Help for the Fearful Dog

“Lilly” certainly was little. She measured just up to the high end of my ankle and it made me shiver to think of what it was like to live down there with all the giant humans and bigger dogs tramping all over the place. Nevertheless, I’ve seen many confident, even overly-confident toy breed pups that aren’t the least bit troubled with their small stature - but this was different. The little fawn-coated Chihuahau/doxie seemed to have every fear-laden issue in the dog diagnostics book.

Adoptee and rescue dogs almost always have a mysterious past that new pet parents can never truly know. Reading their body language and behavior may give us an idea of what their past lives may have wrought, although their prior and formative experiences may well remain a secret forever.

“Lilly” was adopted at the age of approximately a year and one half and was living with a wonderful and doting pet parent for 6 months when I received a call to help. “Lilly” was now in a safe and loving environment replete with a wonderful garden of a yard in Del Mar but she was still a scardy-cat.

Confidence-building was the overarching goal of “Lilly’s” treatment and training. If we could build confidence, everything else would come along easily when compared to the task of dispelling her fears. Fears are quickly learned because they are adaptive to survival but, therein, also resistant to change. Teaching obedience behaviors using yummy treats as rewards would serve to help “Lilly” develop a positive association with humans rather than the fear-based association that was so apparent.

One of “Lilly’s” most disarming behaviors was what is termed submissive/excitement urination. The first thing Lilly would do when a new person approached was to urinate wherever she was standing. Loss of control of the bladder is a common symptom of fear. We can easily imagine the degree of fear a dog must be experiencing for this to occur.

Since I appeared and sounded friendly, “Lilly” curled her body up in a tight little ball, and crawled on her side over to me, head to the ground and she began licking my toes incessantly in a classic submissive/appeasement display.

Her little body shivered with fear all the while. This is the behavior of a dog who is in conflict - experiencing fear of people, yet wanting to receive affection. Her ears were held flat and back, she would not make eye-contact, everything about her spelled fear. She was not, however, fear- aggressive as many fearful dogs may become.

“Lilly” was afraid of me approaching her, afraid of hands and afraid of the clicker which I often use in training fearful dogs in order to speed desensitization. Training would be a slow and delicate operation and I would be ever watchful for the slightest landmark improvement that could be built upon.

We used the distancing technique as a starting point for desensitization training. We began with “Lilly” standing and looking at me from a considerable distance where she did not show any body language or fear behaviors while her pet mom talked confidently to her at close range and fed her treats. As long as “Lilly” continued to behave in a normal fashion, her mom approached closer toward me, one step at a time, using the same confidence-building techniques.

Desensitizing “Lilly” to the clicker took a couple of weeks. I started by making a soft, muffled clicking sound with my mouth and graduated to using the real thing held behind my back, in my pocket and then out in the open. If “Lilly” was a bit hungry, she would work to overcome her fear of the noise because she wanted the treat! I would click and treat for head held high and for high ear carriage too. We graduated to gentle handling and massage to help “Lilly” overcome her fear of hands. We then worked on not rewarding appeasement or fearful behaviors - so if “Lilly” appeasement licked or put her ears back, she would not get petted but if she acted brave she would get a pet and a treat!

There is a psychological theory called the James-Lange theory that suggests that if, for instance, you smile, you will feel happier. Thus, using rewards for confident body language in a dog may predict the development of confidence in the dog.

Training toy and small dogs in basic behaviors, such as sit, may be most easily accomplished by placing the dog on the couch next to you and working in close proximity to your dog. Once you get the sit, you can then increase the difficulty by placing your dog on the floor. This is how I taught “Lilly” and many small breed dogs to sit.

Lying down is a vulnerable body posture for a fearful dog, however, and Lilly did not want to give up what little height she had by standing. Fortunately for us, her favorite treats finally won out when I had her sit underneath a chair and placed the treat on the floor outside of the chair. She crawled under the horizontal bar that runs parallel to the floor to get the treat and thus, we had a successful method to train the down!

