Trauma Creates Fearful Dogs

I meet a lot of fearful dogs. These range from dogs that are mildly afraid of some situations to dogs that are too dangerous to own. Most fears we are concerned about have been manufactured.

It is not unusual or abnormal for a dog to be afraid of some things. There are many natural danger clues that can trigger fear in dogs, from being alone, to being followed, sudden noises, sudden movements, and strangers.

Some examples… Many dogs will react when a husband and wife start fighting. Their arguing can set off the dogs in the home. That conflict scares the dogs. Similarly, dogs can be set off by fearfulness emanating from other dogs. I remember a situation like this while I was manning a booth at a pet fair. I had my dog, Dillon, with me at the Ask The Expert table. At an adjacent table, a veterinarian was conducting a free microchip clinic. A couple brought their 4-month-old Boxer puppy to his booth. They worked together to inject the microchip into the dog’s scruff, and the puppy started to repeatedly cry and yelp. My dog immediately alerted, popped to his feet, a long and wide Mohawk of hair was raised all up his spine, he started loudly growling and scanning the area for danger. This response was innate. He hadn’t heard puppies crying in distress like this before. 

Then there are fears can be manufactured in a dog which can turn a normal puppy into a very dangerous dog, regardless of breed. Examples of such influences are:

1.) Being housed in a poorly run municipal shelter. Most shelters I’ve visited traumatize every dog that goes into their facilities. I’ve discussed the kennel deterioration that happens over time to most dogs. Dogs can’t handle what is done to them in these dog prisons. Many dogs are never the same after going through this experience. You can pretty much guarantee that every dog that has been in a municipal shelter will come out with fears that need to be addressed. Unfortunately, the people who run these facilities don’t care enough to solve these problems. We hear how much they proclaim they care, but the facts are evident from their poor results. Does this mean I don’t recommend rescuing or adopting a dog from a shelter? No. I’m just saying much needed reforms aren’t being implemented and the sanctimonious leaders, who say one thing but do another, don’t really care. The public needs to demand proper and humane reforms to prevent deep rooted fears in many dogs.

2.) Not giving dogs sufficient and healthy outlets for safety. It is not unusual for traumatized dogs to exhibit intense and dangerous guarding of places, people, toys, bones, or food bowls. Inexperienced owners and trainers try to solve this with even more trauma, and the dogs become even more dangerous. The dogs I’m referring to are generally very stressed and they have found a solution that gives them some kind of comfort in fearful situations.

This can sometimes happen through harsh training. Imagine a dog that is taught, using negative reinforcement, to get onto and stay on a dog bed or cot. The aversive influence is continuously applied whenever the dog gets off the Place and is only terminated when the dog gets back onto the Place. Eventually the dog becomes terribly afraid of being moved off the bed or cot and will attack if someone gets near the Place or tries to move them off the Place. Look at all the trainers out there with photos of dogs doing extended Stays on dog beds and cots. It isn’t normal for a dog to do a long Stay like that. Either they want to move away out of boredom or feeling anxious from their abnormal separation from any reasonable proximity to their owners. No animal in the wild does a Place like this, being compelled by others, and negatively reinforced, for moving away from a spot where they are resting. Desperation can trigger a fearful response. 

3. Dog Fights. I’m always distressed by owners who have allowed their dogs to engage in multiple dog fights, whether in the home or elsewhere. Dog fights can happen between dogs. However multiple fights aren’t normal, especially if the fights have been to the death. When I evaluate dogs that have been in multiple fights, I’m particularly alerted when I hear that one of the dogs killed, or almost killed, another dog. This kind of fighting is rare in street dogs. It is illegal when done for sport. Putting dogs in situations where they face death permanently changes what they are and can often make them deeply afraid of other dogs, causing them to fixate and react to other dogs. People who physically harm and defeat dogs, where they were taken to the point they perceived they were going to die, will then become deeply afraid of some people, causing them to fixate and react to people.

