Education Center

HELPING YOUR SHY, FEARFUL DOG

Dogs can be fearful of many things for many reasons. Many of these reasons may seem ludicrous to us (“why is he afraid of a plastic bag? It doesn’t make sense”), but whether we understand it or not, the bottom line is that the dog is scared, period. Instead of pooh-poohing that fear, we need to treat it in a humane way, and do our best to make it less terrifying for him.

Often, people assume a dog has been abused when it shows fearful tendencies; though this can be the cause, it is not always so. A dog that was not socialized properly in its formative months can develop strange fears and phobias that have little to do with actual abuse. As far as treatment goes, it matters little why the dog is afraid of some things, including people-the treatment options are often the same, regardless of what the “trigger” is.

However, it is important that we try not to get too anthropomorphic with these frightened animals, lest we exacerbate their fears more. Believing that a dog acts in a fearful manner toward some people or objects because he was beaten or neglected can often cloud our judgment when we begin to try to make things better for the dog. The fearful dog does not need our pity, he needs our strength and proper leadership to get him past the things that frighten him. Coddling him, doting excessively on him, and trying to reassure him when he is acting frightened are all counterproductive to helping him! It is perfectly normal to feel sorry for creatures who have had a tough time in life, but please remember that dogs do not understand human gestures of goodwill-they only know what they have been taught, or what they know instinctively. The best thing you can do for your frightened dog is to be a fair, firm leader who gives clear signals about what is expected, and rewards the proper behaviors in a way that is pleasing to the dog.

DO NOT:

  • Attempt to reassure the dog with your voice or hands when he is frightened

This is one of the worst things you can do. Many well-meaning owners attempt to pet and soothe the dog (“It’s OK, it’s OK”) when he acts anxious or afraid. When you do this, your dog is literally hearing, “Please act this way some more! I like it when you are scared. That is why I am rewarding your behavior with petting and soothing words. Keep it up!” Picking up a small dog while he is cowering is extremely rewarding-don’t do it except in extreme circumstances.*

  • Force him to approach the “scary” stimulus

This will set you back a long way. Making the dog “face his fears” is very counterproductive to building a lasting bond with him. He must be allowed to face them on his own, or not at all.