Studying Fear–and Dog Owners

A new study has come out about dogs’ fear responses to noise; well, that’s what the headline says, but as it turns out, the study is more about owner’s recognition of their dog’s fears of certain sounds. The study was conducted through surveys and interviews. Almost half of the interviewees said their dog displayed at least one typical sign of fear when exposed to fireworks, thunder, or gunshots. But only a quarter of those same people reported their dogs as being “fearful” of noises. So where’s the disconnect?

Owners recognized the more obvious signs of vocalization, trembling, hiding, and seeking out people. It’s suggested that these signals are more easily recognized because they are also seen in frightened humans. The more subtle signs of decreased activity and salivation were seemingly not as easily recognized. And urination or destruction were likely to be seen as nuisance behaviors rather than signs of fear.

I doubt it surprises any professional trainer that owners can be ignorant of their dogs’ emotional states. Some owners don’t even seem to pay attention to what their dog is doing, never mind feeling. It always shocks me to see the extent to which some owners ignore their dogs in public. I’ve been at crowded events where there’s plenty of foot traffic from people and dogs, and owners are checking out merchandise or chatting with each other as their dogs, on Flexi-style leads, roam around and all but get trampled by passersby, or attacked by other dogs. I’ve been at dog parks where owners stand around chatting and drinking their lattes, oblivious to the fact that Fluffy is being bullied by three other dogs, or that Ranger is on the verge of getting into a fight. And we expect them to notice subtle signs of stress?

I truly and deeply wish that the topic of canine body language, including fearful displays, was part of our school system’s early education curriculum. With so many homes having dogs, how is it possible that there is so little early education on understanding them? If we learn to recognize when a dog is afraid, we will not mistake it for being a “bad” dog, or in the case of fear-based reactivity, an aggressive dog. If we know when a dog is scared, we can help them to overcome those fears. And early education on when a dog is afraid would certainly lower the number of dog bites to children.

The reporting article says that “…less than a third of owners currently seek professional advice about treatment for their pet’s fear.” I’m sure more seek help when that fear turns into fear-based reactivity, more frequently reported as aggression. The article concludes by saying, “there is a need for veterinary surgeons to increase awareness among the general dog owning public that treatment is both available and effective in dealing with fears of loud noises, and to direct them toward appropriate sources of help.” Having received feedback from many owners who were helped by my Help for Your Fearful Dog book and Working with Fearful Dogs Seminar DVD, I couldn’t agree more. It’s up to those of us in the profession of dog training and behavior to educate owners about fearful behavior in their dogs, and to give them the tools and techniques to help. Suffering from fear is a terrible and debilitating thing. Whether we are professional trainers or simply dog enthusiasts who are awake and aware, we should all try to educate owners about what fear looks like in their dogs, and to spread the word that help is available.

17 Responses to Studying Fear–and Dog Owners

  1. Susan says:

    Great article, Nicole! I am a presenter for our training club’s “Dogs with Issues” seminar that includes an extensive section on dog body language — signs of arousal, fear, stress and anxiety. Over and over again, the students comment on how helpful it was to just have that bit of information. They start truly *seeing* their dog — sometimes for the very first time.

    • wildewmn says:

      Susan, it’s great that you’re out there making a difference. I’m sure your presentations are helping a lot of dogs and people. 🙂

  2. Jennifer says:

    This is really interesting. Our girl has been afraid of thunder since we got her 7 years ago, and we’ve been in touch with numerous experts, all of whom say there isn’t anything that can be done. Or once we try the thundershirt or the pheramones and it doesn’t work that we should just give up. I don’t want our dog to live with fear every spring when the storms roll in, but the professionals haven’t given us any other potential solutions. I’ll have to check out your book.

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Jennifer,

      I always hate to hear that experts say there’s nothing that can be done. The book will definitely give you some ideas other than Thundershirts or pheromones (both of which can be great tools, but of course not everything works for every dogs). Sometimes it’s not a matter of trying just one tool at a time, but seeing what combination works. Hang in there!

  3. Peter says:

    I have always wondered why my Akita leaves the room when I vacuum the floor. He displays no fear, but he makes sure he is not in the same room. Please note, he has never been teased with the vacuum cleaner in any way as a pup, nor has he been vacuumed to remove his hair when he drops his fur. Is it perhaps the pitch of the motor that is annoying him?

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Peter,
      Some dogs are less demonstrative and give less (or even the appearance of no) display when they’re afraid. Akitas tend to get described as “aloof” because they aren’t extremely demonstrative emotionally. His leaving the room is his way of telling you that he IS afraid of, or at least uncomfortable with, the vacuum cleaner. From what you’ve said, my guess would be that it’s the noise, although of course there’s no way I could know for sure.