4. Old style training and handling methods. It is disturbing that bad dog training is still applied to dogs throughout the world. Importing a dog, especially a protection dog, from another country that has used this kind of approach on the dog you are purchasing can backfire with horrible results. There are methods of dog training that traumatize dogs to the point that they can’t handle what is going on, and these methods make these dogs ticking time bombs. We are talking about abnormal corrections and methods that go way beyond what any of us would consider humane. I won’t describe here what is done, but it is well beyond telling a dog “No”, or a leash correction, or other similar such things. I’m referring to psychological torture. Unfortunately, these harsh methods have caused some in the dog world to reject all corrections in dog training and given narcissistic people the ammunition to attack good trainers. The “purely positive” movement, as a reaction, has created its own hazards and harms, and not made things better. All the dog breeds are being destroyed by this reaction, and is endangering the handlers, public, and dogs. Breeders are being forced to develop sensitive dogs that are even more prone to being conditioned to be afraid in order to respond without corrections, and are bred to be even more susceptible to fear conditioning and the resulting emotional traumas. Look what has happened to the German Shepherd, it isn’t even being used as a police dog anymore. Wrecking breeds isn’t a good solution. Banning breeding isn’t a good solution either, since street bred dogs aren’t going to retain the desirable domesticated traits we all want in a dog. I see a lot of “weak temperament” dogs in the pet world that are not good examples of what they should have been if they had been bred with more purposeful consideration. These dogs too easily develop fears regardless of the training methods used.

This also applies to how some veterinary and grooming practices handle the dogs in their clinics or stores. It is extremely harmful to pin a dog down, and muzzle it, to perform any procedure. The only justification would be for an emergency. But these techniques are routinely used on dogs in many clinics and grooming parlors, traumatizing dogs, and making some difficult or dangerous to handle in the future. Behavioral medications don’t always make these situations better. I’ve seen quite a few dogs that were made dangerous to examine or groom because of such rough handling. This kind of handling terrifies dogs, and they don’t forget what’s happened.

I would also caution to beware of all new fad dog training methods. Not all of them are coming from a good place. Learning should be based upon using positive reinforcements, and corrections should be limited to positive and negative punishments. However, strange combinations of the four quadrants of learning theory and classical conditioning traumas, can be combined to warp a dog. There are disturbing trends popping up which, in my opinion, should never be done. Inquire about what and why a method is used before you give anyone permission to do anything to your dog. I won’t mention what kind of training is traumatic because I wish to prevent giving bad actors ideas about trying this stuff on anyone’s dogs.

4. Bad relationship with the owner. Too many people have bought into this “leader of the pack” mentality of dog training and management. Too many people also neglect their dogs and use a reactive approach to any misbehaviors. None of this is friendly to the dogs involved and it causes them to fear their owners. This fear sets up the potential for the owners, their kids, guests or other people to be future targets for an attack. Dogs that are cornered and afraid have the potential to redirect that fear and attack the nearest animal or person. People need to think long term: one day you might have to reach in to get your dog out of a bad situation, such as a dog fight, and you don’t want your dog to turn on you or someone else. 

5. Too many traumas. The more traumas a dog has experienced, the more likely the dog will develop PTSD. If such dogs attack, they won’t stop, and are almost out of their minds. These are the killers. The more frequently or intensely they were traumatized, you’ll start to see they don’t cool down quickly after each aversive event. We see a lot of these types of attacks on family members by pit bulls. Pit bulls are are social by nature. Pretty much every pit puppy you meet is a bundle of joy. But take any dog, neglect them, treat them like trash, and traumatize them, and you are going to end up with a dangerous dog. I am not anti- pit bull. I like them and have trained many pits and pit mixes. But enough people, who should never own a dog or even a stuffed animal, get them for the wrong reasons and do everything wrong and traumatize these normally friendly dogs. The public’s reaction is often to clamor for a breed ban, not knowing the causes and instead blaming the dogs. That’s what is happening right now in the UK regarding the XL Bully. It has now been banned, and the good owners and properly raised dogs are being lumped in with the bad owners and their traumatized dogs. Owners have a short time now to either get them out of the country or have them euthanized. No properly raised and managed breed goes insane and attacks and kills people without a history of some kind of significant trauma. The dogs you read about in the news are traumatized dogs. These dogs have been made so fearful, so many times, that they eventually snap. 

You can ban one breed and people will switch to another. A certain percentage of those owners will do the same to their dogs, most people will do it right and the same types of bad people will create abnormally fearful dogs through repeated traumas. 

What can be done to prevent the creation of fearful or dangerous dogs? it isn’t going to be legislation. It starts with proper and sufficient early puppy socialization, from 2 weeks to 16 weeks of age. You also need to softly begin some puppy training by 8 weeks of age and continuing until the adult dog is easy to manage and is obedient anywhere. Lastly, it requires that owners protect their dogs from foreseeable and preventable traumas throughout their lives. Dogs don’t have to develop fearful responses to everyday experiences that are not innately alarming.

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