Help for Your Fearful Dog

Many people try to rehabilitate their dog too quickly, forcing him to socialize with other dogs and people. This usually reinforces the dog’s view that other dogs and people are frightening. On the one hand, the dog needs to be socialized as quickly as possible, but on the other hand, he should not be forced into it. If you push your dog to do too much too soon, your dog will only become more fearful and may be forced into a situation where he feels he must defend himself. Socializing a dog and helping him build his confidence is a time consuming task. Thrusting him into the arms of every visitor and dragging him out to socialize with many other dogs can be counter-productive. Strangers should never be allowed to approach your dog to pet him. It should always be left to your dog to make the first contact. If your dog does not want to approach, that is OK. Just give him plenty of time to ‘hide and peek’ and eventually he will come out of hiding. It’s up to you to provide ample opportunity for socialization, but it is up to the dog to proceed at his own pace. Don’t verbally try to encourage him out of hiding. He will probably interpret your encouragement as praise for hiding. Don’t try to force him to come out, this will only frighten him even more.

Behavior modification techniques are often successful in reducing fears and phobias in dogs. The appropriate techniques are called “counter-conditioning” and “desensitization.” This means to condition or teach your dog to respond in non-fearful ways to sounds or other stimuli that previously frightened him such as other dogs, etc. This must be done very gradually. Make your dog feel more secure by letting him know who the “leader” (You!) is.  Orient your dog away from the stimulus (other dogs), and prevent your dog from either causing injury or escaping.  Next, teach your dog that when he sits and stays he will receive a delicious food reward!  The goal of this training is to allow the dog to assume a relaxed and happy body posture and facial expression on command.  Make this a happy game. Once this is established, then food rewards can be phased out.  Lastly, begin counter-conditioning and desensitization to acclimate the dog to the stimuli that usually cause the fearful response.  This needs to be done slowly, and while your dog is on a leash with his head harness on.  Start by exposing your dog to very low levels of the stimulus, such as in a park where there are dogs in the distance.  Your dog is then rewarded for sitting quietly and calmly.  Gradually, if the dog exhibits no fear, move closer to the other dogs.  As I’ve said, it is extremely important that this is done slowly.

The goal is to reward good behavior, and teach the dog how to associate the once fearful stimulus with calmness and rewards.  If the dog begins to show fear during training, you are progressing too fast and could be making the problem worse.  If your dog shows fear when you move closer to other dogs, move back to a more comfortable distance that isn’t invoking the fear response, and start again.  Keep working on this, and eventually you will be able to get quite close to other dogs. Always set up the dog to succeed.  The use of the leash and head collar will greatly improve the chances of success and because of the additional control, will often help the owner to succeed in getting the dogs attention and calming it down; faster than with commands and rewards alone. Attempting to reassure your dog when he’s afraid may reinforce his fearful behavior. If you pet, soothe or give treats to him when she’s behaving fearfully, he may interpret this as a reward for his fearful behavior. Instead, try to behave normally, as if you don’t notice his fearfulness.

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Socializing Your Dog or Puppy

Ongoing socialization is extremely important to prevent behavior problems. Socialization is especially important before the age of 3 months, but should also be done throughout your dog’s lifetime. Gentle socialization plays a huge role in preventing aggression and fearful behavior.

Lack of socialization can lead to hyperactive behavior, barking, shyness and aggression. The younger you begin socializing your dog, the better, but all dogs can be gradually brought into new and even initially fearful situations and learn to enjoy them.

Socialization is a lifelong process. For example, if your dog does not see any dogs for months or years at a time, you would expect his behavior to change around them when he does finally see them again.

How to expose your dog to something new or something he is wary of:

  • Make sure that you remain calm, and up-beat and keep his leash loose, if he is wearing one.
  • Expose him gradually to what he is fearful of, never forcing him. Allow him to retreat if he wants to.
  • Reward him for being calm or for exploring the new situation.

Try to expose your dog regularly to all of the things and situations you would like him to able to cope with calmly in the future. Progress slowly enough so that it is easy for your dog to enjoy the sessions. It will seem like a lot of time to spend at first but it will pay off with a well-behaved dog.

