What Scares Dogs, and Why?

By Karen B. London PhD, September 2020
social fears

Dogs are often surrendered or abandoned because of behavioral issues related to fear. A recent large-scale study investigated four of the most common canine fears and drew conclusions based on their findings. While the insights are useful, the conclusions may not be what they seem.

In a recent study undertaken in Finland, researchers collected data from nearly 14,000 dogs, including thousands of dogs who are afraid of the following things: fireworks, thunder, novel situations, and various surfaces or heights—what are known as non-social fears. (Social fears, a second category, refers to fears related to other dogs or people.) Previous research by the same group had found that a large percentage of dogs are affected by one or more of these non-social fears.

The new study, “Active and social life is associated with lower non-social fearfulness in pet dogs,” noted that dogs who exhibit non-social fears are more likely to have the following characteristics: to have had little socialization as puppies, to be altered (spayed/neutered), to be the only dog in the household, to live with owners who are not experienced with dogs, to live in urban environments, and to have fewer opportunities to engage in activities and training. In addition, smaller dogs are more likely to suffer from non-social fears than larger dogs.

In many ways, the results of this study are not surprising. It makes sense that the more positive experiences dogs have and the more they get out (both for activities and for exposure to various stimuli), the less fearful they are. Varied positive experiences are especially important in the first few months of a dog’s life, a fact that is well-known.

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So, the study’s finding that dogs who received more socialization as puppies were less fearful than dogs who did not have those opportunities is consistent with decades of canine research. It is already well-documented that the degree of socialization puppies experience has an enormous influence on their behavioral and emotional development, which includes their responses to all kinds of stimuli.

To understand the other findings of this study, we must be careful to interpret the data correctly and to avoid assumptions. The maxim that correlation does not imply causality can best be understood with examples: Do not assume that tutoring causes poor grades because children who are tutored have lower grades than children who do not receive tutoring. Do not assume that firefighters cause fire damage because the more firefighters who respond to a fire, the more damage there is. My favorite example of these sorts of errors is the assumption that high chocolate consumption is the reason that some countries have such a high number of Nobel Prize winners in scientific fields. Does eating large quantities of chocolate lead to groundbreaking discoveries? No, but wealthy countries—like Switzerland, where chocolate is a source of national pride—tend to have excellent scientific research programs … and lots of chocolate available for consumption.

With this in mind, let’s consider the correlations found in this study between non-social fears and various aspects of dogs’ lives.

Fearful dogs were more often altered, but that doesn’t mean altering causes fearfulness. It could be that if dogs act up because of their fears—perhaps by barking and lunging—their owners are more likely to have them spayed or neutered in an attempt to change their behavior.

People with multiple dogs and those who have a lot of dog experience may be more likely to take their dogs out and about, whether that means training classes, lots of walks or play dates with other dogs. Inexperienced owners or people with just a single dog may not feel as great a need to get their dogs out for exercise or fun activities, and that difference in exposure may affect their dogs’ behavior.

Because those whose dogs aren’t fearful are more likely to involve them in activities, it may not be the activities and training themselves that make the dogs less fearful. It could, in fact, be the reverse. Fearful dogs may be difficult to manage in classes or during other activities outside the home. Therefore, they may not be exposed to such events because both they and their people are happier and less stressed at home.

Similarly, people may be less likely to engage small dogs in socialization and activities outside the home. The researchers suggest that the association between small dogs and fearfulness suggests a genetic component, but the effect they found could also be explained by people not taking smaller dogs to the same kinds of events they’d take bigger dogs to. While—as the report notes—fearfulness has been shown to have a strong genetic component, experience matters as well.

This study of non-social fears tells us a lot about the factors associated with such fears in dogs. What it does not do is reveal the reasons those fears correlate with various aspects of dogs’ characteristics and their lives.

That isn’t a criticism of study, which is excellent, with a large sample size and some interesting conclusions. It simply means that we must be cautious about assuming that the links imply causality—they do not. More work is needed to tease apart the various factors to determine what causes dogs to exhibit non-social fears.

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She has authored five books on canine training and behavior.