May Ask a Trainer: First Steps for Fearful Dogs

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By Kiki Yablon, KPA CTP, CPDT-KA

For this month’s column, I received a request to write about helping fearful dogs. This is a topic I feel very close to: if I hadn’t adopted a fearful dog almost a decade ago, I might not have become a trainer. But it’s also a topic I had qualms about covering in this forum, because many fearful dogs and their owners need professional help, and the advice in this column shouldn’t be taken as a substitute.

Before we go any further, let’s talk about what we mean by “fearful”—both generally and when referring to a specific dog. I’m going to use the term throughout this post, because it’s very convenient shorthand. But labels like “fearful” (or “aggressive,” or “reactive,” or “shy”) don’t actually help us much in targeting the behaviors we hope to change or the situations that trigger them, both of which are crucial to identify before making a behavior modification plan. A dog who displays fearful behavior on leash on the street may not display it when guests enter the home, when playing with the neighbor’s dog in the yard, or while snuggled up on the couch with you. Is this dog rightly called “fearful”? It doesn’t really matter, because the specifics are what we’ll use in figuring out what to do.

Speaking of “fearful behavior,” what is it? Even the most dog-ignorant human can probably recognize that cowering, trembling, wincing, and bolting are fear-based. But fear or anxiety are also at the root of most aggression in dogs, and aggressive behaviors—including barking, lunging, lip lifting, growling, snapping, and biting—are also normal responses to fear. And there are many, more subtle signals between cowering and aggression that most humans have not been taught to see.

If you think your dog has a fear issue, here are six things you can do before and while you seek help from a qualified behavior professional.

Recognize that abnormal fear is not a training problem. Abnormal fear and anxiety—where the response is disproportionate to the actual threat—sometimes stem from actual trauma, but very often are the result of poor or incomplete socialization under the age of 16 weeks. Sometimes they have a genetic component, too: you can do everything right and still end up with a fearful dog. These deficits can’t be completely taught away, and while great strides can be made, your dog will likely always need some degree of help in managing his environment.

Refrain from punishing the dog. If you were afraid of spiders, and every time you shrieked because you saw one, someone pinched, choked, or shocked you, do you think you would you become more or less afraid of spiders? Unfortunately, many dogs are punished for the behavior they display when they are afraid, which can actually increase fear and aggression. And punishment doesn’t have to be severe to have that effect. For a dog who really doesn’t want to be petted by a stranger, holding his leash tight so the stranger can pet him can punish his efforts to say “no thanks.”

Learn to read your dog’s body language. Dogs escalate their responses to fear and stress in a fairly predictable way, and learning to respond appropriately to the earliest signs will help you avoid full-blown fear reactions. The resources provided at Doggone Safe are a good start.

Protect your dog from triggers. This is not a cop-out. It’s the least you need to do for a fearful dog, even (and especially) if you aren’t going to do anything else. Pushing a dog to “just deal with it” or trying to “show him there’s nothing to be afraid of” is likely to cause further sensitization. Not to mention escalation: a dog who learns he can’t just move away from the scary thing may decide he needs to defend himself. (Remind me sometime to tell you the story of how, before I knew any of this, my dog came to bite a life-size bronze buffalo.) What’s more, practice makes perfect with all behaviors, not just the ones you teach on purpose. The more a dog learns that a behavior “works” to get distance from a scary thing, the stronger the behavior will get and the quicker he’ll resort to it.

Train your dog using positive reinforcement. Learning that one’s behavior can predictably produce desired outcomes is essential to good behavioral health (a mind-blowing thing I learned from Dr. Susan Friedman). And simple behaviors with a thick bank account of positive reinforcement behind them will form the foundation of a plan for reducing fear and changing fearful behavior. Clicker training can be an especially good way of working with a fearful dog, because it can be extremely hands-off and builds in small, achievable increments on whatever behavior the dog is already offering.

Talk to your vet at the beginning, not the end. Some dogs need medical intervention just to be able to learn new behaviors, or to perform them in scary contexts. Determining if your dog is one of them shouldn’t be a last resort. The more a dog learns that there is cause to be fearful, and that his behavior produces relief, the harder it will be to persuade him otherwise. In her current webinar, Fearfuldogs.com’s Debbie Jacobs likens waiting to try behavioral medication to waiting to try antibiotics for an infection: by the time the infection gets really bad, the antibiotics may no longer work. If your vet isn’t experienced with behavioral medicine, she can refer you to a veterinary behaviorist.