Minimizing Fear and Anxiety in Working Dogs: A Review

Nicola J. Rooney, Corinna C.A. Clark, Rachel A. Casey, 2016

ABSTRACT

The causes of fear and anxiety in working dogs are multifactorial and may include inherited characteristics that differ between individuals (e.g. Goddard and Beilharz, 1982; 1984a,b), influences of the environment (Lefebvre et al., 2007), and learned experiences during particular sensitive periods (Appleby et al., 2002) and throughout life. Fear-related behavior compromises performance, leads to significant numbers of dogs failing to complete training (e.g., Murphy, 1995; Batt et al., 2008), early withdrawals from working roles (Caron-Lormier et al., 2016), and can jeopardize dog and handler safety. Hence, amelioration of fear and anxiety is critical to maintain dogs in working roles and to ensure their well-being. Although current methods of selection and training are seemingly effective at producing many dogs which work in a remarkable array of environments, some dogs do not make the grade, and longevity of service is not always maximized. Programs should strive for optimal efficiency and they need to continually analyze the value of each component of their program, seek evidence for its value and explore potential evidence-based improvements. Here we discuss scientific evidence for methods and strategies which may be of value in reducing the risk of fear behaviors developing in the working dog population and suggest potentially valuable techniques and future research to explore the benefit of these approaches. The importance of environmental influences, learning opportunities, and effects of underlying temperament on the outward expression of fear and anxiety should not be underestimated. Identification of characteristics which predict resilience to stress are valuable, both to enable careful breeding for these traits and to develop predictive tests for puppies and procured animals. It is vitally important to rear animals in optimal environments and introduce them to a range of stimuli in a positive, controlled, and gradual way, as these can all help minimize the number of dogs which develop work inhibiting fears. Future research should explore innovative methods to best measure the relative resilience of dogs to stressful events. This could include developing optimal exposure protocols to minimize the development of fear and anxiety, and exploring the influence of social learning and the most effective elements of stimulus presentation.


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