How to handle fearful dogs (AUG 2020 UPDATE)

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How to Handle Fearful Dogs

All of us have been afraid of something - some of heights, spiders, small spaces etc.

Dogs can also be afraid of things. My dog is afraid of his towel. 

Dogs too have and express their emotions like humans. Fear and anxiety are experienced by all dogs at some point in time and not always a reason to worry.

However, you need to take extra care if your dog frequently shows symptoms of depression, destructive behavior or restlessness.

If ignored or if you fail to recognize the problem, your dog may develop a disorder that might cause potential behavioral issues.

You have landed on the right page if you want to know how to handle fearful dogs.

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 make it out to be far worse than it is in the news.

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 (possibly)

Anatomy of a fearful dog

The common reasons for developing fear among dogs are separation from their mother/family at a young age, aging and abuse by their owner in the past.

Go through the following lines if you are looking for information on how to calm an anxious dog.

In this way, you'll also be helping a fearful dog to calm and relax a little.

Stay Calm

If you are approaching a fearful dog, be aware of your emotions. Stay calm and avoid looming over the animal.

You might want to win his trust quickly but wait! It is not as simple as you can imagine.

Do not stare at the dog’s eyes, don’t look tensed and watch out for your steps when you are trying to handle a shy, aggressive or fearful dog.

Get Down to Your Dog’s Level

When you stand tall in front of a fearful dog, obviously he gets nervous.

To assure the dog you do no harm, get down to his level, sit or lie down beside, probably a few feet away for some time.

You can get close to him once he is comfortable with your presence.

Identify the Triggers

Carefully examine your dog’s behavior. When does he get nervous or aggressive? Is it the noise outside, traffic perhaps?

Or is it the sound in your kitchen? 

Identifying what triggers your dog’s fear half solves the problem. Be mindful and make modifications accordingly.

Consult a Vet

If your dog is getting extremely nervous for reasons you can’t identify, it is best recommended getting in touch with an experienced vet.

The veterinarian will be able to identify the triggers and suggest appropriate treatment if required.

Further, he can diagnose if there are any underlying medical conditions and give you tips on how to help dog anxiety.

There are natural therapies that can truly help fearful dogs however, if your dog is under severe stress and showing extreme symptoms of nervousness, the vet may prescribe anti-depressant medicines.

Be open and talk to your vet about anxiety relief dogs.

Avoid Objects that Scare Your Dog

Many dog owners make the mistake of trying to push their dogs towards the objects their pets fear.

They think this move will get rid of the fear. Well, if you are one among those that think so, you are wrong.

Try to make your dog comfortable with you in the first place. 

As you build trust, you can keep the object your dog fears around, but at a distance.

Feed your dog and play with him, still having the object in the room but never try to engage your dog with the object all of a sudden.

If your dog still fears seeing the object, push it away. Just watch, your dog’s behavior slowly begins to change for good.

Do Not Punish Your Shy/Fearful Dog

Never scold or abuse a fearful dog. This will further make him anxious, worsening the already developed symptoms.

 Increasing the anxiety of your dog may even put you at risk.

The dog, unable to cope with your behavior, may bite or hurt you in any other manner. So, go slow and be patient.

Be Careful When You Have Other People Around

This point should never be ignored when it comes to handling fearful dogs. When you have guests, especially children visiting, take extra care.

Fearful dogs don’t easily trust others and are likely to bite them out of nervousness.

When anxious dogs smell different or unknown people walk towards them, chances are high they get aggressive.

Instead, introduce the people to your dog slowly and win his confidence. Socializing is good but not when your dog is panicking.

Establish Routines, Train Your Dog

Routines establish patterns and when your fearful dog gets used to a set of habits, it helps him overcome fear eventually.

It is well and good if you have the skills required for dog training. 

However, if you don’t possess the necessary skill set, hire a professional dog trainer.

When your dog is slowly exposed to new things, he gets better by the day.

How to Handle Fearful Dogs: More Tips
· Do not stare at your dog for a long time. Dogs, in fact, many animals perceive staring as a threat and tend to become even nervous. 

Avoid eye contact and often move your eyes. Avoid facing the dog directly as well.

This may scare your dog and provoke him to behave in a way you least expected.

· Stay relaxed and go slow. Do not make any sudden movement. 

Fearful dogs don’t like quick actions and strange things. Lie down beside your dog, talk to him in a friendly tone and give him some time to trust you.

· Ignore your dog’s anxious behavior. It is but obvious you try to comfort your fearful dog when he gets panicked. 

However, your dog may perceive this as a reward and continue with his behavior. Many a time, ignoring such behavior is the ideal option.

· Once you earn the dog’s trust, try reinforcing non-aggressive or non-fearful behavior. 

Offer tempting treats such as cheese and steaks, and send your message loud.

Don’t rush or force things. Some dogs overcome fear quickly while some others take time.

Don’t lose patience and allow your pet to overcome his condition at his own pace.

A dog's fear (vertical) and anger (horizontal) chart.

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 are effective in helping.

First, 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, 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.

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. 

4. 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.

5.  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!



about the author

Frank Harrigan

Frank loves tacos and dogs - the good, bad and ugly sides of dog ownership.

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