October 31 is the seasonal culmination of scary: haunted houses, horror films, ghoulish costumes, and 'fun sized' candy bars (there is nothing fun about a one-bite candy bar). But if I were to inform dogs that tonight is fright night, they'd surely be confused. Dogs encounter fear year round.
While many humans seek out fear, dogs don't. Dogs would have a difficult time understanding why some of us voluntarily walk into a haunted house or a scary movie with the goal of being scared: "You’re doing what tonight? Why?"
Unfortunately, fear is not always easy to spot. A 2012 study from Michele Wan and colleagues at Columbia University found that everyone from professional dog trainers to people with little dog experience were generally very good at identifying a happy dog. But fear, they found, was different. Professional dog trainers were more likely to identify fear than both dog owners and people with minimal dog experience. And while dog owners were better than those with minimal experience, dog owners still weren't as good as the professionals.
So what is fear, and what should we do about it? "Fear is an emotional reaction, induced by the perception of stimuli associated with danger, which leads to protective defensive reactions," states my favorite book, "The Encyclopedia of Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare."
Let's break that technical definition into three pieces: First, fear is an 'emotional reaction' that you may recognize as the 'fight or flight' and stress response. The body's fear response is a powerful cascade of events mediated in the brain and producing a range of physiological changes. Why so much activity? Because fear serves a purpose; it is about mobilizing the body for action and not la-di-da-ing around. Although fear makes sense and is critical for survival, if a dog is cosmically fearful of everyday things, like because you put on a mask, or if a new person comes over, or when you turn on the vacuum, fear's value is nil.
Which leads to the second part of fear: we see fear in behavior. In her study, Wan highlights that fear in dogs can be identified by the following: "fearful dogs are said to reduce their body size — crouching into a low posture, flattening their ears, and holding their tails in a low position. Shaking, yawning, salivation, freezing, panting, paw-lifting, and vocalizing are examples of other behaviors that have been associated with fear in dogs."
But fear can manifest differently between individuals. For example, as a result of artificial selection, dogs were purposely selected to appear distinct and not all possible fear-related behaviors will be evident in all dogs. It's probably much easier to notice 'ears back' in a dog with pronounced ears, while you're not going to see 'ears back' easily in a droopy-eared dog.
Context can also affect fear behaviors. Take a dog who has backed into a corner to get away but can't escape. If pressed, the dog could lunge forward and appear to display what dog lovers might see as aggressive behaviors. But this is a defensive response that comes from not being able to get away.
Do you think you can spot fear-related behaviors? Nothing's about to get too graphic, but this 30-second animated clip set to Jaws-like music — from the late Dr. Sophia Yin, DVM — demonstrates what a fearful dog can look like when confronted by a child's unwanted advances.
Unfortunately, the animated incident above can mirror reality. A recent study from Yasemin Salgirli Demirbas and colleagues at Ankara University in Turkey identified something surprising about dog owners. The researchers presented people with video clips of fearful or anxious dogs interacting with children, and this time it was the non-dog owners who were more likely to recognize fear behaviors than the dog owners. What?
This should give us pause. Dog lovers are generally a little better at noticing fear (as Wan and colleagues showed), but sometimes we miss the mark. Maybe it’s easier for you to notice fear in a video featuring an unfamiliar dog, but it's more difficult to pick up in your own 4-legged family member. Or maybe when a mushy-gookie baby is around a cuddly-wuddly dog, the heart picks up more than the head. The scene can easily scream out, "The Cutest!" when it is actually not the cutest.
But there's hope. A study by Hannah Flint as part of her PhD dissertation from the University of Guelph found that dog owners trained in fear behaviors were better at identifying fear in videos of unfamiliar dogs than people not exposed to the training. It was not entirely clear whether this training affected peoples' ability to identify fear in their own dogs, but it's a start.
The last part of the definition of fear is that fear is about a dog perceiving a thing, or a set of things, as scary. What scares the pants off one dog, another dog may be ho-hum about. That's fear for you. It's personal, and its development can stem from any number of things such as genetics, lack of early-life experiences or socialization, or actual later-in-life experiences.
Not being able to pinpoint the 'why' behind a beloved dog's fear can frustrate well-meaning dog lovers, but the good news is that the often unanswerable 'why' is much less important than the next step, or the 'now what.' Although not explicitly stated, embedded within the definition of fear is the notion that fear can be flexible. Something a dog initially perceives as scary can become less scary and even one day not elicit fear at all. For example, because the fear response is mediated in the brain, pharmacological treatments can work to alleviate fear. Veterinarians* certified by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (DACVB) often study and specialize in this area.
Additionally, dogs can learn to feel differently about "bad things." For example, a dog who perceives elliptical machines, nail trims, or even veterinary visits as demonic can come to see them as no big deal. "The best strategy is a combination of avoiding the 'scary thing' (getting farther away from it) and then helping the dog to associate it — from a distance — with good things," explains veterinary behaviorist Dr. Ilana Reisner in her excellent post, It Makes No Sense to Punish a Fearful Dog.
Fear remains a major divider between dogs and people. Dogs don't seek out fear, while many humans do, whether it's Halloween or any other day of the year. I'll always take a horror movie over a Rom-Com, period. But notice that the horror flick isn't being forced on me. I'm in control of the fear-inducing stimulus. I decided to turn the movie on in the first place, and I can turn it off at will. I control when I cover my eyes, mute the TV, and read the captions through my fingers. Pet dogs typically can't control or predict fear-inducing stimuli to the extent we can. But we can lend a hand.
* Veterinary Behaviorists recently came out with a comprehensive book for family dogs, "Decoding Your Dog: Explaining Common Dog Behaviors and How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones." They also maintain a blog 'Decoding your Pet' on Psychology Today.
Arhant et al. 2017. Caregiver Reports of Interactions between Children up to 6 Years and Their Family Dog—Implications for Dog Bite Prevention. Front. Vet. Sci.
Demirbas et al. 2016. Adults’ Ability to Interpret Canine Body Language During a Dog–Child Interaction. Anthrozoös, 29, 581-596.
Dreschel, N. 2005. Physiological and Behavioral Reactivity to Stress in Thunderstorm-Phobic Dogs and Their Caregivers. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 95, 153-168.
Flint, H. 2017. Understanding Fear and Stranger-Directed Aggression in Companion Dogs. PhD Thesis, University of Guelph.
Flint et al. 2017. Risk Factors Associated with Stranger-Directed Aggression in Domestic Dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 197, 45-54.
Wan et al. 2012. Human Perception of Fear in Dogs Varies According to Experience with Dogs. PLoS One 7(12):e51775.