Updated: May 20
More and more pet parents are meeting their dogs through rescues and other avenues of rehoming, and very often their dog’s history is a big question mark. If a dog is fearful or distrusting of people, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that they’ve been mistreated. While an abusive past can absolutely teach a dog to be fearful, other causes include under socialization and natural temperament.
The undersocialized pup
Socialization is the process of helping a puppy (or kitten, or other young creature) learn to be more at ease with their world and all the unexpected sights and sounds that can suddenly pop in. Bikes, big trucks, children, sirens, door bells, and so many other day to day stimuli that are a normal part of life for us can be pretty terrifying for a young puppy. By exposing a puppy to these things in a way that feels fun and safe for them, we help them acclimate and learn that a person riding by on a bicycle does not mean the sky is falling.
The natural Nervous Nelly
Some dogs, just like some people, seem to have been born with a natural confidence and flair for taking on each situation as if it were a grand adventure. Others have a temperament that is more on the anxious side, and of course there is a wide spectrum in between. Two puppies might get the same socialization experiences, and one might emerge a regular social butterfly, while the other might still shy away from the world in general.
Aggression or fear?
What looks like aggression in dogs is often based in fear. Each of us has probably experienced our own fight, flight, or freeze moments. Dogs have them too. If moving away from the scary thing doesn’t work, and barking or growling at the scary thing doesn’t make it go away, the fear amplifies, and so does the reaction. If your normally docile, sweet dog is suddenly snarling or snapping, it could be that their fear response has been triggered. If you’re seeing reactions like this on a regular basis, or if your dog is constantly tucking its tail and looking for a place to get away from everything and everyone, it’s possible they’re experiencing a high level of fear every day. Working with a positive reinforcement trainer is a great way to help your dog become less fearful. Using aversive tools and techniques like bark collars, electronic collars, or physical force probably won’t help, and might make things worse. You can check out some tips for working with a fearful dog here.
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