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Canine Behavior/Siberian Husky spooked by nothing?

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Question
Cannot figure out what has terrified my dog three times in as many years.  I have a 6 year old altered male Siberian Husky.  He puts his ears back when there are fireworks and might jump back if something drops in the house and makes a loud noise but otherwise has no fears.  He loves the vet and all people.  But three times now he has spooked for no reason we can understand.  Each time we have had to get him immediately back in the house because he is shaking.  We live near a canyon where bears and mountain lion live.  The first two times were at the base of this canyon while on a walk so we thought maybe it was the scent of one of them.  But since then he has been close to a bear and did not spook.  He also caught the scent of a mountain lion I saw and was cautious and curious but again did not freak.  So when it happened again today we were at a total loss.  He was leashed to go to the car for a ride to the store.  He stopped on the driveway and turned back to the house.  There was nothing different out front.  No people or cars.  I could not get the door open fast enough for him.  When he got back inside he jumped on the couch shaking.  A few hours later we took him back out front.  He was hesitant for a few seconds then fine.  He had an uneventful full walk later that night.  What can scare a dog so much that we cannot see or smell?

Answer
Thank you for your question. It can be frustrating and heart breaking when we see our dogs filled with fear and we don't know the cause or how to help.

It's important to remember that a dog's sense of smell ranges (depending on the breed) between 40,000 - 100,000 times more acute than ours. Human's hearing range is from 64 - 23,000 Hz while a dog's hearing range is from 67 - 45,000 Hz which means your dog can hear tones that are out of range for human ears. They're also able to hear sounds from significantly further away or more quiet than humans.

So it's entirely possible that your dog either smelled or heard something that you were just simply unaware of. Humans rely on our eyes to tell us if something is in our presence. If we don't see it, we often don't register its presence, even if it's very close by. Dogs rely on their noses and then their ears.

Fear is a survival skill and learning quickly of potential life threats is essential for all animals to keep us safe. Because of how important it is for all animals (humans included) to be able to learn quickly the things that should be avoided, we've adapted to make very fast associations. This comes in the form of one-time learning events - where a single experience can create a lifetime understanding that a particular thing is scary and to be avoided.

It's possible that the original moment of fear 3 years ago created a one-time learning event that has stuck with your dog. This is when something scary happens immediately after another, neutral stimulus, and then the neutral stimulus serves to trigger the fear. Example: Let's say 3 years ago your dog was out front and a shotgun blasted near by immediately after a squirrel chirped in the tree by the side of your driveway. If that shotgun blast scared the heck out of your dog, he may have made an association that a squirrel chirping in that particular tree predicts the scary shotgun noise. And now, twice since that original event, a squirrel has happened to chirp from that particular tree when your dog was outside to hear it and place it, and it triggered his fear of the noise to follow.

It could have been anything that scared him and anything in the environment that immediately preceded the scary trigger to create a one-time learning event. I have no way of knowing what the specifics may have been for your dog at that moment. And you may never be able to figure it out, though some careful recollection of the original experience may help shed light on what might have been the original trigger for fear.

Because it's so sporadic it will be very difficult to help him through it. But you are doing exactly what I would do - help your dog feel safe in that moment. Terror is not to be forced on anyone. If your dog feels safest back inside, then let him go back inside. Let him calm down. Then, I might sit with him at the front window and give him some string cheese or hotdog or some other awesome goodness while he looks out the window. Then we might sit in the front doorway (open door, but inside) and continue to feed. Then move to the front porch and continue to feed - always watching to see that he's calm and relaxed. So long as his body is relaxed and he's fully engaged and not trying to escape and not trembling, we're doing OK. Then, if he's doing well, I might gently encourage him back onto the driveway, continuing the feeding of awesomeness and see if we can't make our way to the car to go for the outing I was planning on at that time. But, if he's not comfortable, then I won't force him to go through it. I can leave him at home where he feels safe. I can go to the store later, after I know he's calmed down.

