Few people can adequately describe what fear is.  I know, because I’ve been asking a wide array of individuals for several weeks.  Everybody seems to know Fear when they feel it, a few can recognize it in others, and a disturbing number of people know how to use Fear to their advantage.

It CAN be turned “Off”…

Websters boys at the big dictionary define Fear this way:

Definition of FEAR

a: an unpleasant often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger b (1): an instance of this emotion (2): a state marked by this emotion.

Fear has been a much discussed topic seemingly since the beginning.  The Holy Bible is rife with references to Fear: Ecclesiastes 12: 13 says’ “Fear God and Keep His commandments, for this is the whole obligation of Man.”

James Anthony Froude, says of fear: “Fear is the parent of Cruelty.”

“No passion so effectually robs the mind of its powers of acting and reasoning, as fear…”, opines  Edmund Burke in “On the sublime and the beautiful.”

Another definition, however obtuse it may be, is from Yoda of Star Wars fame. “Fear is the path to the Dark side.  Fear leads to Anger, Anger leads to Hate, Hate leads to Suffering…”

For a few more definitions of Fear, check out this link: http://www.notable-quotes.com/f/fear_quotes.html    An amazing cornucopia of Wisdom and Foolishness…

I’m bringing this subject to the fore, because FEAR is the new Lingua Franca of dog trainers.  Fear Periods, Reactionary Fear, Fear Extinction, and several more  buzzwords are sprinkled quite liberally about the books of various trainers.  Some of this has developed to counter use of the dreaded “D” word. (Dominance, for those of you that would burst into flames if you even uttered that word aloud)  But some of the “newspeak” regarding Fear is very interesting, so I’m putting aside any bias toward the source until I have a better understanding.

My reason for this approach, is that I have never worked with a dog that exhibited what I would call “Fear”.  My dogs have been chosen from bloodlines of  true Working dogs.  I evaluated them as best I could at a young age, even with the limited information you can get from an 8 week old puppy.  It is  a worthwhile effort to involve a somewhat modified Volhard test regimen.

I began writing today on the subject of being Calm when training with your dog.  You’ll still get to read that post, but writing it produced a bunch of questions that required a back-pedal to the subject of fear.  In the Communicative Approach, what we do as handlers/trainers directly affects every session with our dog.  In short, my biggest question is this:  How much of a dogs FEAR  is the handler/trainer directly responsible for creating??   My theory is that MOST fears come from a shaping by the human on the other end of the leash.  We can “Shape” fear in our dog without ever being aware of it.  Our personality, our fears, our anxiety, are all cast onto our dogs as young puppy’s, and on throughout their lives.  My theory is this:  If you, as the handler, demonstrate or feel “fear”, then your dog will pick up on the vibe, and react to it in kind.

Take for example the case of Darlene and her Great Dane “Carson”.  Dar had a real problem using this gentle giant as the Therapy dog he was born to be.  Carson would simply not enter a room with a smooth tile floor…And dragging such a dog into a room is just not an option!  During training, as we were all trying to figure out Carson’s fear, Darlene told a story about herself and a 3 month old Carson.  They were on a socializing walk on this particular day.  Carson had been doing well as Darlene walked confidently in and out of pet-friendly businesses.  As they entered a homebuilders large box-store, Darlene neglected to notice that the floor had been recently wet-mopped, and unmarked by a neglectful employee.  She slipped on the floor, took a backwards tumble, and landed on Carson.  The shock of the fall, the pain of being landed on, and the subsequent panicked reaction of the store manager and employees forever affected Carson and Darlene.  As Carson barked and cried, both Darlene and some of the employees petted and otherwise soothed Carson in an attempt to calm his excited demeanor.  Afterward, Darlene would enter every tile room with extreme caution, and yes, fear.  Therefore, Carson now entered every tiled room with fear.  Then, in a mis-guided manner, Dar would reward Carsons fear with affection.  The die was cast…

One of my favorite sources on canine behavior, is  Behaviorist/Trainer  Angie Ballman Winters of Angie 4 Dogs in Columbus, Ohio.  She is among the 25 behaviorist that I have asked for their thoughts on Fear.  On the matter of preventing and causing fear in a dog, Angie wrote me the following.  (I am doing a cut and paste of this quote from my e-mail.  These are her thoughts and I use them by permission.)

