Working with Fearful Dogs – Part One

Is your dog a scaredy cat?

The majority of our work in shelter and rescue environments has been focused on fearful dogs. We have also been the owners of dogs with these struggles. We understand how draining, frustrating, and defeating life can be with a fearful dog. But working with fearful dogs has also been some of our most  rewarding experiences.

Whether you have one of your own or you encounter them in your profession, this series of articles will cover useful information to know for working with fearful dogs.

What Is a Fearful Dog?

Like true scientists, let’s start with a definition. Our definition is “a dog who displays one or more fearful behaviors in response to a person, animal, object, sound, smell, or situation.” 

Note that we didn’t say “a dog who is habitually fearful.” For many of the serious cases, it can feel like the dog is fearful and anxious to their core.

But it is important to remember that being afraid is an emotional state and not a personality trait.

Any dog can feel fearful or stressed in one context and very confident and comfortable in another.

That was our first dog, Artemis. In the face of strangers or noises like thunder and fireworks, she was nervous, panicky, and afraid. But give her a ball to fetch or play a training game and she was focused, happy, and confident.

Artemis feeling nervous (below)

Artemis feeling relaxed (below)

For this series, we will focus on dogs who are afraid of people, places, things, and situations. While the issue of being afraid of other dogs is an important topic, it is also a lengthy one and bleeds into the areas of reactivity and aggression. However, we would argue those responses are fundamentally fearful.

Now that we have operationalized the phrase “fearful dogs”, we will use it in this discussion solely for the purpose of being concise. 

We prefer to focus on what can be observed – all of the dog’s behavior and the context – rather than using a label.

What Are Fearful Behaviors?

The list of behaviors that indicate fear or stress is long and they range from subtle to obvious. Many great minds have already written extensively on dog body language, so we will not reinvent the wheel.

To prepare our rescue volunteers for working with dogs, we provide them with two wonderful handouts: Dr. Sophia Yin’s Body Language of Fear in Dogs and Lili Chin’s Doggie Language with Boogie the Boston Terrier.

You can also find a comprehensive list of dog behaviors and what they mean in the Canine Body Language article on the Victoria Stilwell Positively blog.

Dr. Sophia Yin’s Body Language of Fear in Dogs

NOTE: If your dog recently started displaying fearful behavior and this is a departure from their normal behavior—STOP HERE. Put down your phone or computer and make an appointment with your veterinarian or shelter/rescue medical staff. A sudden change in behavior is usually explained by an underlying medical condition. Please have a full workup done on the dog before proceeding with any training.

A dog’s fearful response is often categorized into one of four types: fight, flight, fidget and freeze. While these response types are accurate, they are also a bit reductive and interfere with recognizing fear at an early stage. 

Dogs display so many subtle signals before their behavior looks overtly like a fight, flight, fidget and freeze response.

When those subtle signs are ignored, the dog becomes increasingly more afraid and moves to more obvious behaviors, such as lunging and growling. At this point, the dog is considered “over threshold” and we want to prevent this at all costs. We will go into more detail about thresholds when we discuss behavior modification in part 3 of this series.

While some dogs may tend to express one response type habitually, these response types are not mutually exclusive. The dog’s fearful response may depend on the situation:

  • Some dogs will bark, lunge, and growl at a scary stranger.
  • Some dogs will pace or run away after hearing a thunderclap.
  • Some dogs lock up when they see the groomer with a brush and just pray it all ends soon.
  • The same dog may first run away, then freeze if cornered, and then snap and bite when the situation continues to escalate.

Any dog is capable of each response, even within the same situation.

All dogs have teeth, which means all dogs can bite—yes, even the sweetest golden retriever.

Canine Case Studies

Luna

Meet Luna, a goofy and confident lab mix from our rescue who has now found a home. Luna was a great example of how a dog is still capable of having a fearful reaction that seems out of the blue. Luna had a sleepover at our home one night. In the morning we went for a nice walk and then she settled down for a nap while I got ready for work. I emerged from the bedroom smelling clean and wearing different clothes and wearing my hair down. Luna stood up and started growling and backing away; she was very confused about who I was. But once I started talking to her sweetly, her body loosened, her tail wagged excitedly, and she came over for some belly rubs. 

What we learned: dogs observe holistically.

A dog’s brain, like a human’s brain, is a pattern-recognition and prediction engine. A dog takes in the whole picture of a person (e.g., their scent, shape, clothing, and voice) and the context of the environment. If you meet that dog again in a different environment, it is not uncommon for the dog to be confused.

Luna was looking at a jigsaw puzzle where some of the pieces were missing. But with my voice she was able to make out the full picture. When building a relationship with a fearful dog, it’s best to give them as many pleasant patterns as you can: talk to them in a soothing voice, play the “look at me” game, let them sniff you if they initiate it, and do this in different environments and wearing different clothes and hairstyles.

Having these additional patterns to positively associate with a human friend will help that dog recognize them in the future. Check out this video to see a dog like Luna who had trouble recognizing his owner.

 

Sunny

Meet Sunny who cowered at the back of her kennel whenever a stranger approached. Sunny was one of those puppies who simply did not have many experiences with humans. I waited three months to physically touch her. All we did during this time was walk by her kennel and throw some chicken. Through patience, I earned her permission when one day she placed her paw on my knee. A couple of months later, Sunny trusted us enough to stay overnight in our home and we saw her play with a toy for the first time. Building a bond takes time, but it pays off. Shortly after the new year, Sunny was lucky to go to a home with owners who understand this and visited her weekly in the months leading up to taking her home.

What we learned: when it comes to conquering fear, the “fastest path is the slowest.”

I first heard this phrase when I assisted a therapist treating a veteran with PTSD.

The therapist’s point was that taking small, slow steps would be the quickest way to recovery. This is 100% true for working with a fearful dog.

The most important skills for the therapist/trainer to have are compassion and patience. Rushing the process will lead to regression and a breach of trust. But small wins add up to bigger wins. That is the only way to long-lasting recovery.

Stay tuned for the next part of this series, where we’ll discuss how you can prepare yourself, the dog, and your environment for success as you strive to build confidence in a fearful dog.

 

Lisa and Mike Corcoran are the owners of The Confident Hound, which provides force-free, reward-based dog training to the Central Texas area. Their mission is to build confidence in dogs and their humans so they can make the most of their precious time together. 

Lisa Corcoran, VSA-CDT, is a graduate with distinction of the Victoria Stilwell Academy for Dog Training & Behavior. Lisa’s background is in mental health, which helps her understand why both her canine and human clients do what they do. She loves a good puzzle and is always on the search for the next learning opportunity. Since 2017, Lisa has volunteered weekly at shelters and rescues to rehabilitate dogs looking for good homes. She is passionate about giving back choice to a dog that feels helpless, rebuilding their confidence, and working with a dog’s instincts instead of against them.

Mike Corcoran, CSB-D, has a background in computer science, which gives him a unique perspective of dog behavior problems as being similar to bugs in computer software. Having grown up with dogs that displayed fearful and aggressive behaviors, Mike made it his mission to specialize in helping dogs like these be more confident and content in their surroundings. Combined with his experience as a rifleman in the United States Marine Corps, where he learned that true leadership doesn’t rely on using fear or punishment, Mike brings a systems-based approach to dog training. Mike is IAABC Certified in Shelter Dog Behavior (CSB-D) and spends much of his free time with the shelter dogs he’s devoted years to helping.

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