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Why is my dog scared of feathers?

(Q) My dog Alfie is absolutely terrified of some feathers, but totally unconcerned by others. What can I do?

(A) Behaviourist Claire Arrowsmith says: This is quite unusual, but a dog’s senses are so acute that they can sensitise to features that we can’t understand. Associations can be made very easily and we are often oblivious to the details at the time when this occurs. It is likely that there is something about some feathers that your dog has learned to dislike (perhaps type of bird, how new the feather is, whether it fell out naturally, or whether the bird was killed by a predator). 

A dog can learn to dislike a feather after having one get stuck in his mouth, or if he was punished/reprimanded around birds, or even perhaps due to a feather pillow that he was chewing.

The important thing is not to reinforce this reaction. Stay calm and don’t draw attention to your dog’s fear or to the feather. Instead, distract him and praise all calm, confident responses. 

If it is causing a lot of problems you can begin to pair up feathers with the arrival of a pleasurable event, such as a treat. In this case begin with feathers that he isn’t afraid of and then try to collect some that he has chosen to avoid and train with those too. 

The tricky part, which means that this process may take longer than a usual desensitisation process, is that you are likely to be desensitising him to feathers in general since you don’t know exactly what aspect about them he finds worrying.

However, with lots of practice and the right responses from you, it is unlikely that this problem will have too much of an impact on him.

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