5 Things I Want Anyone With A Fearful Dog To Know

Photo by Patrick Danforth | www.clicktozen.com

Photo by Patrick Danforth | www.clicktozen.com

As the pet parent of a fearful dog, I know that it can sometimes feel terribly isolating. I see other dogs that truly enjoy meeting new people and other dogs (my other dog is one of those lucky fear-free dogs), and I find myself wishing the same for my not-so-social dog. It's easy to get discouraged, but know that there are many people all over the world that are experiencing the same things with their dogs as you are.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as the pet parent of a fearful dog: 

1. Your dog is never going to be a social butterfly.

The odds are, if you have a fearful or reactive dog, you may never be able to go to a public festival with your pup, or take him out to the dog park. With the help of a great force-free trainer, it is possible that your dog's fears can be alleviated, but even if your dog never becomes that social butterfly you hoped for, know that that's nothing to be ashamed of.

2. "Training" doesn't help.

Many people fall into the trap of believing that shy, fearful, and/or reactive dogs "just need training." Some trainers will even perpetuate this false notion in order to get your business. I can promise you that no amount of "obedience" training is going to change the way your dog feels about what he's fearful of. If I trained you how to fluently speak a foreign language, would it make your fear of spiders go away? That's about how relevant obedience training is to working with a fearful or reactive dog.

I'm not saying not to teach your dog basic cues. Teaching your dog to sit, stay, down, come, etc. will all be helpful when utilizing the techniques that will help with his fearful behavior. But don't expect those cues alone to change the behavior.

3. It's not (usually) your fault.

Perhaps you didn't properly socialize your dog as a puppy. Maybe he had a negative experience during his fear periods. But in many cases, people with fearful dogs are working with dogs that have poor genetics or that had traumatic events happen before the dog was in their possession.

Don't beat yourself up over having a fearful dog. I constantly find myself thinking "if only I had known this sooner" or "maybe if I'd done this, she wouldn't be so afraid." You should always be learning about the latest science-based training techniques to deal with your dog's particular issues, and it can help immensely to work with a reputable trainer. Do the best you can, steer clear of punishment-based training methods, and accept that you are going to make mistakes. You may not have created the problem, but you can be part of the solution.

4. There is hope. 

There is more help than ever available for fearful and reactive dogs. I can't emphasize enough how important it is that you do your research when looking for a dog trainer. If you're willing to put the time and effort in to truly change the way your dog thinks and feels, you will see a huge change.

Many "trainers" will treat a leash reactive dog with "corrections" and punishment-based techniques that only worsen the dog's fearful response.  Find out how I stopped my dog's leash aggression using only force-free techniques.

5. Fearful dogs are just as worthy as any other. 

Having a dog that's not social can be isolating and frustrating, but I believe your fearful dog is just as worthy as any other of having a life that makes them comfortable and happy. It may not be the life full of dog parks and house parties that you dreamed of, but it can be a wonderful life, nonetheless.


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Positively Expert: Alex Andes

Alex Andes is the owner and head trainer of Peach on a Leash Dog Training & Behavior Services in Atlanta, GA.


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  • shadow

    pure BS!! most of my foster dogs come with fear issues, you have to correct them when they are going too far into the obsession with fear(i admit this doesent always work but usually does) but with my long term foster skye -she was fearful of almost everything, from men to leaves! i have had her since november and have completely turned her around, she is such a calm dog now and rarely has any issues, you cant just sit back and expect it to get better or go away you have to work your arse off to ensure they cant run away correct them and calm them down before moving away. you cant just feel sorry for them its not going to achieve anything, all they see is the fear and you have t help them overcome it... i find all this information on this page very distressing and essentially cruel, allowing your dog to live in fear instead of correcting it... one correction at the right time will mean the difference between panic and calm, im sure many dog owners would want to help their dogs overcome fears not allow them to get worse, positive training or not, letting fear lie is far from healthy!

  • Alisa Ottman

    Thank you so much for posting. I believed the hype that a 9-week old puppy can be changed up to 14-weeks, which is why I took a puppy whose daddy fearfully hid in the corner when we picked her up. We have done our best to socialize during the winter, including puppy school (the classes only made her carsick). She is 6 months now and is better than if we hadn't been conscious about her timidity, but she is still learning to accept seeing other people and animals. She is a sweet dog and we are doing our best to make her a good dog but that assurance from our trainer about the magical first 14 weeks has greater limitations than I appreciated when we got her.

  • Anthea Rocker

    That made me breathe a sigh of relief for my Ponto, who has progressed well but I know that her fear will never be gone. However, she has a great life with management. And, I must say of all my dogs she has probably taught me most.

  • Kat

    Training does help. The more I'm able to teach my fearful and reactive dog techniques she can use to manage her interactions with the things that frighten her the better her life becomes. Training doesn't make her a social butterfly but it makes her a dog that has coping skills that aren't shutting down or using aggressive displays to keep the scary whatever at bay. Training won't change who she is in any fundamental fashion but it does make her life a whole lot better.

  • ejhaskins

    Alisa, In my experience so many of the pups that 'get car sick' end up fearful dogs. Part
    ly I think because the carsickness is a sign of the pup's temperament, but also because it is hard for those of us not living in the more densely populated suburbs to socialise such pups ;-(

  • Trish

    My dog was very fearful before we started working with a trainer. He would literally panic if we tried to walk him past the end of our driveway, run to the back of the house if someone rang the front doorbell, and wouldn't walk over a wire on the floor. If you put a circle of wire around him, he'd stay put. We took classes and then continued the work after the classes ended. My dog is now very much a social butterfly. He went from being afraid to leave our property to being the first one to greet strangers, allow strange children to gather around and pet him, go on road trips, visit multiple campgrounds and still enjoy meeting new people and other animals. if you do enough work, it's possible to bring your dog to full socialization but it's not going to happen quickly. It took us months of continuous work but it was so worth it. Plus the bond that we developed in the process is amazing. People really need to learn how to read their dog's body language. That's what helped us A LOT with figuring him out and continuing the socialization process. One of the books that was recommended to us is On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals. I recommend it to anyone who has a dog or plans to get one, whether the dog is shy or social.

  • Jean S

    Thank you for all the comments. We adopted a rescue. We've had her 10 months. She is so afraid some days, she will not go outside to pee or eat. She cowers in her crate and runs underneath the table. She is so frightened if outside she spins, slobbers, pees, runs back to the house. But she loves and trusts me. She loves kids, dogs and most men.
    We think a previous owner traumatized her to where she couldn't function. With reconnective therapy and advice from a positive trainer, we've made great strides. We have a long way to go. Your comments and knowing other people have dogs like her is very comforting.

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