Fear and fear relapses in dogs
Lots of people don't understand why their happy go lucky puppy becomes fearful as an adolescent and why fearful behaviours suddenly develop without a negative experience.
We have discussed this before in previous blogs, as well as trauma incidents that can take place without being aware of the incident at the time.
The mothers experience during pregnancy can affect fearful behaviours developing through unborn puppies, the DNA can alter due to fear, or genetically be passed on trauma. And still a previously fearful dog was selected for breeding. Behaviour has a major genetic component and many traits are both phenotypically and genetically related. Salonen, M. et al. 2020 (1)
So when we ask if the parents were seen and how the parents appeared to be in their behaviour, potential puppy guardians are seeing either mother in her own safe home and not in the world and possibly a photo of father or they see both, but again in the safety of their own home. So it can be hard for the guardians to fully understand this information or lack of and correlate their dogs behaviour with that of their parents.
This can be distressing for guardians, many guardians feel embarrassed or don't feel equipped to help the dog and feel lost.
Many guardians who work really hard with their dog can feel emotional and some even disconnected from their dog, due to feelings of pressure from onlookers or feelings of being overwhelmed.
These are all very normal and valid feelings, as humans we can contextualise this and say lovely and supportive things. When we flip this and apply this feeling and reassurance to a dog and say "Hey, I get it, anxiety sucks dude, wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. Yes, it is a scary world out there. But you've got this and I'm going to support you." But be genuine and not use toxic positivity.
Essentially that's what we're doing, we are supporting our dog and validating their feelings. I've actually had deep conversations with my youngest around his anxiety and he's made more progress than myself with my own anxiety!
It's OK to have a nervous or fearful dog, it's OK if they relapse, so if they suddenly become fearful again, they are not alone. Many humans can go through fear relapses, myself included after prolonged therapy treatments. So it makes sense that a dog can too. It doesn't mean you have failed, it just means that fear is so powerful that it is life changing as it changes the brain and DNA of a dog and us.
Secure attachment, having a loving and secure relationship with your dog goes beyond just obedience. It establishes a bond of mutual trust and understanding between you and your dog, which ultimately leads to a much healthier and fulfilling relationship. Securely attached dogs have been shown to show less fear due to feeling secure in their relationship and of course for rescue and adopted dogs this secure attachment has to be built slowly. Vieira de Castro, A.C. et al. 2021 (2)
This is why we encourage guardians to stick with behaviour healing and remedies through learning, I recently said in one of my recent blogs, how we take information from human psychology and apply this to dogs. Here we are again. Researchers found that people with a severe fear of flying by the end of their treatment were able to fly without feeling fearful, however once they stopped attending therapy and had to face flying again, they became fearful again. Craske, M.G. et al. 2014 (4)
This can also be dependent upon changes within the environment such as moving home (relocation stress and loss), or the environment becoming stressful and the dog feeling like they cannot escape the stress. In humans we see this too whereas in stressful situations the person feels that they can control slightly and shows less impaired function. Hartley. T et al 2013 (5)
This is why within holistic and positive reinforcement it's important that we are careful in how we help to modify the behaviour and address the emotions of a dog who is fearful.
When we change the context from the dog being reactive, to let’s break down the emotions and find out what emotion is driving the behaviour we can much better support the dog, reactivity as a label is far too large of a spectrum to label a dog and can be unhelpful. When we fully attempt to understand the emotion, we can better support the dog.
Instead of saying “reactive dog” we can say my “dog struggles!”
So let’s talk about the methodologies that have been applied to dogs with fearful behaviours, we know that we learn from human psychology and apply this to dogs which means that we as humans have also experienced these methods, within therapeutic settings. We can also reapply what we have learnt from dogs to humans within psychology.
