How to handle fearful dogs

11 Jun, 2018

Have you ever been afraid? I'm sure you have. We all have. And  we all fear something : Heights, spiders, small spaces, etc. (If you're fearless, congrats! You are a rare breed of people.)

Dogs can also be afraid of things. My dog is afraid of his towel for some weird reason. 

However, it is one thing to be afraid of isolated items and events. Its another to be afraid of everything.

One of the saddest things is the number of people who misunderstand fearful dogs and worsen situations by not knowing what the proper steps to take are. 

Fearful dogs are usually portrayed as 'aggressive' by the people who attempt to interact with them; they tend to bite, especially if someone unfamiliar tries to approach them. 

This will often exacerbate the idea in those who read such new. However, most often, such dogs are often just victims of circumstance.

The fact is, the supposed 'aggressive' dogs are no more than just fearful dogs, perhaps with some anxiety thanks to being ill-treated in the past.

There are generally a few reasons why such dogs fear everything around them:

  1. Lack of socialising with other dogs

  2. Previous traumatic experience (learnt)

  3. Genetics (though this is debatable)

As a volunteer at a dog shelter, I would safely say that most dogs are often caused by previous events in their lives that cause them to be afraid of things.

 There was once a dog I met who grew up in a construction site. Her mother was presumably killed by a crane accident and was on the run most of her life, all by herself.

When she was finally caught and placed in the shelter, she was so afraid of humans that she refused to eat anything from even her bowl!

It was only several months AFTER getting homestays and constant interaction with the other volunteers and dogs that she is now, slowly but surely, opening herself up to the world.

Anatomy of a fearful dog

How to help a fearful dog

While the jury's still out on the BEST way to help fearful dogs, there are several ways which I was taught and found that they're effective in at least mitigating the issue in the short run.

First and foremost, you must take charge. You can start with the very basics of setting your rules and boundaries for the dog.

Start with the simple commands like Sit and Stay. You should also use positive reinforcement! Food treats often work best for dogs initially afraid of touch.

This will help your dog focus on something to do, even if its only for a few minutes. However, this also has a spillover effect; using positive reinforcement training and rule-setting teaches your dog to associate you with strong positive connections, and thus slowly building the trust of your dog.

Next, you should bond with the dog! If he's going to be adopted in the near future, he needs to know that humans mean no harm. This also is a good form of dog anxiety training - it shows that they can trust us.

As stated above, keep the regiment of rules and treats going! If you notice that he loves a certain toy, you can also use that to your advantage.

It also helps to establish regular routines with the dog to the best that you can manage: Walking the dog at a certain time, feeding at 6pm, etc.

Now we come to the all important section : using TOUCH to help your dog. By slowing bringing in touch, coupled with the steps listed above, this will help the dog slowly overcome his fear of everything.

First off, to allow the dog to associate touch as a good thing, you can utilize the 'touch-first' method:

  1. hold a treat in your palm, closed, and gently touch your dog's nose while saying "touch" (or any other word you want). After that, give him the treat.

  2.  Next up, hold a treat in your hand, but this time, keep your hand close to your body. When he comes smelling the treat in your hand, say "touch" as he touches your hand, and give him the treat

    Repeat this step until your dog realises that your command "touch" means for him to touch something.

  3. When your dog has mastered the 2nd step, we can finally move on to something he likes. For example, his favourite toy.

    Using the same method, when you command him to touch the toy, reward him with the treat! The same can be done for other things, such as his food bowl, bed, and anything he likes.

  4. For the last step, this one will take time to master. This step will involve him touching objects he fears. For example, the vacuuming cleaner, or a fan.

     However, once he gets past this stage and is able to touch what he fears without shying away, you would have helped your dog get over a significant psychological problem in his mind. There are also way to have shy dogs train that out.

For people, similar steps can be applied, but note these tips:-

When your friends are over,

-Ask your friends to ignore your dog when they first meet it.

-People should not approach your dog but wait until he is calm and then call him over. (remember to observe your dog's body language!)

-If he doesn’t come over he might be too scared; leave him alone for the time being.

Above is an example of anxious dog training.


Most importantly,

you MUST FIRST TAKE CHARGE OF THE SITUATION! Its easy to allow our emotions to cloud our better judgement when the dog doesn't do what we expect of him.

Dogs KNOW when we're stressed, annoyed, or angry. They can pick it up! 

Like a child, dogs CAN and WILL pick up signals from you. So, its important that when you're working with your dog, you're not feeling tired or irritable.

Calm down a bit, drink a little bit of tea and relax. You'll also feel much better.

This is understandably a harder topic to approach given the nuances of each individual dog's personality and characteristics. Come have a look at our lessons that will help you through any situation, with any type of dog's personality!



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