      You could make a recording of the sound and play it (without the vacuum in site) at a very low level to where there’s no reaction from him (start so low that you can just hear it). Hang out and play with him while it’s on, feed treats, give tummyrubs, whatever makes him happy. Very gradually over the course of a couple days, or whatever seems right for him, increase the volume. You can also desensitize/countercondition him separately to the movement of the vacuum without it being turned on. Grab a handful of chicken, touch the vacuum, toss a treat. Move the vacuum, toss a treat. Be sure to keep under threshold so he happily stays nearby. Once you’ve got him comfortable with the noise and the movement separately, put them together (and start at a huge distance from him). My “Help for Your Fearful Dog” book has protocols for this sort of thing. Or, you could always hire someone else to vacuum while you take him out. Okay, mostly kidding about that last part. Must have been my own fantasies kicking in. 😉

  4. Rebecca Rice says:

    As an owner of a noise-phobic, fearful dog, I can heartily agree about a lot of people being blind to dog body language! The amount of interference I have to run is huge. I will also admit that knowing your limitations is important (in reference to the last blog post about Limitations). Katie has made huge improvements, largely due to a lot of work with counter-conditioning, learning to read body language, and pharmaceutical support. She could get better, but we are at the point of decreasing returns, where it takes a large amount of effort to make small improvements. Which is not helped by the fact that her triggers are many, and much of it is to sounds that we well-rounded people regard as “background noise”, and thus automatically screen out. So I work to keep her at her current emotional levels (generally happy inside, in the yard, and often on walks), and to accept that she will never be the bomb-proof social butterfly that my first dog was.

    And speaking of dog body language… I was just at a class on that (taught by Janine, who mentioned your up-coming Burbank seminar on the subject), and one of the things that she emphasized was that you really do need to know your dog when you start learning about body language. Apparently, after she teaches this class, she will get a lot of phone calls from students who now recognize their dog’s tongue flick as a stress signal and are worried that their dog has serious issues that need to be worked on. As she puts it, not all stress is bad, and there is a huge difference between a dog that occasionally displays fearful body language and a fearful dog (or any of the other emotions that they can display… aggression, in particular).

    Just some things to think about.

  5. Sam Tatters says:

    Great post! My partner (a dog owner all of his life) is often surprised what I can tell from a dog’s body language; let alone the number of people (who I convince myself mean well) who continue to move towards me when I’m telling them to stay where they are because my dog is afraid…

  6. lexy3587 says:

    Great article. I can especially relate to the people at the dog park ignoring their dogs. My dog is very friendly and easy-going… except that I know that if he starts trying to wrestle with a dog that is already playing with another, it’ll end up getting too rough on the one dog my dog and the other are picking on. So I pay attention at the park and separate Gwynn out of that type of situation before it becomes him being a bully. The number of people who ignore their dogs’ discomfort in dog-park situations is very irritating.

  7. diana says:

    while i appreciate (and agree with) your suggestion that “we should all try to educate owners about what fear looks like in their dogs, and to spread the word that help is available”, i have found that very few people are actually interested in hearing about stress (fear) in their dogs (perhaps because i am not a professional, i don’t know). either they are already aware and don’t want to be bothered to change their own behavior, or they don’t believe chronic stress is harmful to a dog.
    i’m disappointed (and somewhat embarrassed) that so many of my relatives as well as friends and acquaintances choose to look the other way when it comes to their dogs’ emotional well-being 😦

    • Sam Tatters says:

      I find, sadly, that often people are unwilling/unable to admit/understand that dogs “have feelings too” 😦

  8. Sonya B says:

    Hi Nicole,
    Do you have a link to the original research article? It sounds interesting and I would like to read it.

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Sonya, if you check the Science Daily site, that’s where the article was and I’m sure there’s a link.

  9. Amy Swietlik says:

    Hi Nicole,
    Good article and how true that the average pet owner doesn’t understand what their dog is telling them until it becomes way too obvious to ignore. Then they may take a number of wrong turns like thinking their dog is aggressive or dominate. There is too much old school thinking and of course too many folks don’t want to hear they really don’t understand their dogs. I try to gently and slowly get them thinking a different way, but sadly some dogs are victims of their human’s ignorance.

  10. hrosez says:

    Great article. I’m a fan of your work, and have purchased a few of your books. I find them very helpful, and they are helping me become the trainer I want to be. I just started last year, so I’m not taking on anything like aggression, severe fear (due to the aggression factor), or dogs have have SEVERE anxiety (again, due to the aggression that could possibly be a factor), I also have a wordpress blog:, and it’s about my journey into transitioning my career into dog training. Maybe take a look, and see what you think?

  11. Fantastic read! Highly recommend The Dog’s Mind by Dr Bruce Fogle, and paying attention, which is sometimes hard in our busy, busy worlds.

%d bloggers like this: