Different Home, Different Dog – Finding the Triggers of Fear

By NEOGR, Inc.

We often hear from adopters that their new dog is exactly the way we described.  We expect to hear that, since their dog has lived with us prior to adoption, and we know a great deal about their temperament and personality.  But, sometimes a dog will act completely differently when they get to their new home.  A dog that is quiet and mellow at our home may become stressed out and show signs of separation anxiety, fear aggression or just act completely out of character.

The reason for this is rooted in the situation-specific way a dog perceives their environment.  Human brains are wired to make generalizations, to see the forest rather than the trees.  In fact, the propensity to generalize is so much a part of human nature, that we often overlook specific details. How many of us have walked right by something in a store without ever seeing it.  If we aren’t expecting to see something, we often don’t.  (After doing meet and greets for 6 years, we see this all the time.  Folks walk right past the dogs without ever noticing them because they aren’t expecting to see dogs.)  Without such wiring, humans would be in a constant state of chaos, unable to make sense of their surroundings.  Temple Grandin has a Ph.D. in animal science and is autistic.  She holds that people with autism are bombarded with all the details in their environment.  This is very stressful, to say the least, and leads people with autism to act in ways that normal people define as “abnormal.”  But, autism can also open the door to understanding animals.  Temple Grandin, in her book Animals in Translation, writes “Animals and autistic people don’t see their idea of things; they see the actual things themselves… the details that make up the world, while normal people blur all those details together into their general concept of the world” (p. 30).

So, what does this mean for dogs that act one way in our home and act differently in another?  Much of a dog’s “bad behavior” is due to fear.  Even though a dog that is growling or barking or acting out in some way, doesn’t look fearful, they may well be.  Victoria Stillwell on her television program, It’s Me or the Dog, demonstrates this time and again.  Temple Grandin reminds us that differences in the frontal lobes of dogs and humans mean that animal fears and human fears are different.  Dogs are much more prone to hyper-specific fears because of their lack of ability to generalize.  A dog may become fearful of a sound in one setting, but may be indifferent to that same sound in another setting.  It may be that the dog is perceiving all the surrounding details of the sound – the light level, the other smells in the room, the people present, the temperature, etc.  These details will be different from one setting to another and the dog will react differently to the sound in a new setting.

We see this occasionally with greyhounds and cats.  A greyhound can test cat-friendly at the track, but can start to chase cats in a home environment.  Sometimes, a greyhound will be just fine with the cats in one home, but will chase the cats in another.  Greyhounds that are cat friendly while indoors may kill their cat housemate when outdoors.  It’s all due to the situation specific nature of animal perception.

We also see this with the way greyhounds respond to verbal commands.  We can teach a dog to come when called, but that same dog may ignore or even shy away from someone else who calls it.  It may be due to bonding, but we believe that it’s more than likely due to the differences in pitch and tone in the voices that the dog hears.  We’ve learned from Patricia McConnell, Ph.D., that short, rapidly repeated, high-pitched sounds will speed animals up and slow, continuous low-pitched sounds will slow them down.  So, when we call a dog, instead of barking out a loud, authoritarian sounding, “Come!” we say “come, come, come, come” in a higher pitched, sweet, friendly voice.  We’re also backing up slightly and hovering down a little, to make ourselves look smaller and friendlier.  The dogs perceive this as an invitation to something good and they trot or gallop right over to us (well, most of the time they do).

To make matters even more complicated, animals develop superstitions.  The principles of classical conditioning show that animals (and humans) make associations among stimuli.  Some of these associations are logical, based on a clear cause and effect.  If a dog is rewarded with a treat upon hearing the word “good girl,” then the dog comes to associate those words as something pleasurable.  Many times, however, dogs will associate two logically unrelated events.  One of our dogs with separation anxiety made a superstitious association between the sound of the toilet flushing and our leaving.  Every time the toilet flushes, the dog barked out of fear of being left alone.  It didn’t matter that we flush the toilets many times during the day and don’t leave.  We did it the first time, and the dog made the association.

Patricia McConnell has identified some common triggers that set off fear in dogs:

People with deep voices

People with funny silhouettes (wearing hats, large sunglasses, carrying canes)

People who charge up to a dog and put their hands over the dog’s head

Children who bounce and wiggle and squirm

People who are fearful of dogs

We’d like to add a few more triggers from our own observations:

Cigarette smoke and perfume

People with alcohol on their breath

People that lean over a dog or try to put their face in the dog’s face

Luckily, dogs can be counter conditioned.  Desensitization training can be very effective, as long as you know what triggers a fearful event.  Patricia McConnell, in The Cautious Canine spells out a desensitization program for fearful dogs.  Sometimes, however, it’s better to remove the trigger altogether.  This is easier said than done.  Some families can’t identify what triggers the dog to act out.  Some can’t remove the trigger.  Some don’t care or won’t change.  In those instances, it’s better to re-home the dog.  More often than not, putting the dog in a new environment solves the problem.

The bottom line is that in order to be able to figure out why your dog is doing something you’d rather not have them do, you need to be able to perceive their environment the way they do.  That’s no easy task for us humans, but it is possible.  Start looking at the details.  Temple Grandin calls this “thinking in pictures.”  And remember, we tell you everything we know about your dog while they are living in our home, but we cannot always predict what they will do once they leave.  The details may well mean, “different house, different dog.”

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