I remember the first time I arrived on “Lilly’s” doorstep and she neither urinated nor crawled over to me but walked up to me just as natural as can be… and smiled. I later had the pleasure of pet sitting Lilly and some of her family dogs. She was just the sweetest thing. I got her an extra, extra small doggie life-jacket just in case she got accidentally pushed into the pool by the larger dogs. She looked hilarious wearing it – but practically so.

The last I heard of “Lilly”, she was happily chasing butterflies in her backyard and taking daily walks along the ocean, being widely admired and loving every minute of it. Good Brave Happy Girl “Lilly”!

Names have been changed to protect the innocents and the rascals as well as their very devoted pet parents.

Linda Michaels, “Dog Psychologist,” MA, and Victoria Stilwell-licensed Del Mar dog trainer and speaker may be reached at 858.259.WOOF (9663) or by email: [email protected] for private obedience instruction and behavioral consultations near Del Mar and the San Diego Coast. Please visit us at

Originally published RanchCoastNews, Lorine Wright, Executive Editor.  All rights reserved.

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Positively Expert: Linda Michaels, MA

Linda Michaels is a VSPDT trainer, dog training columnist, and owner of Dog Psychologist On Call in Del Mar, CA. Linda holds a Master’s Degree in Psychology with research experience in Behavioral Neurobiology. She is a Behavioral Advisor for the Wolf Education Project (WEP) in Julian, CA and Art for Barks in Rancho Santa Fe, CA.


17 thoughts on “Help for the Fearful Dog

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Help for the Fearful Dog | Victoria Stilwell Positively --

  2. Jules

    Love the article! Great to hear Lilly's doing well. I'm soon to be a foster mom for some smaller dogs and these techniques will be a great help in increasing their confidence. It's difficult to remember that comforting a scared dog is rewarding fear behaviors, so thanks for the reminder.

    As a very small sidenote - it's not necessary to put the dog's name in quotes, nor the term Dog Psychologist. 🙂

  3. Toni Stoltz

    Love this article! I was just talking this morning to my daughter about helping her with some confidence building for her lab pit bull mix. Her dog is so sweet but very timid sometimes and I suggested some of the same things that you have mentioned in this article--thank you so very much! Being a dog trainer is so rewarding--I am loving every minute of this new career!! Victoria is my idol and has been my inspiration!!

  4. Marianne

    Great story - 'I was wondering if this would work with my dog who has started to pee when she igoes to get her nails trimmed.

  5. Marie

    Good article.

    I have a dog who is fear aggressive and over the years she has come very far. I had to carry out of the shelter because she wouldn't walk, she just flattened and every new situation after that, she would flatten. Going on walks, going to petco, she wouldn't leave the car, then once she did, she wouldn't enter the store. She loved food and treats but in those situations, she isn't interested in food.
    You name it, she's scared of it. She runs away from butterflies!
    It takes a lot of patience and time but now she loves going to petco and sniffing. She's still iffy with grownups (loves kids!) but she has her limits and when we are checking out, she's ready to leave. She'll go out and pee in the rain now.

    Don't give up on your dog if they have fear! They just need love and patience.

  6. Linda Michaels Post author

    Hi Jules, I was actually avoiding flooding with this dog by restraining rewards for appeasement behaviors. It has been shown that fear itself cannot be "rewarded" per se. Food and attention can change the emotion of fear, so generally speaking, it's a good thing to comfort in the face of fear. So I DO comfort in a calm or enthusiastic manner, but not coddle, in an effort to increase confidence. It's a matter of intensity. With this dog, operantly, I was rewarding "brave" body language which is actually a separate subject in dog training than CER (conditioned emotional response). Of course, bonding with Lily somehow was first and foremost on my list of things to do! Love the love.Thank you for posting. Warm regards, Linda

    Hi Marianne,
    Poor puppy. Nail trimming can add in an entire array of triggers and/or past traumatic experience to the mix. One of my favorite videos is on my FB page by another of our Expert Bloggers, Dr. Sophia Yin. Although Dr. Yin's dog is trying to bite her, it makes little difference in the principle being applied or the goal-- that of changing the emotion to calming for nail trim. Gentle groomers may be hard to find. Jean Donaldson outlines a terrific baby-step technique in her book, "Oh Behave" for veterinary visits that would work for grooming visits too! Thank for posting. Linda
    Good luck with your pup.

