Training a Fearful Dog
Our instincts as lovers of dogs, tell us to hold or pet our dogs to comfort them when they are scared or showing signs of anxiety. Our hearts tell us to comfort them with gentle words and a pleasing voice.
It doesn’t work.
In fact is may have an adverse affect on the well-being of your dog. How is that possible? It helps kids, right? Dogs don’t rationalize in the same way people do. They don’t understand that you are verbally telling them not to be afraid. But rather they associate your soothing behaviors as reinforcement for their state of mind and behavior. The best thing you can do to help your dog through something fearful, is almost to do nothing.
I showed you recently in the BAT graphic from Grisha Stewart’s book, to give distance when things are scary and that’s fine to keep from them getting reactive. But if your dog is just hiding behind your legs quietly while you talk to a stranger, don’t even acknowledge your dog. Let their noses and your body language and confidence do their magic. You might even occasionally change your stance or position near your dog. Your dog will, in time, start to realize its not big deal.
When I bring a new foster or training dog into my home, for the first day or two I barely interact with them. I feed them, take them for a walk, and give them warm shelter of course, but I really don’t pet them or talk to them otherwise. They may stay far away from me for a few days or they may approach me for affection. If it’s a dog with a great fear of people, I always let them make the first move to seek me
I have brought in many fosters who were scared of everyone! One dog I brought in, Sara, as you see in the picture, took nearly a week before she approached me on her own. Even when I took her outside in my fenced yard, I had to have her on a long-line so that I could get her back in the house. Otherwise, she ran from me. She didn’t pee, poop, or even drink water for about 3 days. She was truly terrified. She was tethered to me for almost 2 weeks, any time she was out of her crate.
She hid under tables at my house – but over time, she sit under the table at my feet. As we progressed, I put her on a shorter lead and went for walks. I offered treats for approaching me. Petting took several days.
And its a tearful moment when a dog like that allows you to pet them for the first time. Even if only for a moment.
There are many techniques you can use with a stressful dog including massage-type therapies, holistic supplements and essential oils, or even music. Not all case are extreme as Sara or other fosters — they may be afraid of Thunder, Fireworks or strangers, or even the most unlikely objects. Whatever you do — don’t coddle the fear. They will draw their confidence from your lack of response to the scary thing.
If you have a dog demonstrating anxiety or fear, please seek help so that you can help your dog recover. They do not generally get better on their own. These are issues you don’t want them to live with or to intensify.
Seek out professional help if you plateau or are uncertain how or when to press forward with your dog. It’s a very delicate thing working with a fearful dog. It’s a “feel” thing you just can’t teach in a written format.