Fear Runs the Show

In our ‘Helping Fearful Animals” webinar course, fear is not only an emotion, but also has physiological and behavioral components.  When fear is triggered in any animal – including humans, many of the responses are quite involuntary.

Suzanne was reminded of this when she got up in the middle of the night recently to let our Irish setter Coral outside.  While Coral was taking a potty break, Suzanne did too.  Unbeknownst to her, Dan had also gotten up and silently gone down the hallway to let Coral back inside.

When Suzanne, still half asleep and eyes partly shut, exited the bathroom on her way to let Coral in, she ran smack into Dan, returning from letting Coral inside.  Suzanne’s automatic, involuntary fear response (“There’s an intruder in my house!”) kicked in as she backed up against the wall screaming. Coral was frightened by Suzanne’s behavior and ran over panting and whining.  Dan, trying to keep things from escalating, remained calm, quietly repeating “It’s just me, it’s just me”, while gently touching Suzanne on the shoulder and petting Coral.

What was really interesting about this encounter for Suzanne, was that not only did her response feel like it happened in slow motion, it also felt as if she had two separate responses.  The “rational” part of her brain knew within a few seconds that it WAS Dan she’d encountered, and there was nothing to be afraid of.  But the automatic fear response had a head start and as Dan later put it “was running the show”. 

Once she started backing up and screaming, Suzanne could not stop these behaviors until they had run their course.  It felt as if she was waiting for the “thinking part” of her brain to catch up and tell the “emotional part” everything was OK and to stop screaming.  And even more interesting, was the delayed response of being angry at Dan for frightening her!

How could these three responses –

  1. immediate involuntary fear,
  2. slower rational thinking
  3. and delayed anger –

apply to fear related problems in pets?

First, fears and phobias are not always rational.  So trying to “show” an animal there is nothing to be afraid of isn’t a useful strategy. 

Second, fear runs the show.  If a dog is afraid of having a young child pet him, demanding the dog sit still and allow it is putting the dog in an untenable position and the child in danger.  If the dog can’t avoid the child for fear (fear upon fear) of being reprimanded and he still afraid of the child, then he’s likely to bite in an attempt to have everyone (owner and child) leave him alone. 

The result is that the dog is more afraid and even angry. Remember Suzanne’s delayed reaction at being angry at Dan for frightening her?  So the next time a child approaches, the dog will be even more aroused and more adamant about not wanting any part of the child coming near. 

Consequently, he may bark and growl at the child when the youngster is several feet away.  Many owners don’t understand why their dogs respond that way when children are at distance and haven’t (to their way of thinking) “done anything” to the dog.  But it should be now easy to see the “why” of an animal’s behavior due to this progression of events.

In a future article, we’ll discuss what likely would have happened had Dan attempted to restrain Suzanne OR yelled at her for being afraid.  Can you see the writing on the wall?

We have a number of resources to help you help fearful dogs (and cats):

“Helping Fearful Animals” webinar course

“Using Counter Conditioning and Desensitization Effectively”

“Helping the Home Alone Fido”  (primarily for dog owners)

"Managing the Home Alone Dog" (primarily for pet professionals)


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