We know extinction isn't helpful for humans or dogs overall, exposure therapy can be extremely harmful to both humans and dogs and has been found to typically cause a fear relapse. For example, would you do something that would terrify you for an amount of money? The incentive is the financial reward, not the removal of the fear. As well as being harmful and causing further frustration and emotional distress in dogs and doesn't actually address the emotion of the fear.
Extinction can also fall foul to renewal, where many of us say that training in one place such as a board and train facility does not address the fear in the dogs natural environment, so when they go home the fear is renewed because it may have been extinct at a facility away from home. So we see upset guardians who feel even more frustrated as well as the dog as the emotion has not been addressed.
You may or may not have heard the term "spontaneous recovery" which is such a misleading term used by psychologists as with the word recovery, we would typically associate this with recovery. This term however means spontaneous recovery of the fear. The human or dogs fear has naturally returned. Because fear is a powerful thing that alters the brain and DNA structures. A great example of this is trauma.
Due to dogs also having memories and nightmares just like us they may go through fear relapses due to the memories coming back to them of the training that they went through to become conditioned to the fear. These terms are known as reacquisition and reinstatement. Goode, T.D. and Maren, S. 2014 (6)
So what can we do to help? Holistic behaviour modification through healing, focused on helping the dog from a team of professionals to support you and your dog. Coming back to the blog series of "Considering your dog holistically" looks deeply into the team that would support your dog as well as helping them through their biological needs to address emotions.
Guardians can also:
1. Secure attachment: Having a loving and secure relationship with your dog establishes a bond of mutual trust and understanding between you and your dog, which ultimately leads to a much healthier and fulfilling relationship. A secure attachment with your dog means that your dog feels safe and comfortable when they're around you, and they trust you to take care of them. This trust and security leads to a healthier relationship with your dog, as and a secure basis for them meaning they're less likely to exhibit fearful behaviours.
2. Create a calming environment: dogs are sensitive to their environment; therefore, creating a calm environment by reducing loud noises, using calming scents, and providing adequate lighting can help ease tenseness and anxiety, as well as Doggy Enrichment Lands which is a couple of blogs down that prevents dogs from being woken or disturbed by traffic in the home.
3. Nutrition, a healthy digestive system is the foundation of well behaviour. A dog's behaviour is not only controlled by the environment, but also by genetic, cognitive and physiological factors. Miklosi. A, (2014). Physiological factors in turn can be affected by nutrition. Bosch. G, et al, 2007 (7)
The brain is full of an amazing communication system and within this communication are neurotransmitters and hormones and both of these components can be affected by the nutrition that a dog receives and when the brain is affected negatively or positively we can see these effects manifest through behaviour.
In looking at the dogs welfare this is why it is so important to ensure that our individual dog is receiving the best possible nutrition that they can receive.
The gut microbiome is the most important area of looking at the dogs diet as this area is needed to remain as undisrupted as possible, a healthy guy microbiome means that the brain communication system should be working well.
When the gut microbiome is affected, the healthy balance is disrupted and many changes can occur such as inflammation, infections and the production of serotonin 90% of which takes place in the small intestine can be affected. Tizard. I. R, et al 2018
If you are concerned about your dogs nutrition, speaking to a nutritionist can really help to identify your dogs individual needs.
4. Use natural remedies: There are several natural remedies for calming dogs, including chamomile, lavender, and valerian root. These can be given as supplements, or used as aromatherapy or in diffusers. Pet remedy is a fantastic natural remedy for fearful dogs and Andrew Hale of Dog centred care is the behaviour consultant for pet remedy. You can go straight to the website here and see exactly how it works, https://petremedy.co.uk/how-it-works/ if you would like to learn more about Pet Remedy, you can send an email directly to email@example.com
5. Exercise and physical activity: Physical activity and exercise are essential for dogs to maintain good mental health. Playing and walking your dog daily can help release stress and anxiety. When we look at physical activity and play it's important to be mindful that walks are based on sniffafaris rather than a human centred walk around the block or going places that dogs can find stressful such as social gatherings, markets and shows. Physical activity can also be enrichment within the home too!
