The First Step To Take To Help A Fearful Dog

Photo by Patrick Danforth |

Photo by Patrick Danforth |

As a professional dog trainer who specializes in helping dogs with fear-based behavior challenges, the conversations I have with owners too often go something like this:

Owner: I have a fresh water fish, can you help me get it to live in a salt water tank?

Me: I’m happy to help you and am so glad you asked. Can you get another tank?

Owner: No. There’s no room for it.

Me: Can you replace the water?

Owner: No, there are salt water fish already in it.

I’m a decent trainer, and I know a fair bit about helping scared dogs, but there’s only so much anyone may be able to do if we are unable or unwilling to address the environment the dog has to live in. If a dog is constantly or repeatedly afraid of what is going on around them, it’s going to be difficult for them to feel safe. We can no more force a dog to feel safe then we can force a fresh water fish to survive in salt water.

If we cannot or will not create an environment in which a dog is not constantly startled or scared by things, it’s going to difficult if not impossible to help them learn to feel safe around those things. Imagine teaching a baby to walk by strapping roller skates on their feet and forcing them to try to stand up on a slope. If it’s difficult enough or they fall and hurt themselves badly enough, they may be inclined to stop trying. And they may not be very happy when they see you coming to put the skates on them.

Step number one for helping dogs who are fearful, shy, anxious or reactive is to figure out how to help them feel safe in their world. This may mean not: going to the dog park; for walks around the neighborhood; being left alone; letting children or strangers try to pet them. Owners need to put on their thinking caps to come up with ways to manage their dogs so the dog is not constantly being scared by objects or events, or has to worry about being scared by them.

In my next blog for Victoria Stilwell’s Positively blog, I’ll be talking about step number two and how to change how a dog feels about the things that scare them. I hope you’ll join me as I outline the steps for helping this very special and vulnerable population of dogs.

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Positively Expert: Debbie Jacobs

Debbie Jacobs CPDT-KA, CAP2, created the Fearful Dogs website to help owners and trainers learn about fear-based behaviors in dogs. She is the author of “A Guide To Living With & Training A Fearful Dog."


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