Helping a Fearful Dog Feel Secure
A dog can be fearful for many different reasons.
Owners of newly adopted dogs often say their dog was abused in his former home and that’s why he’s fearful. This is possible, of course, although many times the dog is worried because he’s lost his former home, has been in the shelter or a rescue and is now with new people in a strange place. That’s enough to make many dogs worried and anxious. These dogs often settle down and lose their fears once they’ve been in their new home for a while.
Some dogs have legitimately suffered from abuse and can be worried about certain people while other dogs may have been abandoned and are frightened. A previously well-adjusted dog who survived a Southern California wildfire with significant burns was afraid of open fires for the rest of her life and that’s understandable. Some dogs are fearful because they weren’t introduced as puppies to the people, sights, sounds and smells of the world they live in. A puppy born to a worried, nervous mother dog may absorb her fears. Then, too, some dogs are simply born afraid; they have a genetic predisposition to be leery of the world around them.
No matter why the dog is afraid, living with a fearful dog can be tough. While you may wish to wave a magic wand and help your dog feel confident and unafraid in his world, I have yet to find one of those magic wands. However, even without a magic wand, there are some techniques you can use to help your fearful dog feel more secure and more comfortable.
Identify the Triggers
Before you can help your dog feel more comfortable in his world, you need to know what he’s afraid of; what are the things that cause him to be fearful? Is he worried about all strange people or just large men who wear hats? If he’s worried about children, is it all kids or just toddlers and babies?
For a period of time, maybe a month or so, make note of everything that causes your dog to be afraid. A neighbor child with a birthday balloon, for example, may have caused your dog to hide behind your legs and quiver. Was it the child who was scary or the balloon? Did the motorcycle zooming down the street frighten your dog? How about your neighbor’s loud music? Do stairs make him drop to the ground? Is he afraid of the trash truck?
As you make notes about triggers, record also what your dog did at the time. Did he hide behind you, shake, growl, bark, avert his eyes, urinate and defecate or try to run away? The standard behaviors are usually considered fight, flight (run away) or freeze but there are also many other behaviors that can appear. Knowing what your dog does at any given moment will help you manage him later.
When I’m raising a puppy or helping a rescued dog adjust to my household, I teach each of them that I’m security. When they’re worried, I want them to come to me. For example, my youngest dog, Bones, is a secure, stable, 3-year-old English Shepherd, but like all of us, there are moments when he’s worried. If one of the family cats is chasing his tail for example, and he’s worried about those claws, Bones comes to me and makes eye contact. When I pay attention to him, I can then see the cat is stalking him and I can take care of the situation. Although I want my dogs to be able to solve problems on their own, if the problem is one they need help with, I want my dogs to know they can always come to me.
To teach your dog that you are safety, make sure good things happen when your dog comes to you at all times. That good thing can be a treat, a toy, verbal praise or soft (not staring) eye contact that is accompanied by a smile. Then, when he’s mildly worried but not in a panic, call him to you with a smile, that soft eye contact and reward him when he comes to you. Let him remain with you while you either change the circumstances of his worry or let him figure it out on his own.
Help him find a couple of safe places at home, too, for those times when you can’t provide him with security. Crate-trained dogs often retreat to their crate and this is fine. Other dogs like the bathroom or under the dining room table. Once of my previous dogs liked to hide behind the table at the end of the sofa. You can help your dog with these places, telling him that it’s fine if he wants to be there, “Sweetie, go to your spot,” as you walk him there. Then praise him and give him some treats or a food dispensing toy. Have a dog bed there with a soft blanket and perhaps your old T-shirt or bathrobe.
Training Builds Confidence
Training is great for building confidence. Begin teaching some easy exercises, such as sit, down, stay, walk nicely on the leash and come can build a foundation of understanding between you and your dog as well as establish trust. Your dog learns you’ll be fair with him and that he can trust your actions towards him.
Keep the training fun. Smile as you look at your dog and talk to him. Use food treats—or if he’s not food motivated, some special toys—as both motivators and rewards.
Besides teaching him the basic obedience exercises, teach him some tricks too. Trick training is fun, people don’t take it as seriously as the obedience exercises and so it’s easy to make it play. Teach him spin in a circle, weave through your legs, sit up and beg, stand up and dance and other easy tricks.
Training also helps build your communication skills with your dog as he learns to understand you better. This communication is important when working with a fearful dog. After all, it’s important to support your dog when he’s working without increasing his fears with your own anxiety. He may be afraid of balloons, for example, while you’re worried about him. You’re both worried and your dog knows it. As you train, however, you can work on controlling your own reactions and your communication skills so you can more effectively teach, reward and support your dog.