  7. Vickie

    Just love this story of Lilly....we have our own Lil-e .....yes...spelled oddly..... we rescued her at 10 months old, she had been badly abused....such a sad baby. We'be had her 5 yrs now and while she occasionally will have issues with strange men, or with going into the yard, she is the happiest little thing, and the biggest love. Oh, Lil-e is a Shih-Tzu......where stubborn is their middle name....we have two other Tzu's and a Maltese......but we are most proud of our oldest girl....our rescue....she stole our hearts from day one!

  8. Jason M.

    Lilly was lucky to find you LInda! I must say that my favorite part of your blog wasn't in your original article, but your response to Jules. "Of course, bonding with Lily somehow was first and foremost on my list of things to do! Love the love."

    Distance desensitization training can be a mathematical process of rewarding for calm/confident postures and behaviors at one distance and then inching closer. During this process, some trainers easily become mathematicians while they keep track of calm behavior at 20', 19'11" and 19'10". I've seen trainers forget about the dog in exchange for keeping track of distance. For you, bonding with Lilly was "of course" the foremost thing to accomplish. I guess I love the love too.

  9. Linda Michaels, MA Psych

    Thank you so much Jason for the insights and kind words.

    To me the entire point of doing any of the work is so that Lily can bond with people! Well, of course. It starts with her pet parent, and then I'm, hopefully, next in line. What an honor to have the opportunity to be the one that breaks through the fear-barrier with her. It's a team effort. I have tears in my eyes writing about it.

    I suppose that I just considered that to be understood. I'm no "increment by the inch" type trainer although I have a laboratory back-ground.

    Having the opportunity and the privilege to get out of the stringency required for research and work one-on-one with a real pet dog, gives the trainer a huge personal advantage that may be sometimes lessened by using lots of tools and measurements in my opinion.

    Warm regards,

  10. Jules

    Linda - thanks for the clarification. Joey's been with me for a few days now - he's 40 pounds of 3-4 year old terrified hunting hound/beagle that I'm sure hasn't been allowed inside a house or spent much time with people. We are working on toileting and bonding - I'm searching for treats that get his attention to no avail just yet. When we're on a walk and he gets scared when someone walks by, I shorten the leash and am just quietly there for him to learn to trust to protect him, then give a quick heartfelt rub for trusting me once they've passed. He's slowly warming up to me and getting used to the new place, two cats and the schedule. I hope I'm doing it right. 🙂

  11. Vicki McCray

    Our one year old long haired chi is becoming fear-aggressive. He went through trauma as a tiny pup (he came from a puppy mill with bordatella which quickly evolved into double pneumonia). I had to nurse him to health, handfeeding him to get weight on him and relieve his fear. Now he is so tightly bonded to me that he tries to bite anyone else. He tolerates my husband, but has tried to nip the grandkids (we can't have that). We've never boarded him, choosing to take him with us on weekends away. However, today, he had to be muzzled at the vet to be examined and receive a vaccination. I'm concerned. I've purchased Victoria's books, but think we may need additional help.

  12. Linda Michaels, MA Psych

    Hi Vicki,

    I'm sad you are having issues with your pup. Thank goodness you rescued him from a puppy mill. We're happy you're adding your voice to speak out against puppy mills!

    Over-attachment to primary care-givers often occurs with rescue dogs. They finally found someone to love them. Unfortunately, this attachment can turn into a serious liability when the dog guards his new person and has not been sufficiently socialized to accept other people.

    I agree with your need for something more, and suggest that you get professional help from someone in your area as soon as you can before the situation escalates. Help can come preferably through a highly qualified trainer who you may find on our trainer's search. For all aggression cases, I along with most reputable behavioral consultants, must treat your dog during personal visits. I require a complete Intake Assessment before I come out to treat aggression.

