Can Dogs Fake Being Fearful?

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There's a field close to where you live where you'd love to walk the dog. The only problem is, they have other ideas. Whenever you approach the gate, the dog starts to shiver and shake. You speak softly to the dog, encouraging them forward, closer to the field and the other dogs waiting to play on the other side. Your dog digs their heels in. Their tail droops down and they shiver as if its suddenly freezing. 

To all intents and purposes, the dog looks terrified. But you're puzzled. Nothing bad ever happened to the dog in that field, so why do they seem so fearful? 

Indeed, you're beginning to have suspicions that the dog isn't actually frightened at all, but is faking it and putting on an act. But why would they do this and can dogs even fake being fearful?

Introduction of Can Dogs Fake Being Fearful?

Signs a Dog is Faking Being Fearful

Yes, dogs can fake being fearful, with the deeper question being why would they do so?

Indeed, in a bizarre twist, dogs are so good at faking being fearful that they can begin to believe their own hype and go from acting to believing there's something to be anxious about. It's important to realize this because when a dog acts fearful, you can do more harm than good by either telling the dog to snap out of it or, ironically, by comforting the dog. 

Signs of fear (real or faked) range from subtle lip-licking or yawning, right through to the quivering wreck. It's also salient to be aware that some dogs will manifest fear as aggression, and decide an attack is the best form of defense when placed in a stressful situation. 

The clues typically linked to fear include a low tail carriage, shivering or shaking, reluctance to move forward and a keenness to run away. The observant owner will notice other, more subtle signs such as yawning and lip licking. These are both clues that the dog is uncomfortable and feels conflicted internally for some reason. 

The body language of a fearful dog is often submissive, with the dog rolling over to display their belly, or sinking to the ground, head lowered. However, at the other end of the spectrum the dog may make a display of aggression with raised, quivering lips that expose the teeth, growling, snapping, lunging, and attempting to bite. 

Body Language

Vital body language clues that your dog is fearful (either genuinely or faking it) include:
  • Growling
  • Whining
  • Shaking
  • Cowering
  • Panting
  • Ears drop

Other Signs

In addition, be vigilant for the following signs:
  • Showing the white's of the eyes
  • Rolling Over
  • Urination in subordination
  • Displaying the canine teeth

History of Dogs Faking Fear

History of Can Dogs Fake Being Fearful?
For as long as man and dog have been companions, dogs have reacted in ways that people haven't always understood. What was taken as guilt, fear, or aggression may actually be a misinterpretation of how the dog actually feels. Such is the complex world of dog psychology and animal behavior. 

It is only in the late 20th century that the full complexities of dog body language started to be unraveled. With this new knowledge, it became just how apparent actions such as appearing fearful can be influenced by the action of the owner. What, at face value, appears to be fear, may actually be the dog faking fear as an attention-getting strategy. 

Unfortunately, one aspect of the trust dogs place in people is that they may also interpret rewards as indicating that they are right to be fearful, hence making very real fear even worse. 

Happily, as the knowledge of dog behavior increases, the responsible owner becomes better informed about how they should act around their dog, in order to reduce the likelihood of inadvertently teaching their dog to act afraid or to amplify existing fears. 

The Science of Dogs Faking Fear

Science of Can Dogs Fake Being Fearful?
A dog learns to fake fear when they've previously shown fearful behavior which was then rewarded. This is the basis of reward-based training. To understand this, simply think of training a dog to sit. When their butt hits the ground, you say "Yes" in an excited way and give a reward. The dog feels good about the praise and decides this is an easy way to get a treat, therefore they repeat the behavior when asked. 

The equivalent is when the dog shakes and the owner pets and fusses over them. One-on-one attention of this sort is highly prized by dogs, and when they realize they can put praise on demand simply by shaking, they will repeat the action. Over time, the dog adds new actions that signal fear as they learn that ramping up the signals earns yet more petting and fuss. 

Training a Dog to Fake Fear

Training of Can Dogs Fake Being Fearful?
This is easy to do once you grasp the principles of reward based training. The simple idea is that when an action is praised, the dog will repeat it in order to earn a reward. In the case of fear, you need to identify those actions that show the dog is afraid and then reward them. The dog will experiment with repeating these actions, even when they are not afraid, to see if they get a reward. 

The other side of this is accidentally training your dog to act fearful during fireworks or thunderstorms. For example, let's say your dog is fearful of fireworks. You know July 4th is imminent and at dusk, start to anticipate the dog being unhappy. The dog senses your unease and is already primed up to feel anxious. 

The first firework goes off and the dog shakes. You rush to their side and comfort them. The dog takes the comfort as a reward for being frightened. This results in two things. Firstly, the dog feels justified in feeling frightened because, by comforting them, you're confirming that it's right to be anxious. 

Secondly, the dog rather likes being comforted and so they ramp up the signals. Over time, this leads to an apparent worsening of the symptoms, in part because the dog has learned to act out fear. 

How to React to a Dog Faking Fear:

  • Make sure that there are no factors at play that actually scare your dog.
  • Ignore the dog!
  • Reward them when they show neutral behavior instead.