How can I handle a fearful dog?

fearful dog

Fear in dogs, as in people, is a vital emotional and physical response linked to basic self preservation and survival. Without a keen instinct to both perceive and react to external threat, you are an animal soon destined to be dead. The trouble with the fear response, however, is — much like that other crucial internal defence mechanism, the immune system — not all individuals seem able to control its effects as efficiently as others. And just as an overactive immune system, or one which fixes on the wrong targets, can lead to some serious health problems, animals whose fear response reacts oversensitively or excessively to their external environment have a tendency to lead far more troubled lives.

The origins of fear

The level at which any individual dog perceives threat, and then reacts to it, tends to begin with a basic genetic setting. In some puppies, not only can the fear response kick in very early (under six weeks of age), but it will also be noticeably more extreme when given a specific trigger. Dogs who originally required a high level of sensitivity, reactivity, and responsiveness for their work — such as herding dogs — can be far more prone to fear-related problems. But the same can be said of guarding breeds, and not all owners will understand the link between strong guarding/defensive instincts and a more excessive response to fear.

Sometimes more fearful behaviour gets introduced, or reintroduced, into a specific line or breed of dogs as a result of excessive interbreeding, or because the breeder in question sought to bring some new physical or working asset into their dogs which, unfortunately, brought a less sound temperament with it genetically. It is possible to change, for the worse, the temperament of vast numbers of dogs within any breed from such mistakes or oversights.

Early fear periods

To avoid acquiring a fearful dog, owners will routinely be told not to pick the more ‘nervous’ puppy in a litter. And while on the face of it this is good advice, it can actually take some skill to spot the difference between a puppy who is inherently a more fearful individual, and one who is basically sound, but simply going through a pretty normal early fear period. Therefore, it is a really good idea, if possible, to take some expert help with you to assess any litter you’re interested in, and keep going back to check on before you get one.

It is very common for puppies, around six to nine weeks old, to start displaying fearfulness or unease towards anything strange or new. But with patience and good ongoing socialisation and handling, this phase does usually pass as the puppy grows in confidence. Another crisis in confidence, however, can hit the adolescent dog from around seven to eight months onwards. Typically this confidence slump will revolve around new social relationships, such as less familiar people or dogs, and marks the point at which a dog first starts showing aggression towards those he doesn’t already know.

If you’re really unlucky, your puppy’s first early fear period will appear to merge straight into his later adolescent one, without any respite in-between. Often genes will lie at the heart of this more extreme and sustained nervousness, but the way you have handled a puppy’s fearful behaviour in the past can also hold the key.

Later fear

Over and above fear issues that date back to early puppyhood, it is important to understand that dogs can suddenly lose confidence at stage in life, or become fearful about things — such as specific noises, experiences, less familiar people dogs — that previously didn’t worry them. Older dogs or those who have been neutered can seem particularly vulnerable to this kind of change, as can dogs have been exposed to a particularly traumatic experience.

Managing fear There are many reasons why owners struggle to cure their dogs’ fear-related problems — the most common being that they just don’t sufficiently understand them. This in turn leads to people handling the dogs the wrong way. They may, for example, become exasperated, angry, or even physically punish dogs for acting out of fear, such as when they are aggressive to other dogs and people, or destructive when left alone.

Alternatively they give dogs with noise phobias excessive fuss and attention. These approaches can simply make matters worse. Owners, also, can so easily get sucked into their dogs’ sense of victimhood. In other words, because their dogs’ fear-related behaviour can be so distressing or unpleasant to deal with, they go out of their way to avoid any situation that might trigger it.

Once your dog senses how much he can control your actions with his own behaviour, and notes your equal readiness to avoid or prevent things he doesn’t like, you are further and further away from ever changing him. Fear problems in dogs remain incredibly complex. Not all are as responsive to treatment as others, and many may need ongoing expert professional help.

Common fear-related problems in dogs

  • Aggression towards other dogs.
  • Aggression towards less familiar people.
  • Aggression towards visitors to the home.
  • Destructiveness or fouling when left at home alone.
  • Noise phobias of sounds such as fireworks and thunder.
  • Phobias about particular places/experiences connected to an earlier fright.
  • Extreme reluctance to leave the home (agoraphobia), and extreme anxiety or restlessness when leaving the home environment and surroundings.

How to train dogs to be less afraid

The most important thing to understand about dogs is that they are born with a basic instinct to trust that something is safe, or fear that it is not, and they will then react accordingly. They can’t rationalise their surrounding world like we can. They don’t know why things like fireworks, planes, cars or thunder exist. They don’t know that when they are left alone you will be coming back, and they don’t know that every new dog or person they meet carries no threat or intention to harm. It is up to us, as owners, to give them the guidance and training they need to best adapt, psychologically, to our otherwise pretty scary human world.

