10 Ways to Help your Fearful Dog

Aug 1 / Jennifer Thornburg
I have a fearful dog. OK, I have two fearful dogs. And two shy cats. (I told you I had a special place in my heart and, apparently, my home for worried pets.)

Your world can be a little bit smaller when you live with a fearful dog. It's easy to get discouraged, but know that many people are experiencing the same things with their dogs as you are. Like me. I see other dogs who enjoy having people over, even welcome them! And I often wish my dogs didn't require very planned introductions to new people in their lives. You're not alone.

This falls into three general categories: fear of environmental stimuli, fear of other dogs, and fear of new humans. We're talking about the dogs who are afraid of new humans in this post. There are the dogs who cower and run, and there are some who believe that the best defense is a good offense and everything in between. We should always assume a fearful dog will bite and do our very best to prevent it. 

Now that we have determined that behavior does not define the dog (or the human, for that matter), let's talk about what "fearful behavior" looks like. Most people can recognize that cowering, trembling, wincing, and bolting are fear-based. But fear or anxiety is also at the root of most aggression in dogs, and aggressive behaviors such as barking, lunging, lip lifting, growling, snapping, and biting are also normal responses to fear. And there are many more subtle signals in-between that most humans have not been taught to see.

What causes fear?
Socialization and exposure as a puppy contribute greatly to how a dog experiences the world as an adult. But there are many reasons a dog may be fearful. Genetics, epigenetics, maternal nutrition, and traumatic experiences are all contributors. Every dog is an individual. You can do everything right and still end up with a fearful dog. And on the flip side, what causes one dog to be fearful may be just a blip for another dog. No matter the reason, here we are. You may not know why your dog is fearful, but you have the opportunity to allow them to spend their lives being dogs, feeling safe and finding joy in the things dogs usually find joy in.
Reading this post may be only the first step, but it is an important one!

Building a positive, trusting relationship with your dog is your priority.

Spend time showing your dog that you are a good friend who can be trusted to keep them safe and help them navigate their scary world at their pace. 

It does not mean showing your dog who is the "leader of the pack." You control all the resources; you don’t need to prove it by doing anything that scares your dog.
Here are 10 things to keep in mind to help your fearful dog feel more comfortable.
1. Fear is not a training problem.
Many believe shy, fearful, and reactive dogs need training. But Sit, Down or Stay will not change how your dog feels about their triggers. I'm not saying that you shouldn't train your dog. Training your dog has so many incredible benefits and can be used as scaffolding for the real work of changing their big feelings. But don't expect obedience alone to change how your dog feels about their world or the people who enter it.

2. Even with treatment, your dog will never be a social butterfly.

You may never be able to walk your dog on the greenway or take them to dog-friendly events. They will likely always need some degree of help in managing their environment. But your dog can live a healthy, happy, and full life with you as their guardian.

3. Punishment will always make things worse.
Unfortunately, many dogs are punished for their behavior when they are afraid, which can increase fear and aggression. Punishment doesn't have to be severe to have the effect, especially for sensitive dogs.Punishing a dog for behaviors such as growling may cause the dog to stop growling. Growling is a crucial behavior and one we very much want to keep! Punishing the growl doesn't stop an imminent bite, but it does stop the warning.

4. Use positive training. Always.

Training alone won't change how your dog feels about their triggers. But the benefits of training, such as confidence building, agency, and bonding with their person, are all critical parts of the behavior modification plan.Clicker training can be a great way to work with your fearful dog because behaviors can be marked from a distance. It also builds confidence by using small, achievable goals toward the end behavior. And it's fun!

5. Learn to read your dog's body language.

Dogs are reasonably predictable in their responses to fear and stress, and learning to respond appropriately to the earliest signs will help you avoid escalation. In general, if your dog starts licking their lips, yawning a lot, grabbing treats roughly, putting their ears back, putting their tail down, looking away pointedly, or showing the whites of their eyes, they are fearful or stressed. You can see examples here.

6. See your veterinarian sooner than later.
Some dogs need medical intervention to learn and perform new behaviors in scary contexts. Determining if your dog is one of them shouldn't be a last resort. There may be medications that could reduce risk and/or speed up responsiveness to behavior modification protocols.

You can read more about behavior medications here. Your veterinarian is in the best position to determine if specialty services are needed, such as a referral to a veterinary behaviorist.

7. Change comes from within!

Changing how your dog feels about things will change how they react to things. Make whatever you want your dog to feel good about become a reliable predictor of food or play. It's simple, but it isn't always easy. Working at a threshold your dog can handle (without signs of stress), you can use slow and steady desensitization and counter-conditioning to change how your dog feels about their triggers. This training has many nuances, so working with a pro is best.

8. Find an experienced, positive trainer.

A professional can give you the skills to most efficiently and effectively help your dog feel more comfortable in the world they live in. (Psst. I know a good one!)

If you are not local to Winston-Salem, NC, find a trainer near you who doesn't use corrections, uses food treats, has both formal education and experience living and working with fearful dogs. You can read more about choosing a qualified dog trainer here.

9. Slow is fast.

When it comes to helping a dog feel safe, slow is always better than fast. Avoid situations that are overwhelming for your dog. All exposure should be safe and positive. When you go slowly at whatever speed your dog needs to stay under their threshold and keep learning, the progress will be faster overall. It takes however long it takes. And sometimes, you'll take some steps back. It's OK; you're learning along with your dog. You'll get there as long as you are going in the right direction. Your dog is lucky to have you.

10. Protect your dog.
Protecting your dog is the minimum and most important thing you can do to help your fearful dog. Keep your dog feeling safe. Do this however you need to. Pushing your dog by trying to show them there's nothing to be afraid of will likely sensitize them to it. A dog who learns that they can't just move away from the scary thing may gather their courage and try to defend themselves. This is the last thing you want, so don't take any chances here.

Your dog has learned that a behavior "works" to get distance from a scary thing. Don't allow your dog to practice those "distance-increasing behaviors" Do you want your dog to get better at barking, lunging, or growling? No.

Loving and being loved by a fearful dog is an honor.
In fact, I believe these dogs are incredibly emotionally intelligent. They love their humans BIG. But maybe that's just my sweet beasts.

The work you put into keeping your dog feeling safe and comfortable will be incredibly rewarding when you start seeing your dog find joy where it wasn't before. For me, there is nothing like it, and it's why I do what I do.
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See the following blogs for more information:
20 Ways Dogs Communicate Stress
Ladder of Stress

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