    Just a couple of quick general tips. Take it slow. Let your dog approach people if and when he is ready. Don't allow people to approach your dog. Have your husband become the primary care-giver so that he now feeds and walks your dog and provides all the goodies. We want your dog to learn to develop new friendly relationships with other people in addition to you.

    Don't allow the dog near the kids and vice-versa until you can get some professional help. Children sustain more dog bites than any other group of people. Safety first! Absolutely. You are welcome to email me through my website for further referral if there is not a Victoria Stilwell trainer in your immediate area yet.
    Warmest wishes,

  13. Najia

    Great to hear Lilly is doing so much better -- I really enjoyed reading this article and learning about the distance desensitization technique! My boyfriend has a very fearful and defensive Papillon/Chihuahua, and it would be great to implement these techniques with her.

    I'm glad you mentioned her excessive licking and how you used confidence-building exercises to help ease her into a more secure frame of mind. I lived with a dog, Rae, who was very insecure and constantly licking humans as well as other dogs, constantly showing overt signs of submissiveness and fear, etc. I started working with her a little bit and just giving her basic obedience training and a lot of love -- within just a couple days, she was showing more confidence, less licking, and just overall seemed happier. It's amazing how much positive training sessions can help boost a dog's confidence 🙂

  14. Michael

    My wife brought home a rescue dog which was rescued from the Arizona Monument fire, the elderly woman had 20 dogs, 10 survived, and we obtained 1 of the 10 that survived, we think the dog is about a year old, and part wire haired Terrier and part Chihuahua.

    We placed the dog in our bedroom so that she wouldn't get afraid of people coming and going in the house.

    At first she was very reluctant to come out of her carrier, even though the door was left open, only coming out to feed and drink when no-one is around,

    Over the next few days, using patience and kindness, she has come to trust me, implicitly, I can now pet her, play with her, carry her in my arms and she even sleeps curled up behind my knees at night, and follows me everywhere.

    Today she has been let out of the bedroom and even though we have 2 other dogs and 3 cats, she's not even bothered about the other pets, she even plays with 'Grizzly', one of our cats, but she is very aggressive towards my wife, and anyone that comes near me, but allows my wife to feed her by hand, and doesn't attempt to bite her.

    Watching her body language, she runs around the house tail erect and wagging, she seems comfortable around the house, people come and go, and she's not afraid, unless they approach her, then she becomes totally aggressive, even to me, as if to say "you are not giving me to anyone else", but when the danger passes, she's back to being her self, and allowing me to do practically anything with her.

    I have NEVER allowed her anywhere near the grand kids, just in case, when they come to the house, I put her back in the bedroom.

    Could the drama of the fire and the experience of complete animal panic during the evacuation process, be a cause of her behavior? Or could that elderly woman have abused her, and the mis-trust of women is embedded deep?

  15. Michael


    As we don't know if she has a name, we called her 'Livee' (pronounced Libby with a V)

    Today she has bonded with our huge Anatolian Shepard, she's also starting to show signs of playfulness towards my wife, but only if my wife uses an excited tone in her voice, and use only one hand, patting the floor.

    Further investigation found, the dog had been left outside in kennels and not socializing with other people, only having the companionship of the other dogs, and was only fed human food scraps.

    We also noticed she has deformed lower canines, one of them has grown outward like the tusks of a wild pig, she also has a raised top lip, which constantly shows her teeth, making it look like she's snarling all the time.

    I'll keep posting updates as I progress to wards her becoming socialized with people.

    Any suggestions on the behavior?

  16. Renee

    Fearful chihuahua I've had my Daisy since she was 6 weeks old, she is 71/2 now and afraid of everyone even me if I hold her she shakes badly. N. no matter how long she knows someone she won't go to them she hides under anything she can. I have tried everything I know. She was ever only close to my ex. She seems to love men but he was the only one she would go to. Please help all I want to do is love her! PS I did rescue her from a puppy mill with her male litter mate. He will do anything she will or won't like he has no mind of his own. He loves to be loved though.HELP!!!

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