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."


21 thoughts on “The First Step To Take To Help A Fearful Dog

  1. r3db0x

    I thought I would be depriving our rescue pup of so much doggie happiness by not taking him on walks, but I only deprived him of fear and terror. At the suggestion of a professional trainer, we stopped going on walks completely and only went outside in our privacy-fenced backyard. He learned to consider me his safe place, and months later, when we tried walking again, things were so much better. He gets very excited to go on walks now, even though he still has fearful moments on nearly every one. That time we spent not leaving the backyard was an invaluable step on the path toward trust and comfort.

  2. Upward Dog Walker

    Thank you for this! I am so sorry to have missed your seminar last weekend in Seattle! I hope you come this way again soon. I own a very busy dog walking and pet sitting business and a conservative estimate of our clientele who are fearful would be around 40%. Myself and my staff of eight have by default, had to become the intervention specialists of fearful/reactive dogs; dogs that I have come to call "dog park refugees". No doubt you know what I mean by that!

  3. Tiffa

    The first step, it clearly says, though. Step one, to be followed by more steps, throughout the life of the dog. Step one: create an environment where your dog isn't constantly scared, but begins to feel safe. You aren't disagreeing, you're just jumping far ahead.

  4. Debbie Jacobs

    Sorry you couldn't make it! Hopefully you'll find the info on the website helpful.

  5. Debbie Jacobs

    Do car rides make the dog feel sick? That would be worth ruling out. Otherwise a good trainer could help you come up with a plan for making car rides less scary. It's too bad to be scared in the car.

  6. Debbie Jacobs

    Stayed tuned Mel. We are only at Step 1! And there is a real risk of causing a dog to sensitize to things as oppose to habituate to them, as your dog did. We have to be very careful when we use a sample size of "1" to come to conclusions about how any dog should be managed.

  7. Debbie Jacobs

    Glad you found someone to help you and I hope you continue to enjoy the journey of helping your dog feel safer!

  8. Debbie Jacobs

    The ultimate goal is to be able to take them out but at the start we have to stop scaring them. Some people will walk during quiet times, make the walks short, or set up an indoor potty area until the dog can go outside without chronically being scared.

  9. A Better Dog

    Good article... Yes, it's vitally important that we place our dogs in situations where they can have successes which they can be positively reinforced for, and thus build positive associations. Continuing to put a dog in situations where it cannot cope is simply setting the dog up to continue practicing the very behaviour we deem undesirable.

  10. Cathy

    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. - THANK YOU!!! People have thought I am crazy for not "dragging" my fearful dog around the neighborhood to get her "used" to going for walks. My Sadie is happy and healthy in her home and her yard, and that is what is important to me.

  11. [email protected]

    Simple, sound advice. When you do get to taking your dog out, it’s a good idea to sit down on a bench or wall and let her just watch the world go by. Much less pressure than trying to cope with cars/dogs/people coming at you constantly.

  12. KevinandRex

    Can someone please help? I've rescued a boxador from a rescue he was 4 months when I got him. He is 6 months now I am having a problem walking him on the street. How can I get him to over come his fear of walking on the street.

  13. Sarah

    Try putting the collar on when your not going anywhere for short periods of time treat her when she calms down. Do this several times over the next week or so. Then try the car again.dont leave the garage.just let her sit for a short time,5 mins. Ten mins..then slowly try just a short trip around the block followed by an ice cream treat or..whatever she likes.

  14. Douglas W. St Clair

    Please don't take this comment as being in opposition to anything in this excellent 'starting point' blog. Just a personal observation about fear. There is no way around or away from fear. Fear only goes away when it is overcome. Having said that I don't want people to think I am about to head off in the direction of flooding. Flooding is bad. The approach I have distilled for myself goes something like this.

    Before you begin to address 'the' fear make sure the dog has a safe place. A 'privacy place' if you will. Nobody is allowed to bother them in their 'privacy place'. A crate, under the bed or sofa or in a closet are some examples of privacy places. It may turn out that before they develop complete confidence in you the only place they will feel confident is in their privacy place.

    Then I add stressors that actually offer as littler stress as possible and the opportunity to address them gradually and overcome their fear of them bit by bit. In other words build on success. Failure is not an option. Ideally the stressor should always be something they can easily overcome. In other words they always win the contest with the bad old stressor. They always succeed.

    There are other things you can do to help like always placing yourself in such a way they can see that you are not afraid because you are in their field of vision or very nearly so. Try to be between them and the scary thing/stressor. It communicates I between you and it and I will take care of it for you if necessary but I want you to pass me and examine it at your own pace.

    Avoid physical restraint, leashes, fences, etc that deny them the ability to run away, offer calming signals, etc. if they want to. Letting them zip back to their privacy place and come back out and try again for example. Steps like these start long before you try other things like dog parks or opening umbrellas or trash bags suddenly.

    Also watch their breathing and yours. It should be slow and relaxed.

  15. Douglas W. St Clair

    Does anyone make something like earmuffs for dogs that reduces the volume of sound? Especially high pitched sounds? I expect a lot of construction in addition to a lot of volume offers a lot of high pitched sounds. Stuff people can't hear but at a pitch and volume that would drive the dog crazy.

  16. Clara Wilson

    My dog was a happy one until about one year ago. Suddenly he started scratching the wall at night. He is scratching them so much that he is making his paws bleed. We cannot think of any change within the house or the dog's routine to clause this change on behaviour. He has never caused any damage to the house and it is a well behaved dog otherwise.
    We have taken him to the vet and he could not find anything wrong with our dog.
    Now it is getting so bad that Coco (our dog) does not want to come into the house and prefers to stay in the garden even if it is cold and/or raining.
    Any ideas of what might have caused this?

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