Help for Fearful Dogs


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.

Keep your own attitude upbeat and perky. Dogs take their cues from you, so if you seem calm and knowledgeable (even if inwardly you’re tearing your hair out and wondering what to do next) they’ll emulate your own behavior. Give your dog a special place to chill out or hide in when the rest of the world gets too much.  Keep things routine as much as possible, as this will help them settle in and give them a sense of security. Exercise as much as humanly possible (depending on the individual dog’s health, fitness, and age of course). Tired dogs are happy, relaxed dogs.

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We all want wonderfully behaved dogs, but it doesn’t happen on its own just because we wish it.  It takes time and effort to create the kind of dog and relationship you want. Here are some basic principles that can help you have a better behaved dog.

  • Have realistic expectations about your dog. No matter how good your dog is, things will get peed on, chewed or scratched/dug up. Barking / meowing, door dashing and/or pulling on the leash can happen with even the best animal.  Accept the fact that dogs are living beings and not china dolls to sit in the corner.  If you have a dog, some time during his/her life, you will loose something of value. 
  • To change behavior you have to be patient and persistent.  Change will not happen over night.  Sometimes it can take weeks or months to change behavior.  The more time you spend and the more often you work with your dog the quicker the change. Despite what some books say, most puppies can’t be housetrained in 7 days.
  • Recognize and meet your dog’s behavioral needs.  Dogs have needs for exercise, social contact with people and other animals and mental stimulation. Problem-solving toys, can provide mental stimulation. Games such as ‘find the hidden object’ and events such as agility can provide all three. 
  • Make it easy for your dog to do the right thing.  Arrange the environment so that the behavior you want is easily produced. The more often desirable behavior happens the stronger it becomes. For example, minimize distractions when you’re trying to teach your dog something new. Put scratching posts where they are easy for your cat to find and use. 
  • Make it difficult for your dog to do the wrong thing.  Arrange the environment so it is hard for your dog to make mistakes.  The more often unwanted behavior happens the harder it is to change.  Close the blinds to keep your dog from barking at those that pass by.  Scoop out your cats’ litter boxes every day.
  • Realize that animals don’t do things out of spite, for revenge or just to make your life miserable. They do what works – that is, what meets their behavioral needs, gets them rewards or allows them to escape or avoid bad things. They sometimes do some things because they are ill.  Dogs counter surf because they occasionally hit the jackpot of a sandwich or chicken leg.  Cats sometimes pee out of the box because they are sick even when they don’t act sick.
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