Puppies are not born fearful and the only ones that learn fear before being weaned are those born in the wild with a feral mother. She’s the one to teach the pups to stay hidden, to watch her for signals that it is all right to venture out of the den and to act like a wild creature, always alert for danger.
However, pups born in a kennel can develop fears from being separated from their dam and litter mates too early and especially being deprived of human contact for the first few weeks of life. From the safety of the whelping box, pups can learn to ignore loud noises and other scary things if it doesn’t upset mother dog and she gives them a reassuring lick and nuzzle.
Pups isolated for their first three months develop a fear of the outside world which includes all sensory stimuli — sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. These pups can be rehabilitated by a patient trainer working each day on one of the senses.
Cheri Carbone, a local animal behaviorist and trainer, says the first instruction to the new owner of a fearful dog is: “Don’t pet it and tell the dog ‘It’s all right,’” when the dog shows fear. By trying to console a dog that is showing fear by petting and soothing it, you are really telling it that you approve of the fearfulness and that is not what you want to do.
Carbone talked about fears of storms, which can be triggered by lightning flashes (sight), by thunder (hearing) or by static electricity (which the animal feels). I asked how the dog feels static electricity and Carbone replied that animals feel the electrical energy sometimes an hour or more before the storm arrives. It is necessary for the handler or trainer to figure out which is the trigger.
If the fear is the lightning, Carbone recommends a dark room or solid walled crate. The owner should sit and read and act like nothing is going on.Sometimes it is necessary to play a radio or TV to mask the sounds of the storm if the dog is afraid of thunder.
If the dog is afraid of people, Carbone says the dog should always be allowed to approach the stranger who might assist by sitting on the floor or crouching with his/her profile to the dog rather than full face. If the dog does approach, the stranger should offer a treat or toss one to the dog for attempting to approach.
As the dog progresses at home, the environment can be widened by taking the dog to a park. Set up a training plan before going, giving a friend who is a stranger to your dog some liver treats and instructions to walk toward you at a normal pace.
If the dog exhibits uneasiness when the “stranger” approaches, keep on course until the dog shows fear, then have the person toss some liver and walk away.
More on fear factors next week.