Managing the Fears and Situations
Managing your dog’s fears is basically being aware of those fears, which is why you made note of them, and then making sure your dog is never put into a situation where he would panic. For example, if you’re on a walk and see a child walking towards you with a balloon, you can walk your dog away from the balloon, go to one side, walk behind a car or otherwise avoid the balloon. If your dog sees the balloon, you can ask your dog to sit between your legs or on your feet where he’ll feel more secure. You can have him look at you while you praise him or, if he can’t take his eyes off the balloon, sit with him, keep your hands on him, feed him good treats and talk calmly to him as the child and balloon go past.
Now, I mentioned that you should feed your dog some good treats as the child with the balloon walk past you and your dog. If you are far enough from the balloon so your dog doesn’t panic, and if he’s calm enough to eat the treats, then giving him the treats will teach him that balloons equal good treats. Ah ha! Scary balloons equal good treats! Behaviorists call this counter-conditioning and it can be a good tool to help you manage your dog’s fears. If, however, your dog is so frightened he can’t eat the treats, obviously this technique won’t work. The next time something frightening appears, move farther away. Be far enough away that your dog is worried but not frightened.
There are many different ways to manage a fearful situation. A friend of mine has a small mixed breed dog who is fearful of small children. My oldest dog, Bashir, isn’t worried about kids at all so if we’re out on a walk together and see a child walk towards us, Bashir and I will intercept the child, let the child pet Bashir and then we’ll be on our way. By doing this, my friend’s dog sees Bashir being petted, sees that Bashir is not at all upset and, at the same time, we distract the child from my friend’s dog. Although her dog still doesn’t want to be petted, he’s no longer as anxious about kids, doesn’t lunge, bark and growl as he used to, and is significantly calmer. An interesting part of this is that now, after several years of this management technique, Bashir will spot the child first and even when on leash, will position himself between the child and my friend’s dog. He knows this is what needs to be done.
When you have some control over a potentially fearful situation; say for example your dog is worried about the splashing water fountain out in front of a local store, walk towards the water fountain until your dog becomes aware of it. Then stop and wait with your dog as he looks at it. Give him some treats if he’s interested and tell him how brave he is. Then walk him away, praise him, let him take a deep breath and let him relax. Then walk towards the water fountain again and see if you can get two steps closer. Repeat the process of watching, waiting and then retreating with praise and rewards. This process is called desensitization and can be quite effective for dogs with fears. Just take it slow, watch your dog and when he begins to react, stop or take a step back. Let your dog set the pace.
Careful management can help keep you and your dog safe while preventing him from reaching a point of panic.
Don’t Force Your Dog
As a trainer and behaviorist, I don’t believe in the concept of making a dog face his fears by dragging him up to them. If a dog is frightened by a child walking with a balloon, to use that example again, I’m not going to force the dog to approach the child and balloon. First of all, if I have to drag the dog to the child, my dog is going to lose trust in me as I’m forcing this issue. Then, if my dog is that frightened, he may bite the balloon which will only frighten him even more. Worse yet, he may bite the child or in his fear, he may turn around and bite me. In his panic he might fight so hard he breaks his leash and he runs away. There are so many horrid scenarios in a situation like this and so few chances of a good outcome.
If, however, your dog is willing to move towards the source of his fear, let him. Remain close to him and talk calmly to him if you feel that will be beneficial. If he takes a step or two and then looks to you, acknowledge those steps, “Good boy! Look how brave you are!” Be there for him but don’t force him. Even if he only takes four steps and the object of his fear is much farther away , that’s okay. The two of you worked together and he was trusting enough and brave enough to take those four steps.
Never Punish Fear
When I talk to the owners of fearful dogs, many have, at one time or another, punished their dog for being afraid. Often they have just reached a level of frustration and because they don’t know what to do, they yell, yank on the leash or, in some cases, hit the dog. Other owners say they want the dog to know that barking at guests or growling at the neighborhood child with the balloon isn’t allowed so they punished the dog in some manner.
Yelling, yanking, hitting or other punishments such as these are not going to solve the dog’s fear issues and in many, if not most, cases, it’s going to make it worse.
To conquer fear your dog needs to know you’re his safety, his rock and his anchor. He needs to know he can trust you to be there for him.
Some dogs are able to conquer their fears, especially learned fears of short duration, but other dogs will retain their fears or their tendency to be anxious. In any case, be patient, as conquering fears is a long process. The best thing you can do is provide a measure of safety for your dog, teach him he can trust you and rely on you for being there for him and then help him as much as you can.