My Dog is Scared! – Tips for Working with Fearful Dogs


Often when people meet me and Olive I get people telling me that “she must be abused!” or “what happened to her?” because, why else would a dog be wary of strangers, or scared of loud noises? When I tell them that I have had her since she was 5 weeks old, she is well socialized and developed, and I actually know where she was the first 5 weeks of her life, people are often very surprised. But, why is she scared then? And how can she get over this fear?


Licking, ears to the side and moving slowly are all signs of stress.


Why is your dog scared?

There is so many reasons a dog can be scared, shy or just wary. Many people jump to conclusions when it comes to fear, but often abuse is not involved at all. In the case of Olive, it is likely to be a combination of genetic predisposition and being taken away from the litter way too early. Another reason dogs may be fearful is because of bad socialization in early puppyhood.


A great example of dogs with a genetic predisposition to being more fearful towards strangers are primitive breeds. They are often very much independent and do not like changes to their environment much. For these types of dog, the early socialization is extra important, or you might end up with a fearful dog. Examples of primitive breed would be Akita’s, Shiba Inu’s, Basenji’s, Saluki’s, Pariah breeds and more.


Signs of stress and fear

Fear can show in many ways and every dog is different when it comes to showing their fear. Where some dogs might only lick their lips and show “whale eye”, others might run off and hide. Some dogs might even bark, growl and/or bite purely out of fear. The key here is to see the first signs. Yawning, lip licking and whale eye are already big signs of stress and discomfort and is technically your dog telling you “Hey, I don’t like this situation at all, please get me out of it”.


Image from Sophia Yin, a veterinary behaviorist

Just get over it already!

Another thing people often mention is that the dog just “needs to get over it” or “they need to learn someday”. Unfortunately, just like with our human fears, this doesn’t work very well on most occasions. This technique is called flooding, and although it might work for some dogs, for most it does not. It can go a couple of ways but the most common two are for the dog to either escalate completely or the dog to shut down. This is something that might look like the dog has “learned its lesson”, but it is actually a very dangerous state of mind waiting to escalate.


The best comparison I can think of is someone with claustrophobia. What would happen if you put a person with claustrophobia in a small room for a couple of hours because they just need to get over their fear? In many situations, this method will make even more negative associations than there already were. Not a good thing!



Instead: Be an advocate for your dog

Be an advocate for your dog! You are responsible for keeping your dog feeling safe and comfortable. That’s the start of this process to help your dog overcome their fears. Whenever your dog is scared try to move away from what is scaring the dog. Not to make it more of an issue, but just to move to a distance where your dog is comfortable looking at that what is scaring him or her. If that is not possible it is totally okay to comfort your dog! Fear cannot be reinforced by comforting. Remember that it is your task as an owner to protect your dog from whatever it is they fear, you are totally in the right to take that responsibility and prevent interactions where needed.

Fear cannot be reinforced by comforting.

For example, Olive travels by train with me to work. She is fully okay doing this unless someone tries to pet her – it is getting better, but the main reason why it has been getting better is because I prevent people from petting her. If someone asks politely I used to just say “I’m sorry but I rather have you not pet her, we are in training and petting might disturb her.” And yes, often I got very bad and weird replies. Do not listen to these strangers! It is your right to say no, it is your dog! Now, after months of doing this, we are finally at a place where I can allow people that asked politely to let Olive sniff their hand. I always ask them to let her set the pace, if she doesn’t feel like it I don’t want them forcing it I want them to back up instead.


Keep it under threshold

My main objective in interaction is to keep her under her threshold. Any signs of stress mean she is not in a state where she can learn, and this is not useful at all, it just sets you back. So as explained, look for signs of stress, back off if they show through. Stress is not good and not helpful at all, plus if your dog knows that if it’s too much he or she can turn to you and trust you to be an advocate for them, they are more likely to feel comfortable enough to get closer to whatever it is they fear.


Let’s talk classical conditioning

So now you are an advocate for your dog, you have the right mindset where you want to help your dog instead of feeling like they must get over it, and you are staying at a comfortable distance of any fears, it’s time to get to work. There are many exercises you can do to help your pet, some involving learning how to manage fear, others trying to eliminate fear. Let’s start with one of the most used methods, and in my opinion very successful: Pairing bad situations with good things.


For this exercise to work, you need to set up a situation where the fearful object, person or dog is in sight but your dog is still under threshold. The key is to rapid-fire treats at your dog the moment the thing is in sight and stop feeding treats whenever the thing goes out of your field of sight. By doing this exercise a couple of very short time you will ultimately be able to slowly move closer and closer to whatever it is that scares them. Remember, if it’s other people that scare your dog don’t let them give the treats, the treats must come from you.


“Look at that!” while practicing place command

Hey, Look at that!

A different version of this training game is the “look at that!” game, often used for reactive dogs. It works counter intuitive, I know, but it works. Basically, it goes off the idea that if you teach your dog to look at what it fears and after that turn to you for guidance, it will increase focus on you and increase confidence, while also decreasing the attention to fear.


So how does this game work? At first, you click and treat every time your dog glances or looks at whatever it fears, but only if there is no actual reaction to the item (remember – stay under threshold). The click should make the dog turn to you for a treat. If your dog starts looking at the triggers more consistently start calling it “look”. After practicing this often, your dog will start to look at their triggers and quickly look back at you for a reward. If they don’t turn back quickly you are likely over the threshold and need to take some steps back.


Play this game often in short 30 second bursts and slowly move up to more distracting and challenging environments. When your dog consistently looks at the item, then looks back at you, start moving your click longer away – instead of clicking when the dog looks at the thing that he fears, start clicking the moment the dog looks back at you.


Actively teaching to chill out

Apart from teaching your dog how to deal with stressors, it’s also extremely important to teach your dog actively how to chill out and relax. One way to do this is Karen Overall’s relaxation protocol. This is a set of clear exercises you can do with your dog to teach them to calm down in exciting situations and actively teach that calm behaviors are good. Another trick that really helped me and Olive is to teach her a down-stay with her head on the floor. What we did is I taught her a down stay first with the help of the relaxation protocol, after that, I taught her to put her head low on command. This is a naturally calming pose, and it really helps!


Trick training for confidence boosting

Now we are talking about tricks, let’s get into a bit of confidence building. Building more confidence in your dog means they will be more comfortable taking the lead and just more comfortable in general. One thing that is great for confidence is trick training. It strengthens the bond between you and your pet, and if you keep it super exciting and rewarding and fun your dog will enjoy it too! With Olive, I usually do about one or two short trick training sessions a day, both not more than 5 minutes. Another important point for this is to keep your expectations super low. Baby steps plus big rewards are super important! If you expect too much your dog will possibly get stressed again because he or she simply doesn’t understand what you expect. This will only bring on frustration with you for your dog not understanding. Not good! Keep it light and fun for both of you!


A short conclusion

In conclusion, fear can be caused by many things including taking a puppy away from the litter before 8 weeks old, bad socialization, genetics, trauma, and many more. “Flooding” a dog with whatever it fears is not a great method as it might cause for the dog to shut down or escalate. It is better to protect your dog from what it fears and comfort your dog in such a situation. To work on shyness and fear you need to start building good associations with bad things, you can do this by playing the “look at that” game and classical conditioning. It also helps to teach your dog calm behaviors with the relaxation protocol and to work on confidence-building by, for example, teaching tricks. Remember to keep expectations low and to stay under threshold. Take time and happy training everyone!


Some links that might be of use:

Karen Overall’s relaxation protocol
Look at That! Game
Leaving the litter too young
Puppy socialization
Dog trick ideas


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