Below are some examples, but this is just a start:

  • Meeting new people of all types, including children, men, crowds, people wearing hats, in wheelchairs, etc.
  • Meeting new dogs (do not bring your pup to areas with lots of dogs until after 4 months)
  • Exposure to other pets such as cats, horse, birds
  • Teach him to enjoy his crate
  • Riding in the car (be sure to restrain him using a crate or seatbelt for safety)
  • Being held, touched all over and in different ways, being bathed and groomed
  • Visiting the Vet’s office, groomer, daycare, boarding kennel
  • Exposure to loud noises and strange objects (example – umbrella opening)
  • Exposure to traffic, motorcycles, bicycles, skateboards, joggers
  • Getting him used to being left alone for a few hours at a time
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How Dogs Learn

Dogs are very efficient in their behavior.  If a behavior is inherently pleasurable (eating, playing, chasing, etc.), or if doing a particular behavior gets something pleasurable for the dog (like food, attention, or social interaction), the dog will display that behavior more and more often.  If a behavior is not pleasurable, if it does not work to obtain something pleasurable, or results in something unpleasant, the dog will use that behavior less and less.  Whenever you interact with a dog, you’re constantly giving her feedback about what works to get the good stuff and what doesn’t work. 

If a dog jumps up and gets attention, even if the attention is that you push him, then he knows that jumping “works” -– that is, it gets him attention and social interaction.  If a he accidentally bites you in play and you don’t end the game, then he learns that play biting “works” or at least is not a serious impropriety -– the fun continues. So you can see why it is very important to manipulate the consequences of your dog’s behavior to be sure he is getting the right messages from you. This is a big responsibility.

The good news is that we can easily use the way dogs learn to “sculpt” their behavior, by consistently rewarding the desirable behaviors we see and ignoring or interrupting the undesirable behaviors.  Gradually, you will see your dog behaving more and more in desirable ways, and less and less in undesirable ways.

But what about, for example, dogs who jump all the time?  Well, that’s just it: no dog ever jumps literally all the time.  Even with a dog that jumps a lot, there’s a moment when she isn’t jumping, so reinforce that moment with attention and some food!  If you don’t like what she’s doing, show her what you would like her to do and then reinforce the new behavior.

Repetition and patience are key elements in dog training.  There’s never a magic moment when the dog understands the meaning of our requests.  Animals gradually become conditioned through lots of repetition that certain behaviors in certain situations will or will not “pay off.”  

We use these principles -– rewarding desirable behaviors and ignoring undesirable behavior or removing rewards when the animal behaves in an undesirable way – and there is no need to use physical punishment.  Dogs make associations with you and with the situation every time you interact with them.  Thus, an unfortunate side effect of using punishment to try to train animals is that, while they may learn to respond to cues, or to stop doing something you don’t like, they may also form negative associations to you, to the situation, the environment, to people in general, or to training.  

Furthermore, often you don’t get the result you wanted from trying to use punishment to train.  Take for example a dog jumping on people.  It’s not a desirable behavior to people, but in the dog-dog world this is usually an appeasing, friendly greeting gesture.  If you use punishment to try to get the dog to stop jumping, you have to use a severe enough punishment the first time that it effectively outweighs the positive associations of the friendly greeting gesture.  If the punishment is not severe enough, then, you are not effectively damping that behavior.  You may even unintentionally be rewarding it.  Furthermore, even if you succeed in punishing severely enough, some dogs may try to stop the punishment by offering an appeasement gesture rather than by stopping the undesirable behavior– so the result might be more rather than less jumping.

So, using punishment to train is pretty inefficient, difficult to do correctly, and, in order to be effective, must be severe.  A much more efficient, friendlier way to train is to teach the dog a desirable, incompatible behavior: ask yourself, “If this is ‘wrong,’ what is ‘right’?  In the case above, you could train the dog to sit to greet people instead of jumping.  

Please keep in mind, physical punishment can jeopardize your relationship with your dog or cause her to become defensive or fearful. Surely that is not your goal. Besides, dogs aren’t trying to be “bad” when they do something you don’t approve of; they are just being dogs. It is unfair to punish a dog for being a dog. It is up to you, as the human with control of all of the resources, to sufficiently and benevolently teach your dog the rules of the house and to train him to meet your expectations.



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