. Today, let’s discuss those dogs who don’t have the best start in life.

Some dogs lose the socialization lottery. Maybe your dog was born or raised in a puppy mill or kept in someone’s barn or garage. Maybe your dog was a stray. Maybe your dog grew up in a no kill shelter that didn’t have enough volunteers to get all of the dogs out and about or which kept puppies sequestered due to concerns about disease. Maybe you just didn’t know about the importance of socialization and so didn’t get your dog to puppy class before his socialization window closed between twelve and sixteen weeks.

Photo by Peter Kemmer

Photo by Peter Kemmer

Whatever the reason, if your dog missed out on critical socialization he may still be okay. Or he might not be. If you have a brittle dog whose early experiences were less-than-ideal, studies show that you could have a long haul ahead of you.

Ongoing studies on Romanian orphans have shown us just how crucial early development can be. The “socialization window” during which the majority of social brain development outside of the womb seems to take place appears to be about two years in people compared to the shorter three to four months for puppy development. However, many of the developmental processes are identical.

So, here’s what we know: children with neglectful upbringings do not develop the same way as children with supportive and enriched environments. Their brains are physically different. They develop less white matter, or myelin tract, which leads to deficits in their abilities to form neural connections. The neural pathways in their brain are weaker and the electrical activity of their brains is significantly reduced from children who grew up in supportive environments.

In addition to this alarming physical deficit, many of the children from neglectful environments also appear to suffer from adrenal impairment. Their bodies produce significantly less (or in fewer cases, significantly more) cortisol, a stress hormone, than other children’s bodies, and this causes them to show altered stress responses.

The parallels to our dogs who come from neglectful, unenriched environments are obvious. Many of the dogs with the very worst behavioral issues that I work with have low heart rates even in situations that obviously cause them a good deal of stress. These dogs sometimes appear to suffer learning disabilities and to have issues with impulse control. Their owners report that the dogs develop new fears at the drop of a hat, but that it takes months or years to get over any fear even with appropriate behavioral interventions.

Taking all of this in can be overwhelming to the owner of a brittle dog. If your dog’s history suggests developmental disabilities, it’s important to realize that your dog is not a normal dog. He has special needs. Asking your dog to suck it up and go to the dog park or to stop cowering behind the couch every time visitors come over dismisses the very real disability your dog lives with every day. It’s as insensitive as calling someone in a wheelchair lazy or laughing at the retired combat veteran next door when he asks you to please give him a head’s up before you light off firecrackers. We wouldn’t ask a dog who was missing a limb or an eye to engage in behaviors which were potentially dangerous to him, but because we cannot see the damage to the brain of our previously-neglected dog with our naked eyes we oftentimes forget to give him the same respect. It’s unconscionable to ignore a disability just because it’s not instantly visible.

So, how can you help your brittle dog? Once you acknowledge that your dog needs some special help, the research is very promising! There’s a lot we can do to help these dogs become more confident, happy, and behaviorally healthy with some simple interventions.

First of all, the five suggestions for brittle dogs with positive socialization histories apply here. Go review them now. We’ll wait.

Finished? Great! In addition to supporting your dog in all of the ways mentioned last week, research also suggests that you work to create new neural pathways for your pet. The brain is remarkably plastic, and new neural pathways develop anytime we learn a new skill or experience a new sensation. The trick is to do this without putting more pressure on your dog. Introducing your dog to TTouch obstacle work, agility (with a skilled instructor who will free-shape your dog to interact with the obstacles on his or her own terms), trick training, or canine nose work can allow them to interact with their environment in new and interesting ways. Feeding from puzzle toys or using other search and find games can also be helpful. Anything that engages your dog’s curiosity is good! Be patient and let him or her progress at the pace that makes sense for them. Encourage exploration and applaud small efforts.

The progress many of my clients see in their previously fearful dogs when we create safe places, actively teach coping skills, socialize appropriately, utilize classical conditioning, consider medication, and promote the development of new neural pathways through nose work or trick training is absolutely astounding. These dogs flourish in ways that they’ve never done before. They grow and they learn and they surprise the hell out of us at every turn. They impress us to tears. There’s nothing quite like the first moment when a fearful dog completes a successful search in nose work class or works up the courage to eat in the presence of a stranger. These magical moments of bravery show us how hard these special dogs try and how very much they can overcome with patience and a plan.

If you have a brittle dog, one of those special dogs who lost the socialization lottery, I hope this blog post has given you a better understanding of your dog’s very unique needs and a sense of hope at all that you can achieve together. I’d love to hear your stories, tips, and tricks about your own special dogs, so please share them in the comments section below!

10 responses to “Fearful Dogs

  1. While I don’t think Tess follows under “brittle dog” status (she is extremely sensitive and easily stressed), this is really, really great stuff. Definitely things I’ve never heard before. Thank you so much for sharing!

