Jeff Stallings, CPDT/KA

Let sleeping dogs lie: why your dog must feel safe

By Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA

I recently fielded a call from the owner of a one-year old male German Shepherd who said her dog had just shown aggression towards her and that she needed to “fix” his aggression immediately. She had come home to discover that her young dog had killed her peacock chicks, so she angrily chased him through her open car door and struck him with her fist, at which point he bared his teeth and growled.

“Your dog showed great restraint in not biting you”, I said. “You are the aggressor in this incident. Your unsupervised adolescent dog acted on his predator instincts in your absence.  When you cornered him, angry and punching, he became afraid of you and told you to back off the only way he knows:  bared teeth and growling.”

Set up for failure

Why did her dog have access to the chicks, allowing this to happen at all? This owner had set her dog up for failure by not maintaining a physical barrier between her birds (prey) and her dog (predator.) From the dog’s perspective, he had had quite the successful hunt!

But the greater issue here is that her enraged attack on the dog made him feel acutely unsafe and vulnerable. I asked the caller how she would feel if, for no reason, an angry, snarling person chased, cornered and pummeled her? She retorted that her actions toward the dog were “justified—he killed my chicks!”

Who knows how long before her arrival the deed had been done? Dogs live in the moment; punishment or reward must be timed within a second or two of the behavior you want to discourage or encourage. In this case, all the dog knew was that his owner had inexplicably attacked him, which frightened him and he reacted accordingly.

Her poor dog did not feel safe.

Safety is key

Psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908 – 1970) is renowned for his hierarchy of needs in which he placed that for safety above the need for water, sex, shelter—and even food. Think about it: Are you going to stop for a meal while being chased by a saber-toothed tiger? No, because in that moment your need for safety (self-preservation) outweighs your need for sustenance. While Maslow focused on human psychology, this is an area of where our behavior clearly overlaps with that of dogs and other animals.

Behaviorist Suzanne Clothier reminds owners that if we violate our dogs’ need for safety, we automatically infringe upon their ability to learn, to think and to perform. (Her dog behavior book “Bones Would Rain from the Sky” is one of my favorites.)

In her seminars, Clothier points out that, “feeling unsafe is often at the root of failure by our dogs to respond as we think they should. Uppermost in their minds is the need to feel safe. When we push dogs into feeling unsafe, we push them out of balance.”

Feeling unsafe leads to behavior problems

Not feeling safe underlies many of the behavior issues that owners, trainers and behaviorists face every day:

  • Separation anxiety: Fear of losing the dog’s most significant social bond (to the owner); panic-inducing for some dogs.

  • Leash aggression: Tethered to a lead that eliminates the possibility for “flight” from a scary dog or person, the dog reacts out of fear to make them go away.

  • Aggression towards men or children: Not properly socialized to them as puppies, dogs perceive these individuals as threats to their survival.

In each of these cases, we humans can rationalize how the dog’s safety is not threatened—but the dog’s emotion (fear) is very real to him.

In the case of separation anxiety, feeling unsafe can cause a dog to go “over threshold” very quickly, making it impossible for him to learn how to be alone. Once the dog’s safety is breeched by being left alone without skills to handle it, progress becomes impossible.

This is why protocols for addressing separation anxiety begin with very short planned departures that increase in duration very slowly. Ramping up the duration of absences too quickly will backfire: the dog’s fear of severed social bonds becomes overwhelming. As long as fear is the dog’s overriding emotion, alone-time duration cannot increase.

Feeling unsafe around children and men

To an under-socialized dog, a fear of men or children is real and from his perspective, not at all baseless, no matter how ridiculous it may seem to us. My life’s work is to instill in puppy owners the importance of exposure to all sorts of people—to at least 100 individuals—before twelve weeks of age, when the socialization period ends. That’s twelve weeks, not twelve months.

Positive exposure to babies and children is especially important because a puppy not thusly socialized may grow up to fear them. As with separation anxiety, dogs leery of children experience real fear, and the erratic movements, high voices and peculiar (pre-pubescent) odors represent a menace to survival.

