The Development of Fear

Fear and anxiety underly many of the behavior issues in dogs. Understanding the subtleties of how fear works can help us prevent and address it more effectively.

First, it's important to understand how fear develops in the first place. Certain things are innately frightening for animals. This is controlled by genetics (by definition, innate refers to behavior that is not learned). MacLean et al. 2019 found evidence for heritability in a number of traits in dogs including fear. Exactly what individuals are innately fearful of will vary from species to species. The sensitivity to stimuli and intensity of fear will vary from individual to individual. 

As we know, dogs also learn to become frightened based on their experience. Dogs that have higher levels of innate fear will be more susceptible to learned fear as well because there are more things that are frightening to them in the first place.

The development of conditioned fear occurs through the process of classical conditioning where the dog learns to associate a previously neutral stimulus (such as a white lab coat) with an innately frightening stimulus (such as restraint and pain at the veterinary clinic). If we want to get technical, the lab coat becomes a conditioned stimulus (CS) for the unconditioned stimulus (US) of pain and restraint. Eventually, the CS of the lab coat comes to produce conditioned fear, which is the conditioned response (CR). The context that the US occurs in can also come to produce the conditioned response. In this example, the veterinary clinic itself can trigger fear, since that is where the pain and restraint are occurring.

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Building resilience: effort, reward, and coping with stress

Stress resilience is the ability to effectively respond to stress. In humans, higher levels of stress resilience are associated with decreased susceptibility to mental health disorders. Poor stress resilience is associated with mental and physical health concerns and decreased quality of life.

Basically, stress resilience is key to living a good life.

Dogs that have better stress resilience will be happier - and therefore less likely to develop behavior issues. This is all well and good, but is this something we actually have the ability to change? As more and more research comes out on this topic, the answer is increasingly becoming "yes"!

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The benefits of appropriate challenge for our dogs

We talk about enrichment in the dog world all the time. How important is it, really? It turns out that it's very important! In fact, the very definition of enrichment states that it improves animal welfare and wellbeing. Today I am going to focus on the topic of cognitive enrichment, which Clark defines as "an appropriate cognitive challenge [that] results in measurable beneficial changes to well-being" (Clark, 2011).

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Could Play Post-Training Help Improve What Your Dog Learned?

We put a lot of sweat and tears (hopefully no blood!) into training our dogs. So, we want to make sure they retain as much learning as possible between sessions. 

Both sleep and positive emotional states have been shown to enhance mental performance and memory in dogs when they occur immediately after learning a new task. Research also shows that emotional arousal can enhance memory. 

We often think of this occurring in conjunction with negative events—such as September 11th. But can it happen with strong positive emotions as well?

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