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Is Your Dog Emotionally Scarred?

How to tell if bad experiences are making your dog fearful or aggressive -- and what to do about it.
By
WebMD Pet Health Feature
Reviewed by Audrey Cook, BVM&S

Dee Seiffer was charmed when she spotted a 6-month-old, English cocker spaniel at a shelter. The Milford, Conn., resident adopted the adorable stray, but right after little Ruby came home, she began showing signs of fear and aggression in dogs.

“She was afraid of everybody and everything. She was afraid of garbage cans, parked cars -- she was terrified of a parked truck,” Seiffer says. “She was so cute that people wanted to walk right up to her and pet her. She would go backward, with her eyes as big as saucers, and bark and shake and hide behind me.”

Seiffer knew that fearful dogs can progress from growling and bristling to snapping and biting, so she turned to dog behavior experts for help. In fact, fear and aggression are top behavior problems that concern dog owners, according to veterinarians who specialize in animal behavior.  

“But there is hope,” says Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB, a veterinarian at the Florida Veterinary Behavior Service in Royal Palm Beach, Fla. “They should not give up if their dog is fearful or aggressive.”

Rare Cases

Is it true, as many people believe, that fearful or aggressive dogs have been emotionally scarred by past abuse or mistreatment?

“Occasionally, but rarely,” says Bonnie Beaver, DVM, DACVB, MS, past president of the American Veterinary Medical Association and a professor of veterinary medicine at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.

Some dogs are genetically predisposed to be fearful, she says. “Just as people can be very shy and timid or be outgoing, dogs are the same way.”  

Beaver and Radosta say the typical scenario involves poor socialization during a critical developmental period between three weeks and 16-20 weeks.

“A big problem that we run into with dogs is how they’re raised initially,” Beaver says. “When a dog is a puppy, before even 20 weeks of age, they have to learn what people are -- that’s big people and little people. They have to learn what other dogs are. They have to learn what different kinds of environments are in order to remain comfortable in those situations as they get older.”

Because Ruby was a stray, Seiffer will never know the truth about her early months. But after consulting with a veterinary behaviorist and dog trainers, she believes that Ruby missed out on this valuable exposure. “She was probably in a crate in somebody’s apartment all day and never got socialized,” Seiffer says.

The Fearful Dog

Dogs may fear an approaching person, a noise, lightning and thunder, or any reminder of a traumatic experience. “Fear is something that’s happening that the dog doesn’t understand, and it makes that dog uncomfortable,” Beaver says.

What can owners do?

Learn to recognize when your dog is fearful.

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