Any program of desensitization and counter-conditioning (to babies and children, or to anything else for that matter) must take into account the dog’s fear and the need to feel safe.

About those sleeping dogs

About once a month I get a call from an owner reporting that their otherwise gentle dog had “out of the blue” bitten a family member, usually a child. The child had quickly approached and touched their sleeping dog, and the dog had “without provocation” bitten the child.

Evolution has enabled the survival of the fittest to live, reproduce and pass along superior genes. This is true of behavioral traits as well as physical traits, and one instinct that serves an animal well is to lash out with tooth and claw when abruptly awakened.

Quickly awakened and feeling under attack translates to instantaneous retaliation, ergo, the bitten child. In such cases, people ask if I can “train out” the behavior, and I tell them no, I cannot train dogs to not feel fear when suddenly awakened. This is not about training per se, but is rather a management issue. The solution is to teach everyone in the household to verbally awaken the dog from across the room before any physical contact.

Similarly, I often hear from folks whose dog has bitten someone while tied up. “I just ran into the store for a minute and came out to discover Fluffy had bitten this nice lady who wanted only to pet her.” Think about this from your dog’s perspective: You’re tied to a parking meter, your owner—the foundation of your safety—runs out of sight (already feeling highly stressed), and then a stranger reaches towards your face. Your dog rightly feels fearful, yet being tied in place, her ability for “flight” has been taken away. The only other option is “fight”, and the bite ensues.

This is another behavior that I would not attempt to “train out” (an expression I abhor) of a dog. Some dogs can handle being tied up and approached by strangers, many cannot. It is not fair to put them in that position. Solution: Don’t do this! Leave the dog at home or with a friend while you get your coffee.

Innate vs. learned fears

My mother was deathly afraid of snakes. She was not alone, and this is not a fear that she had to learn. Rather, fear of animals that might be poisonous is instinctual. While she might have been able to learn to tolerate being in the same room with a snake, it was never important because in our modern world, avoiding all reptiles is quite easy.

But let’s say a snake slithered towards her while Mom was enjoying a glass of wine on the porch. Would yelling at her or punching her arm make her feel any safer? No, she would be both afraid of the snake and perplexed by my aggression.

Old school dog trainers often invoke aversive techniques to punish dogs reacting out of fear, for instance using shock collars on dog-reactive dogs. While it may appear that the problem is solved, the fearfulness has not decreased at all. Instead, the dog will shut down due to learned helplessness. Sure, the dog may no longer react but is still feeling fearful and has shut down due to trauma.

A better option for some fears is a program of desensitization and counter-conditioning (DS/CC): Exposing the dog to the source of his fear from a distance that he can handle without going “over threshold”, and moving closer each training session while providing a high-value reward for staying calm (the counter conditioning part.)

The reason not all dogs respond to DS/CC methods is that some fears are irreparably ingrained from a lack of early socialization or single event learning. A dog not properly socialized to other dogs as a puppy never gets access to positive physical changes to the brain that are simply unavailable to an adult dog. 

Be your dog's advocate

I have had two cases where young puppies were leashed to chairs then, frightened by a loud noise, took off running with the chair bouncing and chasing endlessly behind them. In both cases, heretofore confident puppies never fully recovered from the trauma.

This single event learning episode was so terrifying and occurred during the ever-important fear imprint period.  Both puppies never felt fully safe again.

I bring up the puppy-tied-to-chair scenario to plead for owners to fully think through all experiences to which they subject their dogs and puppies. Your job is to show your puppy or dog the world, to keep them safe from things you can, and let them slowly acclimate and absorb this crazy mixed-up manmade world.

Of course this is not always possible—sometimes unanticipated events occur—but we must all try to put ourselves in our dogs’ shoes and to be compassionate about their trying to make sense of the world in the only way they can: mostly through their noses, without words and sentences to express how they feel, and from about two feet off the ground.

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Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA
Dog Trainer and Author

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Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA
Dog Trainer and Author

To be notified of my new dog training articles, enter your email address and then Click to Subscribe. I do not spam or share your address, and you will only get an email when I post a new article.