6. Identify triggers: Identifying the dog's triggers and avoiding such situations may help mitigate fear responses. Rather than subjecting the dog to flooding or working through the behaviour. When guardians view a dogs fear like this, this is disabling the dog and causing the fear to become worse, show signs of shut down, learned helplessness or feel that they have to defend themselves. Working with a gentle and positive approach and focus on healing within a behaviour modification programme is going to be the foundation of helping your dog with their fear and recovery.
7. Integrative support: If the fear is severe, medication may be necessary or supplements. Consult your holistic or integrative vet for appropriate treatment that suits their needs. Integrative and fear free vets have a fantastic understanding of fear and addressing the emotions of the dog and how to help them within a multidisciplinary approach seeing the dog as an individual.
Combining a multidisciplinary approach both at home, in your daily lifestyle and working with a multidisciplinary team can guide your dog to feel supported and secure in their attachment to heal the fear.
In conclusion, remember that your dog hasn't failed if they do have a fear relapse, it's normal. Remember if you cannot place a trigger or a trauma to identify the fear, genetics can contribute. Work with a certified behaviourist to help you and your dog, remember holistic practitioners focus on a multidisciplinary team for supporting your dog, it isn't about ripping you off by sending you to all of these professionals but it is about helping your dog in the very best way possible to address their individual needs and support them. This will set you both up for success and offer long term support and recovery with less risk of a fear relapse.
Salonen, M. et al. (2020) Prevalence, comorbidity, and breed differences in canine anxiety in 13,700 Finnish Pet Dogs, Nature News. Nature Publishing Group. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-59837-z
Vieira de Castro, A.C. et al. (2021) “Improving dog training methods: Efficacy and efficiency of reward and mixed training methods,” PLOS ONE, 16(2). Available at: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0247321
Hiby, E.F., Rooney, N.J. and Bradshaw, J.W.S. (2004) “Dog training methods: Their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and Welfare,” Animal Welfare, 13(1), pp. 63–69. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1017/s0962728600026683
Craske, M.G. et al. (2014) Maximising exposure therapy: An inhibitory learning approach, Behaviour research and therapy. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4114726/ (Accessed: April 23, 2023).
Hartley T; Lever C; Burgess N; O'Keefe(2013) Space in the brain: How the hippocampal formation supports spatial cognition, Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24366125/ (Accessed: April 23, 2023).
Goode, T.D. and Maren, S. (2014) Animal Models of Fear Relapse, Academic.oup.com. Oxford Academic . Available at: https://academic.oup.com/ilarj.../article/55/2/246/642875... (Accessed: April 23, 2023).
Bosch, G., Beerda, B., Hendriks, W.H., van der Poel, A.F.B., Verstegen, M.W.A. (2007). Impact of nutrition on canine behaviour: current status and possible mechanisms. Nutrition Research Reviews, vol. 20, pp.180-194.
Tizard IR, Jones SW. The microbiota regulates immunity and immunologic diseases in dogs and cats. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract. (2018) 48:307–22. doi: 10.1016/j.cvsm.2017.10.008
Image description: titled if your dog is having a rough time. Light blue background with a spider web of text in white bubbles which reads…
Breathe: Calming yourself and breathing can help you to equip yourself to help your dog
Evaluate: Evaluate what's going on, any triggers or changes, use a multidisciplinary approach
Rest & recovery: Allow them time to rest and recover, depending on the individual dog this can be a few days to a week
Seek help: It's OK to ask for help and seek a professional, it doesn't mean you have failed. If needed seek help for yourself too!
Make a plan: Forming a plan can be the best way to battle your own anxiety moving forwards
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The left hand corner has a boy with black hair cuddling a black small dog near his lap. He is wearing a blue green t-shirt and has red trousers and black shoes.
The bottom left hand corner is the same style watercolour, with an arm and hand with the flat to the dogs paw which is brown on a side view.
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