If you're a dog owner, you may have found yourself in this scenario before: you and your canine companion are out on your usually uneventful walk, when suddenly she is overcome with fear about a certain object for the first time ever. Many people are confused and frustrated by the development of a new fear among their dogs, but this isn't entirely uncommon, and despite that fact that it may feel like it's come out of nowhere, there is an explanation behind this "strange" new behavior.
Why some dogs are afraid of objects
Phobia among canines is no different than phobia in humans — if something happened to your dog to invoke a fear response, then chances are, that response will be replayed the next time he comes in contact with his trigger. According to Psychology Today, common triggers that can send a dog spiraling into fear and anxiety include loud sounds encountered at a certain place on a walk, like a specific corner, and being placed in situations in which he isn't comfortable, which rings especially true for undersocialized dogs.
A dog can even associate two things to reinforce his fear. The article goes on to cite one specific case involving a dog named Allie, who became fearful of the sound of her owner's toaster clicking on thanks to some loud construction that took place the second the toaster had clicked. Going forward, everytime the toaster made the sound, Allie went running, as she had learned to associate that sound with the chaos outside. These things can happen in any number of scenarios, and maybe things that a pet owner can't correlate, which can make it seem like this fear "came out of nowhere."
Additionally, pain may be responsible for certain anxieties of phobias. If your dog refuses to walk down the street, it may be because she is in some sort of physical pain that you may not be able to see. Much in the same way that the toaster and the sound of construction led to a permanent response, your dog may be associating pain or discomfort with a certain object, or landmark while walking, which may lead to a refusal to walk. For a better understanding of why your dog is suddenly too fearful to walk, it's best to visit a veterinarian who may be able to detect underlying causes of fear caused by pain, if that is the case.
Adolescent fear period
Some dogs may begin to display signs of fear around a certain time in their development known as the "adolescent fear period." According to the Berkeley East Bay Humane Society, canines go through two different fear periods in the first 18 months of their lives — the first one being the puppy fear period, which takes place around eight to 12 weeks, and the second one falling sometime between six and 14 months, during adolescence. Puppy fear is instilled so that dogs can learn "fear impact," or, understanding the difference between what is safe and what is dangerous. It's during this time that a dog's fight or flight response becomes developed, and because most puppies are still with their mothers and littermates during this time, they learn through observation and experience what is and isn't considered safe.
The adolescent fear period is something that more pet owners would spot as dogs are typically (hopefully) placed in their homes by the time this cycle hits. This fear cycle refers to fears of certain, specific situations or objects, and may explain why your dog is suddenly barking at, say, a man in a hat, or why she won't walk past a certain mailbox anymore. This fear period is completely normal and usually corresponds to a dog's growth spurts.
The tough thing about adolescent fear is that your dog's reactions may be unpredictable when triggered by a new, or a perceived to be new, object. Fortunately, helping your dog through this tough phase can be done with a little time, patience, and positive associations.
How to help your dog overcome a fear of a new object
Helping your dog over her fear of objects is not always the easiest task, but with enough work, you can see results, which ultimately leads to a happier, healthier canine companion. Do assist your dog through her anxiety, Pet Helpful suggests using positive reinforcement to coax her through those tough moments. To help her associate positive feelings with unpleasant objects or things, offer your dog a reward when she does anything resembling fearless behavior, even if the act is as simple as walking through the front door. By making hard situations more fun, you can help your dog learn that there is nothing to be afraid of, and she should come around over time. Whatever your tactic, it is advised that you absolutely do not force your dog to overcome her fears by dragging her, scolding her, or doing anything that may lead to further trauma, as this will only exacerbate the problem.