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.

tweet it post it Share It Plus It Print It

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.


Positively Dog Training Episode 803

Aly and Victoria discuss how you can make your dog feel more comfortable during the holidays. Whether your dog is shy of people or...

Positively Dog Training Episode 802

In this podcast, Victoria and Aly share great ideas on how to provide enrichment for your dog when it’s cold outside. Aly shares...

Positively Dog Training Episode 801

Victoria is joined by Victoria Stilwell Academy's Curriculum Manager, Aly Lecznar, to talk about VSA's newly-launched Online Dog...

find a vspdt trainer
Schedule a consultation via skype or phone