What is fear?

Fear is an emotional and physical response to a threat. It is important to learn the signs of fear based on the species of pet you have. Dog owners may be familiar with trembling, ears pinned back, tail tucked, and the dog cowering. However, what about other signals? Behaviors called “dominant” may be manifestations of fear including lip lifting, growling, lunging, snapping and barking.

Many factors play into temperament and behaviors, including fear. Genetics, maternal stress, and nutrition while pregnant can affect a developing fetus. From here is the work done before the pet is placed in a home. Next is the quality of work you do after acquiring a pet. Simplistically, nature gives us what we have, and we nurture it along.

What happens during a fear response?

When a stressor is present, chemicals are released which prepare the body to react. There will be physical changes such as pupils dilating, rapid breathing, increased heart rate, hypervigilance (think cheerleader in a slasher film), etc. From here, the animal will either fight his way out of a situation, flee it (flight), or freeze (become very still). As the threat passes, more chemicals are released to help with the recovery. This takes longer to happen than the fear response. Too much fear and stress can eventually alter body chemistry. Animals can feel anxious. Anxiety is the worry of future danger based on previous experiences.

How should we handle fear?

No matter how silly the fear seems to us; it is real to the fearful. Fear drives behaviors. Fear is a survival mechanism.

Recognize how fear manifests itself based on your species of pet. For example, a scared guinea pig may grind his teeth and squeak incessantly.

Punishing fear does nothing to help. For example, punishing a growling dog may stop the communication, yet the emotions are still there. I must not stop communication.

Provide comfort and security. You will not reinforce fear. Your pet needs you to respond in a manner that will help the best. If the critter is fearful of you, give him space. Reaching out to pat a cat who is cowering from you could result in a nasty scratch. If the critter is fearful of something else, get him away from it and help him feel safe. Forcing the fearful to suck it up and deal with it can make things worse.

Be proactive. This may mean different things. Avoiding situations while you slowly work your pet up to handling them. Managing the environment to reduce the chance of an incident. Advocating for your pet when it comes to other people and animals.

Learn to work with your pet to help her handle more of life. Counter conditioning and desensitizing protocols can be effective if done carefully. Medication is a tool that should be considered along with a good behavior modification program.

Fear is real. It is complex. Signs of fear may be misinterpreted. Fear is something we need to learn to recognize and work with in meaningful ways. A good, positively based trainer who understands the science behind learning or a veterinary behaviorist should be contacted. The more you understand what fear is and how to work with it, the better off you and your critter will be.


Karen Peak is the developer of The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project and owner/operator of West Wind Dog Training in Prince William County.

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