The purpose of the feeding is the process of counter conditioning. It's not possible to reinforce fear. It is possible to distract from it, however briefly. And by pairing his favorite treat to the scary thing (scary thing presents first, and then the food), we help him change his emotional response from "that thing may kill me" to "that thing means manna from heaven!" We are doing exactly the same thing as the one-time learning event, though it takes a bit longer. We are helping him learn that the scary thing reliably predicts good things in his life.

After enough pairings, you'll find that he's no longer afraid of the scary thing, and may even seek out the formerly scary thing because it means good things to him.

Now, as I said, because we don't know what is triggering your dog, it will be difficult to do the counter conditioning. But if he freaks out, it can't hurt to just reassure him and invite him over to look out a window and give him yummies while he's doing that.

I'm sorry I can't be more specific for you. You have a great mystery on your hands. Play detective and look around, even for the seemingly neutral things in the environment, and see if you can find a common thread from one event to another (and if it happens again). This may help you figure out what's going on with him.

Good luck. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance.

Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Los Angeles Behaviorist
http://GoodDog-DogTraining.com  

Canine Behavior

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Jody Epstein, CPDT- KA, APDT

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IF YOU BELIEVE YOUR DOG IS ILL OR INJURED, PLEASE CONTACT YOUR LOCAL VETERINARIAN IMMEDIATELY. THIS IS NOT THE FORUM TO ADDRESS URGENT MEDICAL ISSUES. I AM NOT A LICENSED VET AND HAVE NO DIAGNOSTIC SKILLS. ***I have been answering questions on All Experts for over 5 years now. I enjoy being able to offer assistance in this forum. I do need to be clear, though. If you’re looking for free advice about a specific behavior question, you MUST submit your question to me via All Experts. If you bypass All Experts and write to me directly through my website, I will ask you to submit via All Experts. On the flip side, if you’re local to Los Angeles and you wish to speak to me privately about an in person consultation, please go through my website. I appreciate your assistance in keeping my volunteer work on the volunteer site.*** I can answer questions about the following canine behavior issues: obedience, timid/fearful & fear-based aggression, nuisance behaviors, families that are expanding with either new human or new animal members. If you have potty training questions please first read my trio of blogs at http://CashewsCorner.wordpress.com/ If you still have questions after reading the blogs you can post your specific questions here. PLEASE be as specific as possible when asking a question. Give me a detailed example of the situation - dog's behavior, body language, circumstances surrounding the issue, what the consequences are (another dog's response, your response), etc. I can only provide insight if I can get a picture of the whole scenario. If I ask for further details, please provide them. In person I would normally observe for at least 90 minutes to assess the situation and the dynamics before offering tools and suggestions to modify it. In writing it is ever so much more difficult. Thank you for your participation in the process.

Experience

I have been professionally modifying behavior and training obedience for 7 years. I have owned dogs my entire life. I have just changed the name of my business. It is no longer Good Dog! Dog Training. The new name is Nutz About Mutz!. If you see previous questions with the Good Dog! website information, that is my response.

Organizations
I am a Certified Profession Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA), #2133301 ; I am a member in good standing with the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT), #77763 ; I am an AKC certified Canine Good Citizen evaluator (CGC), #71253

Publications
http://NutzAboutMutz.com ; http://CashewsCorner.wordpress.com ; Multiple articles in the local pet magazine Pet Press (found across Southern California)

Education/Credentials
I have a graduate education in animal behavior and learning. (While I completed my coursework and did the requisite research, I did not defend a dissertation. I am qualified, but not certified and so technically not a doctor. This is commonly referred to as Ph.D.-ABD which means All But Dissertation.) My educational focus was with non-human primates, but my personal interest is with domestic dogs and their relationships with humans and other animals. I continue to educate myself to canine-specific behavior through extensive reading, online interactive workshops, vidoes and attending canine behavior conferences.

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