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  • Sally Gutteridge

Helping Scared Dogs - When Fear Goes Too Far




All dogs experience fear. It’s a common emotional state associated with survival and ideally when a dog gets scared of something, they either recover quickly or remember the fear.

When dogs get scared, something important happens inside. The neurons within the dog’s brain create an electrical charge (like a POP deep down in the brain tissue). The charge forces an emotion into the body, the emotion of fear. We then see that reflected in the dog’s posture, physical response or behaviour.


When your dog sees something unusual or scary – for example a cardboard box blowing in the breeze - he might hide, try to run away, bark or be frozen in fear. (Experiencing the response of fight or flight). This can then go one of two ways.


  1. He might quickly get used to (habituate) to the scary thing as he realises it is in fact less scary than first thought.

  2. He might approach it, pee on it and simply get on with his day.


If the scary thing is severe – such as a bus backfiring - your dog might become scared of that part of the walk for a long time to come (sensitisation). This happens when the fear is intense enough to cause learning from one single event. When our dogs learn from the environment they learn from a number of associations. So that bit of the walk, the sound of a bus

approaching, the smell of the local bakery and the kids screaming from a nearby playground will all recreate the prelude to the scary thing in your dog’s mind – even if the bus never backfires again.


The two responses above are perfectly normal behaviour linked with survival. The sensitised dog may need help to get over the scary experience. Which must begin with changing the snapshot of experience (which can be as simple as walking somewhere else) or more complex with a professional desensitisation program.


Welfare Matters


Fear that goes too far is a welfare issue. For example, if we were to continue to force our sensitised dog into the snapshot of fear above, and even punish them for trying to get away, because we don’t understand their internal panic – that’s detrimental to the health of the dog.

Making a dog face his fearswithout helping him to understand that he isn’t in danger will naturally affect his wellbeing. It exactly the same as putting a person scared of spiders in a bath of tarantulas and expecting that to heal his phobia (when really that experience is likely to make him more terrified than ever).


Forcing a dog into fear is cruel. It may occur when people don’t understand that behaviour is a reflection of the internal state. For example, someone might force the dog to walk on the road, with the bakers, screams and the buses over and over again. The dog might protest by barking or lunging – because he’s scared – and then the person doing the forcing might punish the behaviour.


(It makes me nauseous to write that because it should never happen, but even some people who sell professional dog services think this is acceptable treatment of a scared dog. So beware the dominant dog trainer/pack leader for he is dangerous territory for your dog, trust and your relationship)



A Lifetime of Fear


When a dog suffers with fear in the long term things in his brain and body begin to change. As we already know the brain sends the chemical of emotion into the body. When the emotion stays in the dog’s body long term it can begin to change the biology. Any chemical can affect natural function of the body inclusive of successful immunity, digestion and hormonal output. Fear will affect the effectiveness of natural, healthy biology.

In addition, when a dog experiences scary stuff over and over again he will try to escape. Escape may involve all sorts of animated, defensive and telling actions. He might bark, threaten to bite or try to run away.


Eventually the dog will show us that he’s extremely stressed. His pupils will dilate and automatic behaviours will occur such as panting and tucking under – all of these will happen before he gives up for the first time.


The term for a dog who has given up is learned helplessness, you might also hear it called emotional shut-down.


Learned Helplessness


When a dog learns helplessness, he realises that he has no choices. He can’t escape and he can’t fight. The total lack of choices means the dog is completely disempowered and helpless. Sadly, people are the most likely reason for a dog to learn helplessness.


Dogs can learn they are helpless in one single experience. Whether it’s caused by a brutal puppy farmer or an ego with a shock collar doesn’t matter. Once the dog realises that the choices he makes won’t stop the treatment he is receiving, he has learned helplessness.


When we find ourselves in the position to help the dog with learned helplessness we have an important job. This dog is packed tightly within himself. Reversal of their state is slow, gentle and one successful choice at a time. It starts with heartache every time we look at him and it naturally becomes celebration of every little gleam of recovery. Every step towards empowerment is undoing the fear. Every tiny choice brings a ray of sunshine and I promise you that if you choose to help a dog like this, it will be one of your greatest and most rewarding experiences.


Here’s Holly’s story – who has now unpacked her case (which was packed at the puppy farm). Despite arriving with learned and established helplessness, Holly has decided she loves life after all!

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©2020 by Sally Gutteridge.