Dogs communicate with the intent to influence behaviour in others. Fear is a dog’s response to a perceived external threat which is controlled by amygdala in the brain regulating emotions. Fears are usually rational and associated with a negative experience or situation. Anxiety is a dog’s response to an anticipated (not yet seen) threat and is controlled by the prefrontal cortex
Fears often result from a bad experience and here’s how a technique that is so often used by people without realising the impact can cause a dog to be fearful of other dogs.
Say you’re walking down the road with your dog and he starts pulling in the lead because he’s excited to get over to another dog down the road so he can say hello. You then jerk the lead attached to his collar (or harness) to try to get him to come back beside you and walk nicely (we’re not saying you actually do this). This jerking motion causes pain in your dog’s neck. Every time he tries to get to the dogs he’s excited to see, you jerk him back again. Through the process of classical condition (whereby something is paired with a consequence and that consequence can then be predicted) your dog begins to associate the pain with the dog that he sees at the time he feels the pain. Over time, your dog may start to bark and lunge when he sees dogs on his walks because he has learned that when he sees dogs he feels pain in his neck. The reason he barks and lunges towards it rather than running away is to try to get the other dog to go away through showing it aggression – if he warns him then he may go away. He can’t exactly run off as he’s restricted by his lead. If the other dog is walking off in another direction, his barking and lunging has worked at creating the distance between them so he’s likely to repeat this behaviour in a similar situation to keep himself safe.
Dogs give us subtle signals that they are feeling uncomfortable, stressed, anxious or fearful but as owners, we often fail to notice these or may misinterpret them. If subtle signals are ignored, dogs give more obvious signals which is where fear can turn into aggression and possibly a bite. Signals can include one or a combination of the following:
- Head lowering
- Muzzle licking
- Head turns away from the thing it is fearful of
- Whale eye – where a dog is looking away but keeps an eye on what’s worrying him and you’re able to see the whites of their eyes
- Ears flattened
- Paw lifts
- Low tail or tucked between the legs
- Wagging tail – this is often mistaken for excitement but for a nervous dog, they are assessing the risk
- Crouched body or lying on their back to expose their tummy
- body shaking – shaking off stress and tension
- tension in the face (easier to see on short haired breeds)
- mouth closed tightly
- body freezing
It’s important to consider these signals in context. If your dog has just eaten some yummy treats, they’re likely to be licking their lips because they were tasty, or if they’ve just jumped out of the river, they’re likely to be shaking off water rather than stress.
Dogs can become fearful of other dogs and people for a reason we may not be able to pin point. There are ways to rehabilitate dogs who are fearful in these types of situations and turn that fear into excitement, it requires time, patience, understanding and a good training plan. It’s important to get a good trainer who uses positive training methods to support you and make a training plan tailored around you and your dog.
 (N.H. Kalin et al., ‘The Primate Amygdala Mediates Acute Fear and Not the Behavioural and Physiological Components of Anxious Temperament’, Journal of Neuroscience 21, no. 6 (15 March 2001): 2067-74