“… all of the above can all be handled and fears need not develop if the human
understands how to undue fear in dogs, or to prevent fear in the first place.
But, once a dog experiences a high level of fear and is allowed to live with
it.  He will develop more fears.  First he was frightened by the fire truck, now
he is afraid of the road, the road is by the yard, and then he decides he isn’t
even going to go in the yard.  Then, he is in the kitchen and someone pulls out
a new garbage bag and shakes it open.  He is allowed to run away in fear.  Now,
he decides he not only is afraid of the garbage bag, he is afraid of the drawer
it came out of…..now he is afraid of all drawers in the kitchen, now he won’t
go in the kitchen.  So, now you have a dog that is extremely smart….that puts
2 and 2 together and without strong leadership decides he can’t go on the road,
in the house or yard, or in the kitchen!   His world…..his bubble gets smaller
and smaller.  By the time I get to his house for a consult, he will only lay on
one certain couch and will only eat if the owners bring a bowl of food into him
by his couch.  See what I’m saying…..once ANY fear is allowed to
remain…..more will develop.” – Angie Ballman Winters

It seems that we are responsible for much of the Fear our dogs Learn.  Angie continued with this gem of observation on the part of a sensitive trainer:

*Fears will NOT develop if the human DOES NOT let the dog flee a scary situation,…….IF……. the human is a strong leader and the dog has full trust in the human.
*Fears will not develop if the human has no reaction to a scary thing happening to a dog.  Fear IS developed if the human” baby talks”, pets, or runs to the dog’s rescue after a scary thing happens.
  The large majority of trainers/behaviorist I communicated with echoed these statements without hesitation.  If you cower under the bed covers when there’s a thunderstorm, your dog has a likelihood of doing the same.  Fear by proxy if you will.
When you walk your dog and another dog or person approaches, what is your reaction?  Do you, even imperceptibly, clench the lease tightly in your white-knuckled fist?  Then your dogs reaction will reflect that emotion, and he may even lunge at the other individual.  Out of your fear.  I have observed dogs that will twist, bark, and lunge at people whenever they are “On Leash”.  But the same dog, when free-roaming, is as approachable as a baby rabbit.  That says something about the “Other end of the Leash”, which is to say YOU, the handler.
  In the end of Darlene and Carson’s story, we altered the dogs mental block with a hot dog.  We released him from the leash, and Darlene’s grasp.  Threw his favorite hot dog (Hebrew National, special occasion.) treat into a large tile floored room.  He looked around for guidance, and finding none, walked calmly to the beefy treat.  He ate it up, and walked back for another, as though the slippery floor was a grassy field.  Then, to proof our theory, leashed him and gave him to Darlene again.  Carson would NOT enter the room as long as she was in control.  After some further training on the “energy” that she was putting out, Darlene was finally able to move with Carson across the floor.  That’s pretty conclusive, and scientific evidence of the theory, don’t you think?
  The above is written from the perspective of a dog that you have owned from puppyhood…Under YOUR influence from very early.  But what about a “rescued” dog?  Can “Fears”, instilled and shaped by others be eliminated?  Yes they can.
It will require a bit more detective work on your part to determine what may be spinning around in the dogs cranium, but remember this:  Dogs let go of their baggage very quickly when the atmosphere is conducive and positive.  They don’t live in the past like humans seem want to do.  The key is good leadership.  Owners that excusetheir dogs mis-behavior with, “Well, we think he was probably abused by a former owner…”  are selling the dog short.  Dogs live in the NOW, and in order to help him out, you need to join him.  It’s in your ATTITUDE, the Energy you put out…Be Aware of how you feel when with your dog.  He reads YOU  like a lonely spinster reads “50 Shades of Grey”, and only you can correct yourself.
  Fear is a powerful force.  Understanding how to eliminate it from within yourself is vital to eliminating it from your dog.  But how do I accomplish that?  Being Calmwhen training, or communicating will pave that road.  That will be our next subject…Thanks for reading!
  1. Kim Atwell says:

    Great post Robert!

  2. Spot on as usual!!!!