Fear generalization in dogs is a phenomenon that can cause a dog's fear to spread like wild fire.
Simply put, it's the process of fear spreading to the point of involving more and more stimuli or situations that shared something with the original fear.
In order to better understand this phenomenon, it helps to take a look at several examples and then objectively seeking what options are available to tackle the fear.
Why are Dogs so Fearful?
Despite domestication and living in safe homes, dogs have a tendency to exhibit fear.
Fear is a primitive emotion that is adaptive, meaning that it has persisted all this time because it offers some survival advantages.
For example, some dogs who survived Hurricane Katrina, have become afraid of storms.
This fear could have survival advantages if these dogs would sadly find themselves again in another hurricane situation, allowing them to escape rather than perhaps being trapped in a home.
Adaptive Versus Maladaptive Fear in Dogs
Not all forms of fear are adaptive though. In other words, rather than helping in survival, they negatively impact the dog's chances for survival.
For example, a dog who develops a phobia of a metal water bowl is maladaptive considering that water is necessary for survival. Drinking from a metal water bowl could therefore save a dog's life in a dire situation (unless the thirst would supersede and incite the dog to overcome the fear.)
Ultimately, what makes the difference between an adaptive and maladaptive fear is whether it aids in survival or impairs it.
Of course, there may be exceptions to the rule such as fears that may be adaptive in certain scenarios and maladaptive in others.
The Advantages of Dogs Generalizing Their Fear
Because any fearful, aversive experience may never be completely identical, there's an advantage for animals to generalize their fears.
For example, back to the dogs of hurricane Katrina, there could be a survival advantage if, on top of the being fearful of hurricanes, impacted dogs would become fearful as well of heavy winds, pouring rain, or rushing water.
This expansion of fear could allow these dogs to escape before the situation becomes overwhelming and more and more difficult to survive.
In a similar way, a dog who was frightened by a person who threatened the dog with a broom, may benefit from being afraid of any person carrying a stick.
Generalizing the fear of a past experience to a future encounter which shares a sufficient degree of similarity to the original event, can therefore turn handy especially in dogs living in areas where there are climate dangers or where dogs are often mistreated.
The Importance of Early Intervention
It goes without saying the importance of intervening early when the dog shows the first early signs of fear.
This is because, intervening at an early stage is less complicated as the fear didn’t have a chance to generalize.
It's therefore important tackling fearful behaviors at their early onset before generalization occurs and things get more complicated to treat.
Did you know? According to James O' Heare, President of The Companion Animal Sciences Institute, sometimes a dog's fear generalizes so much that, at a certain point, you may have a hard time identifying the original stimulus that caused the fear to occur in the first place!
Why Does My Dog Like My Girlfriend/Boyfriend More?
If your dog likes your girlfriend/boyfriend more, you may be upset from such preferential selection. As upsetting as this may sound, there may be several good reasons why Rover shows his preferences, but don't get upset by it.