  2. I’ve got a fearful dog. Thankfully she seems to be very resilient and has adjusted well in the past year and a half. She was taken from a hoarder at 3 months old and spent the rest of her first three years in rescues, first in CA, then in OR. The rescue I adopted her from had her for over 8 months and hadn’t let anyone attempt to foster her due to her fear and violent reactivity to new people. She’s an adorable little dog (http://dogsonstuff.tumblr.com/post/82054396187/extra-extra), so most people’s first instinct is to reach down for her. Her reaction would be to bolt, and if bolting wasn’t an option, she’d bite. I’m thankful that she was very animal-social, so she was able to learn from my older, social dog.

    In addition to people, she was fearful of bikes, skateboards, wheelchairs, walkers, scooters.. pretty much anything vaguely mechanical that might pass her on the sidewalk. She would jump to the end of her leash to distance herself. But even at first, she was able to calm down quickly and I could redirect her easily once she started to trust me.

    Slowly she has become a fantastic dog. She still doesn’t warm up to a lot of people, but she is no longer so intensely fearful. She willingly approaches anyone who sits quietly, especially if they have food, and she accepts petting from pretty much anyone. She still startles when reached for if she doesn’t see it coming, but she no longer bites for blood. If she does ever put her teeth on someone, she doesn’t apply pressure. She is good with my friends’ daughter, though of course they are always VERY closely supervised. She likes kids more than most people – probably because they are much closer to her size – and she is much less likely to retreat from their reaches.

    The last hurdle is getting her to accept my partner. She has not been terribly pleased that we moved in together. She barks at him when he comes in, she startles more easily with him than with virtually anyone else, and she does still occasionally snap at him (though thankfully with the inhibited bite). We went to CGC prep with the dogs so that he could work with her and they could develop more of a bond, and she was very good with him in class and was very affectionate with him, which is unlike her, but it hasn’t really changed her reactions to him at home.

  3. We are new dog owners – spent 2 years researching, finding the breeder, went weekly to see the puppy, brought a pillow with our scent and left it a few weeks prior to picking him up. Both parents were super sweet and friendly and from the same breeder, pure breed GSD, shutzhand trained (dad is). Parents and all of her other 6 GSD were great and seemed happy. We brought him home at 9 weeks – he was the love of the vet office. He would sit quietly and we saw no issues. We started puppy class about 4 weeks ago for socialization and things have quickly gone down hill. He turned 4 months last week and he is already 50 lbs. Hackles go up, he lunges and barks and is completely focused on any other dog, person, and sometimes car that he sees. We have been trying to use distraction with treats or his green shammy that he likes to play with but even the scent of another dog while we are walking will make his hackles go up. He does really well with most commands, in fact with a treat if we say “wait” and then open our hand or put the treat on the ground he will focus on it and not move until we give the command “take”. But other commands that are more important like “come” or “off” he doesn’t. His dad is about 85 lbs and the breeder and vet all feel he will be at least 10-15 lbs bigger and with his fearful behavior – I’m really worried about controlling him and his interaction. He has even started testing the boundaries with us at times and air snaps – the breeder has advised us not to have him around other dogs until we see her trainer that she recommends; the vet wants us to have him attend more puppy classes and work with their kennel manager and some one-on-one. Vet says no to the more assertive collars (choke, fur savers), one trainer says no to “grabbing their scruff”, breeder says something else. all is can say is “HELP” just not sure what to do…….

  4. Over the years, we have fostered many fearful dogs. We have found that there are a few things that seem to help them very nicely:
    Patience. Have lots of patience. Do not push your dog into doing anything that he is not comfortable with. Let him explore and let it be his idea that he wants to do something.
    Other dogs. It helps tremendously if they can learn from other, self-confident dogs that can “show them the ropes”.
    Parks. Strolls in parks seem to do a lot for self-confidence building in dogs. Let them pull on the leash, let them take a dip in the lake, let them have fun and be a dog.

  5. I don’t consider my fearful Jack to be the “loser” of some socialization lottery. I met this dog as a 5 week old pup who was well socialized. He was not from a puppy mill or or hoarder, nor was he abused. It is just part of his personality. What he is, is an individual. Great trainers and the support of other fearful dog owners have been essential for me to figure out the best ways to help him learn how to cope with his triggers…and he is learning to cope with his triggers.

  6. I think there are “brittle” dogs just like there are brittle people. Some dogs and people cope easier than others based on socialization, genetics, personality, etc.. Great blog!

  7. We are looking at ways to help our brittle dog. Dale is a 2yo Lab-mix with an intense dislike of being outside. The only time we take him out is for potty breaks which are more scheduled than needed since he doesn’t give clear signs of needing to go out.

    We would like a professional to evaluate and work with him. The problem is that there isn’t anyone with the qualifications we feel are needed within an hour of where we live. Do you think an hour’s drive would be too disruptive to his demeanor to get a proper evaluation? We understand that every dog is different and we want to get him help, but not at doing more damage along the way.

    Thanks.

  8. Pingback: 5 Tips for Traumatized Dogs | Paws Abilities

  9. Is there an alternative to insulin injection for a dog?

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