1 Get your early rearing right

What happens in a dog’s earliest months of life sets the pattern for his later behaviour. So many dogs only develop separation issues when older because of the way they were originally reared — for instance if their owners allowed them full access to themselves and their entire home from day one. This fosters a sense of emotional dependency and entitlement in dogs, which later fuels the extreme anxiety or frustration they can then feel when suddenly left alone or confined somewhere by owners.

Always begin by keeping your puppy in his own quarters, separated from you and the rest of the home by a dog gate. This way, being on his own from time to time, and at night, will become a perfectly normal experience for him.

2 Get your socialisation right

Another vital part of early rearing is teaching your puppy how to be socially confident, and therefore less likely to react fearfully to strangers. To do this you must not only expose him to a wide range of new dogs and people daily, but also ensure that each one of these new encounters is only ever positive.

Provide every new person you meet with a treat to give him, but make sure your dog always sees that the treat comes from you, or otherwise he may keep running up to strangers and pestering them for treats when older. Also, don’t let him interact with any dogs who could frighten him through being over-bullying, intimidating or aggressive. Keep remembering that while social confidence can take time to build and fully consolidate in a young puppy, it can be rapidly destroyed by one bad experience during his formative months.

3 Get your relationship right

To train any dog to be less afraid, you first have to operate from a position of strength. If your dog doesn’t respect you as being stronger and smarter than he is (even if this strength is just mental rather than physical), you can’t give him a sense of protection when he is frightened, or convince him that your own judgment about what is really scary is superior to his own.

If you are a highly indulgent owner, inconsistent, or one who behaves in a panicky or aggressive way when faced with a frightened dog, you won’t be able to change your dog because you can’t make him feel safe.

4 Address any fear as early as possible

An air of cool, calm, quiet authority always works best with frightened dogs. But it is also vital to tackle any fear response you see in a dog as early and as quickly as possible, because not only do fear responses in dogs become quickly ingrained through repetition, they can also rapidly escalate and move on to a massive range of new targets unconnected to the original source of fright.

Noise fears

In the case, for instance, of a dog who first shows fear towards a certain noise, do NOT reinforce this behaviour by giving him attention in the form of cuddling or verbal soothing. lnstead, immediately try to distract the dog by giving him something else to do — catch a toy and bring it to you, or lie down in a particular spot. Then praise him for this alternative behaviour. The more you give your dog to do and concentrate on, to take his mind off his fear, the quicker he should calm down.

Alternatively just wait patiently for your dog to calm down of his own accord, ignoring any fearful behaviour totally and only rewarding him with attention once he shows more confidence again.

Fear directed at other dogs and people

If your dog first shows fear-triggered aggression (such as barking/lunging) towards another person or dog, you must stay calm but also try to correct this ‘wrong’ behaviour as quickly as possible. Do this by walking swiftly into your dog, in a way that pushes him back, and give a calm but firm verbal command that he already associates with your disapproval. At the same time hold his eye contact.

Your dog must realise that you are correcting him for wrong behaviour. If you just shout aimlessly into the back of his head while he is aggressive or yank him by his lead, he may just feel more aggressive, think you are joining in, or that you are just as frightened yourself.

If you get the swiftness and urgency of this correction right, your dog should immediately stop being aggressive, so praise him well. But don’t go straight home at this point. Instead, ensure that the lesson you have taught him has been learned. Go up to new dogs and people on your walk. If you pass four or five dogs and people he doesn’t react aggressively to, keep praising him after each encounter, and only go home on a good note. If he keeps trying to be aggressive, keep correcting him until you finally get what you want and then go home. Later, to further reinforce this ‘better’ behaviour, give your dog tasty treats and praise each time he passes people or dogs without being fearful or aggressive.

The 'Go-see' command

The ‘Go-see’ command is a vital exercise to teach any dog from puppyhood onwards. It basically teaches your dog that anything he is about to encounter, or anything you ask him to approach, is either positive or safe. First, every time you put your dog’s food bowl down, ask him to ‘Sit’. Then tell him, in an encouraging way, to ‘Go-see’ his food and eat it. Do the same with treats and his favourite toys. Each time place them a way ahead of him, ask him to ‘Sit’, then invite him to ‘Go-see’ them. Work up to asking your pet to ‘Go-see’ other dogs or people he already knows and really likes.

Once he has built up these positive associations with the ‘Go-see’ command, move on to using it when meeting dogs or people he knows less well, but whom you judge to be essentially benign. NEVER use this exercise if you are unsure about the people or dogs you are asking your dog to meet, as one bad experience will destroy both the power of the exercise and his faith in you.

The same exercise can also be used to help dogs approach objects they are frightened or worried about, or visitors to the home.