What to do if you have a fearful dog

To know what to do if you have a fearful dog (like Doris, pictured below, who likes to seek out sheltered hiding places) you first need to understand why your dog is fearful.

fearful dog Doris
Fearful dog Doris, likes to seek out shelter.

Why do you have a fearful dog?

There are a few things which impact on your dog being fearful.

1. Your dog’s personality.  A dog’s natural personality can’t be changed.  If they are by nature a fearful dog, they are unlikely to become a fearless dog.  However big improvements can be made.

2. Its circumstances.  The thing we need to remember is that dogs (like every other species) are much more “survival instinct” based than we are.  They do not know what a lot of noises, sights and smells are, so they could be fearful of all these unknowns, as potential dangers.  And they may also have learnt to be fearful through association.

3. Its feeling of responsibility. If your dog is acting fearfully and choosing to hide, then they are making their own decisions about what to do about the danger, rather than looking to you for reassurance, seeing that you aren’t worried and thus being able to relax. This is the factor that we can change!

How to stop your dog being fearful.

There are lots of common mistakes to avoid here.  These are understandable mistakes, as they are the natural human way of dealing with fear:

  • Cuddling a dog whilst it is showing signs of fear (this simply shows the dog there is something to worry about).
  • Speaking to your dog in a reassuring tone (see above)
  • Trying to get your dog to face its fears through gradual exposure (this has to be done right to work)
  • Trying to make a positive association with the source of fear using food reward (again this has to be done right)

The reason that the last two points shouldn’t just be attempted just now is that they will only be meaningful if you dog trusts you as the leader and decision maker of the pack.  From my experience, it is very rare that this is the case, without the owners working extremely hard using the right method to achieve this.  However the good news is that you can do some work on showing your dog that he or she can trust you to make decisions, and therefore learn to look to you in the face of fear, and see that if you think it’s okay, so can your dog.  Like Amber, pictured below who used to be terrified of hoovers.

dog with a fear of noise
Dog with a fear of noise – no more!

So how do you show your dog that you are the leader?

Okay, this is the part that can’t be answered in a simple blog post. To teach you how to do this would take me about 3-4 hours.  If you want to read about it, rather than get the one to one support, then I can strongly recommend Jan Fennell’s book “The Dog Listener” which is available in my shop. In fact I would recommend reading this book even if you are going to ask for one to one support, as it will give you an excellent foundation to learn more about your dog from.

What you can start straight away is the following:

  • Make nothing of it when your dog acts in a fearful way.  I.e. do not speak to your dog or make eye contact.
  • Confidently get on with doing your own thing – just act normal!
  • Wait until your dog has stopped the fearful behaviour before you next interact with him/her.  The interaction is a reward, so we do not want to reward the behaviour you are trying to get them away from.  Reward the calm and relaxed behaviour.
  • If your dog is barking at something it is fearful of, in a matter of fact tone say “Thank you” to your dog, have a look in the direction it is barking in and then go back to what you were doing.

Please note these are NOT all the answers to your fearful dog behaviour, there is a deeper side to all of this, so if you are looking for a quick fix to your dog’s behaviour, I’m afraid this isn’t the website for you.  However if you are interested in getting a deeper understanding of your dog’s behaviour and building a positive, life long relationship where they can look up to you with trust and without stress, then have a browse around some of my other blogs.  And if you would like one to one support, please send me an enquiry or give me a call. I cover Essex and the surrounding counties.  If you are outside of the area, go to Jan Fennell’s website to find your closest Dog Listener.

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