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Ask a Vet: Dogs learn behavior from owners

POSTED: January 19, 2014 1:00 a.m.

Good news: Your dog is not racist.

Bad news: You could make him that way.

I see many dogs in my practice who have issues with certain people. Maybe they don’t like tall men with deep voices. Maybe they don’t like people who wear hats. Maybe they don’t like certain races.

But the important thing is, puppies don’t pop out of mom with that as their destiny. Fear is a survival mechanism, but it’s not always correct. If you’re unfamiliar with something, nature tends to pick you off if you’re not wary of it. So fear keeps us alive. At least, in the wild it does.

I don’t live in the wild and neither does my dog.

She has a tendency to fear certain things, and I have no idea why. She was almost 1-year-old when she came to live with me and may have had bad experiences before I met her. Perhaps someone with loud shoes yelled at her. Perhaps a UPS driver threw a package at her. All I know is she doesn’t feel good with either situation. But she learned that somewhere. Or she just fears what is novel to her. And that fear can be overcome.

With gradual exposure to the stimulus, you learn it isn’t truly threatening. Not all Caucasian people are going to hurt you. Not all mail men are coming to get you.

Even as humans, we fear what we don’t know. Name your horrible example from history. Fear of other religions, races, people with medical conditions. And as the flawed humans we are, we have our own fears that we sometimes passively imprint on others. You don’t have to tell your dog you’re afraid. Dogs speak body language much more fluently than they’ll ever nail down English.

So when your dog acts scared (including aggression) of anyone or anything, remember, that’s there to help you survive. But if it’s not a real threat, it only hurts quality of life. And it may be partly your fault.

Slowly introduce your pet to those scary stimuli to help him overcome his fear and remember to remain calm yourself.

Matthew Sisk is a practicing veterinarian from Habersham County. Have questions about your pet? He can be reached at mattsisk2003@yahoo.com.


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