Scaredy Dog

I have two Border Collies. My younger dog is 12 months old and has suddenly developed a disturbing behavior. If something bad happens to her (e.g. my older dog runs into her while they're going for the Frisbee) or if she is suddenly frightened by a loud noise, she turns tail and runs for home (if we're playing Frisbee near home) or for the car (if we're in the woods). No amount of calling will bring her back. I'm afraid she'll be hit by a car if she continues to return to car or home. Is this a frequent behavior? Is it a phase? Can I do anything about it?

Many behaviorists will note that there is a second "fear period" in the development of most dogs. Generally they peg it around 4 to 6 months or so. Some authors have suggested that the fear period can actually be later than that in development and I have seen some suggestions that this fear period can occur up to a year in age. This is one possibility for this behavior (though I think the least likely). The fear period described by most behaviorists is a naturally occurring period in a dog's life, in which confident and outgoing behavior is suddenly and dramatically replaced by fearful and shy behavior. The reasons behind this phenomenon are unclear but it is generally accepted simply as a "phase" that passes in time.

However, I'm not certain that this is actually what is happening in your case. More than likely, some sort of incident precipitated this change in behavior - something traumatic enough to make a lasting impression and scary enough to produce this avoidance reaction. If you don't know what that particular incident might have been (at this point in time), you'll probably never know, so I wouldn't worry about the causative factor behind your dog's fear. At this point, the only thing to do is to deal with the effect.

In dealing with a scared dog that turns tail and runs when frightened, you need to avoid extremes. In that, I mean you need to avoid extremes in terms of situations, corrections, or reactions on your part. Fearful dogs that run are looking to get out of the situation and avoid dealing with their fears. You might have heard the phrase "The only way to conquer your fears is to face them" with respect to humans, the same holds true for dogs. Facing them however, is not an "all-at-once" sort of process but rather a gradual one. You don't solve someone's fear of snakes by throwing them into an Indiana Jones Snake Pit of Doom and hoping, like Indy, that they make it out alive. People (and dogs) need to face their fears gradually.

The first thing you need to do is to prevent the dog from avoiding his fear. If the dog gets scared, runs away, and doesn't come back, he's done what he's needed to do - avoid the scary situation. I wouldn't overwhelm the dog with downright scary situations at first (i.e. really loud noises, etc.) but start small. Find something that the dog really likes to do (it sounds like Frisbee is her passion) and use this to your advantage. This will help increase the confidence of the dog and will help to downplay the impact of the scary stimulus. Have the dog on a longline in order to prevent the dog from running away from the situation and avoiding its fear. That way when she turns to run, you can stop her and keep her in the situation. However, instead of making a big deal out of it (never coddle your dog - "Oh Pookie... it's OK... don't worry sweetie... everything will be alright..." - Gag! You get the point) continue to do what you were doing. Continue to play Frisbee and act like nothing has happened. You might also want to try laughing at the situation as this can throw some dogs off too and helps redirect their attention to something else. Start with small stimuli and work your way up. If the dog overreacts, back up in intensity and try again. This is a process known as desensitization and works for most fear-producing situations. The idea is that once the dog realizes that it is still in the scary situation and yet nothing bad is happening, it will relax and begin to accept those situations as normal. Have you ever seen a kid afraid to get an injection? If you distract them enough to where they don't notice the needle going in, once they realize that they went through it and it wasn't that bad, they soon relax and take the whole ordeal as no big deal. This is basically what you're trying to accomplish.

This is a frequent behavior in both humans and dogs, particularly when a brief but memorable frightening situation causes an individual to fear similar situations. Whatever set your dog off may never be known - it could have been a very loud noise; it could have been a sudden pain associated with an injury sustained by crashing into the other dog - you'll never know. But you need to keep presenting your dog with similar but less intense situations and allow her to gradually increase her confidence in those circumstances. Desensitization and confidence building are slow processes but can be accomplished through persistence and patience.

Good luck.

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