HELPING YOUR SHY, TIMID, OR 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 emotional with frightened pets, 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, rewards the proper behaviors in a way that is pleasing to the dog, steers the dog calmly away from non-helpful behaviors, and protects the dog from actual threats. You want your dog to feel comfortable with you and secure in the belief that you “have his back.” If he can trust that you will protect him, he will gain confidence over time.
- Attempt to reassure the dog with your voice or hands when he is frightened
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, over time with gentle help, or not at all.
- correct or punish him for his behaviors
This is an absolute no-no. People often do this because the dog’s fearful behavior frustrates them. Here’s an example: many fearful dogs urinate submissively when people approach. Yelling at, striking or otherwise correcting the dog will only make him pee more! His urination is a clear sign that he respects that you are bigger and stronger than he is–and he is saying it the only way he knows how! So, if you become even bigger and stronger in response, or raise your voice, or worse, he will pee more in an attempt to turn your scary behavior off. This is an instinctual behavior, and it can be fixed. But your anger or frustration will only worsen it.
- become frustrated at him for “taking so long”
Often, the protocols for dealing with fearful behaviors involve many steps, and the process may seem to be taking a long time. Many of the steps will be short for good reason. Your dog needs you to be patient and understanding. You can undo weeks of progress with one frustrated outburst, so keep your emotions in check. Overcoming fear takes as long as it takes. In some dogs, this may be days or weeks; in others, months or years.
“If you take the time it takes, it takes less time.” ~Pat Parelli
- allow him time to progress, and be realistic about his progress
See example above. You cannot rush the training with a fearful dog. Often you may go days without seeing any noticeable progress. It is often hard to remain optimistic, but your dog needs you to. Notice his baby steps, and let even the smallest accomplishments bolster your self-confidence (and his!). Continue with the regimen as instructed unless the problem worsens.
- be a true leader–someone who controls all interactions and protects the dog
What does it mean to be a leader? Leaders embody the following attributes:
- they are fun to “work” for (jobs for your dog are important)
- they reward for good behaviors at least 10 times more than they criticize bad ones
- they don’t have a problem praising a “job well done;” in fact, they are glad to do it
- they are fair, realistic, and firm
- they do NOT need physical force to lead; they earn the respect of the “led” by being clear and consistent
- they protect their charges from harm, and their charges understand this (so they can relax)
You must be a leader in your relationship with your dog. If you do not take that role, he will not get better. If you are not a leader, you will be a sympathizer. Take this scenario: Let’s pretend you are flying on an airplane, and it starts to get turbulent. You begin to sweat a bit and feel anxious. You notice that the captain doesn’t sound very confident over the intercom, and the flight attendants are all rushing to get in their seats. The turbulence increases. You look up to see the pilot walking down the aisle toward you. He comes over to you, puts his arm around you, and says, “I’m afraid this plane is going to crash. What ARE we going to do? Isn’t this TERRIBLE?”
Right about that time, another man stands up and announces that he is a trained pilot and he has flown these planes before, and he knows how to get out of this turbulence and land safely. The pilot sitting next to you stands up. He is shaking, sweating, and saying “we are all going to die” in a low voice.
Which one do you want to get in that cockpit and get to work? Your dog needs to know that you can fly the plane and land it safely. When he knows this, he will gain more confidence over time. Leaders are firm but fair, and willing to teach, teach, and teach some more before expecting compliance.
- Be aware of body language and tone of voice
Dogs are extremely adept at reading our body language. In fact, they pay much more attention to how our bodies talk than to our words! Frightening body language to dogs includes loud voices; clumping, stumbling, jerky movements; heavy walking or stomping; waving about of arms; fast movements toward the dog; bending over the dog; and even standing straight up tall. Avoid these movements when you are around your pet.
Instead, try body language that reassures the dog that you are not a threat to him: crouching down close to the ground; lying on the ground; arms still and next to the body; slow, deliberate movements (or as little movement as possible); speaking gently in a higher (not squeaky) voice; stopping several feet away from the dog instead of approaching him (if you must approach, make a wide circle and come at him from the side–never approach head-on); backing up; turning sideways, or even just turning the head sideways or averting your eyes; yawning; and blinking.
- Make yourself upbeat, happy, and keep the leash loose
When you are out and about with a fearful dog, it is imperative that you keep an upbeat tone and posture, and that you keep the leash loose as much as possible. A lot of your tension and worry (“what will he do? Is he going to bark at/lunge at/bite that person? I’m so embarrassed by his behavior”) will be noticed by your dog, especially when the leash is tight, and then you will have a self-fulfilling prophecy on your hands! He will bark at/lunge at/bite that person, because he will notice that his leader is tense and upset–and obviously not in charge! “Someone has to do something! Obviously, my human is scared of this dog/person/whatever, so I’d better chase him away!” And every time this happens, the dog is being rewarded for his “bravado,” so it will become an annoying (and dangerous) habit. Do not allow him to exhibit these behaviors so that they become ingrained. I shudder every time I see a human petting their dog soothingly as he lunges and barks at something–they think they are comforting him, but they are making it GUARANTEED to happen again.
- Reward the good behaviors liberally and ignore the fearful ones
So what should you do? It depends on what the scary thing is, how close it is, and whether it truly is a threat (such as an off-leash dog approaching, or a person who is hell-bent on petting your dog). Some fearful behaviors, if ignored long enough, will go away. However, some cannot be ignored; the aforementioned barking and lunging is a prime example. Of course, your dog may exhibit more confident behaviors from time to time, and these should be noticed and rewarded. The bottom line is that behaviors you REWARD will continue, behaviors you IGNORE or REDIRECT will desist if they can be replaced with more acceptable ones. What is rewarding to the dog depends on the dog…and you will find out what that is when you begin.
Try moving the dog calmly away from the scary stimulus instead of asking him to sit or stay while it passes or approaches. As soon as he is far enough away to be comfortable, praise calmly. Movement dissipates stress. Distance enhances comfort. Help your dog to a place of comfort so that he knows he can rely upon you.
Asking him to stay in the face of something he is afraid of will only increase the pressure building in him, and increased pressure leads to frantic barking, lunging, attempting to bolt, or biting. Move him calmly away to decrease the pressure and reward a more relaxed state of mind.
And then contact us for some private training lessons to show you how all of this works.