P.E.T. Therapy: A Protocol For Fearful Dogs*

Play: Begin by figuring out what rocks your dog’s world. If the dog is too afraid to engage in playful behaviors with or without your involvement you need to lower their stress level. It may mean changing their environment, giving them a place where they feel safer or are exposed to triggers less often or intensely. Changing how you and others interact with the dog may be in order. Speaking to a vet about medications that help lower your dog’s stress level & also improves their ability to learn new skills and behaviors, should be at the top of every fearful dog owner’s list.

Do not limit your definition of what play is, it will vary from dog to dog. A young dog might engage in more rough and tumble play while an older dog might enjoy a game of finding hidden treats or chewing on a bone.

Exercise: Studies have shown that exercise helps animals cope with stress. While any type of exercise is likely to be beneficial to a dog’s health, try to find activities which allow the dog freedom of movement so that they have the opportunity to use their bodies in varying ways. Exercise can look like or be play.

Training: I could ruffle feathers and say that ‘training is the last thing a fearful dog needs’! The reality is that we are training our dogs whether we are conscious of it or not. But rather than begin our work with a fearful dog by thinking about what we want or need from them and focusing on that, begin by discovering what makes your dog feel happy and playful. A fearful dog is very good at feeling afraid and reacting in fearful ways, most are less competent at feeling happy and positively excited about life. By giving them the opportunity to practice feeling good we are also making it easier for them to focus on what we are trying to teach them.

Training should be done in the most dog-friendly ways possible. Anything that scares or stresses your dog, especially early in your relationship is only going to make the process of rehabilitation more challenging. If the training you are doing with your dog looks like play even better!

P.E.T. Therapy will help change your dog’s brain and thinking about it will change yours as well.

*copyright 2009 Debbie Jacobs

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13 comments so far

  1. Laurie on

    Debbie- Three of my favorite topics all in one post! (Four if you include the subject of medication as a first resort for fearful dogs lol). Would be nice to meet you all over coffee to swap views, trials and tribulations.

    I agree wholehearted that dogs learn from us whether we teach them or not, so I try to take the initiative so ensure Chewy’s picking up the right things.

    Fetch is usually Chewy’s activity of choice so I’ve used that to teach her numerous words and phrases. (She knows approx 100 words/actions and related hand signals so far).

    It worked well right from the beginning (in the house) because we could interact in close proximity in an exciting, fun way without any physical touching unless she approached me directly.

    I would sit on the floor several feet away and roll it to her or past her. She quickly became an incredible goalie. The only way I could win was to cheat- throw it over her head. She then learned to leap in the air and “grab” or “catch” those too.

    When she would “lay down” too close to me, I would tell her to “back up”.

    Sometimes it would be “sit” and “catch”, “drop it” “leave it” “hold it” “wait” “bring it here” “put it in my hand” “take it” “where is it?” “go find it” “come here”. She learned all of these through soccer and fetch and many more that can be applied everywhere we go.

    The “go find it game” is one of the best teaching, bonding and confidence tools I know and fabulous mental exercise for her- a must for all dogs IMO and especially border collies.

    I started with hiding her ball or other favorite toys in plain view (behind me) while sitting on the floor and telling her to find it.

    Then I put on a jacket or hoodie and hid a toy on me while she watched. In my pockets, in the hood, up the back, get her excited and then tell her to find it. (You can use a treat as well if your dog isn’t into toys). Once she knew the game, I would tell her to “stay”, then leave the room, hide it on me and return to sit and let her go at it.

    The main reason I hid them on me in the very early days is that it made her eager to interact with me physically (sniffed me from head to toe, shoved her nose in my pocket, down my neck, pushed up the back of the hoodie to get the toy out). It always made me laugh out loud and she loves when I do that. And again, I just cheerily sat there without making a move to touch her at first.

    Within a few months, she could find numerous objects by name in complex hiding places – upstairs on top of a door frame, on top of dressers or tables, under quilts and pillows, in the laundry hamper etc. If she can’t physically bring them to me, she signals she found the item by sitting or laying beside it.

    When we go out, I ask her to find and bring her collar, leash, poop bag, my keys, purse. (Still won’t carry the latter. Too heavy maybe? lol) These items are never in the same place, so it’s actually very helpful. Helps me gather up laundry too.

    She picks up items if I drop them at home and even at pet stores. There she carries them to the cashier and jumps up and puts it on the counter. (I have a great picture of this when she got to carry up a new toy that I let her select).

    As you can imagine, this took months but has done wonders for her confidence.

    We did a lot of fun work at pet stores for very short stints at first at least 3x per week. It was scary for her at first with new sights, sounds and people, but it wasn’t long before she loved going there and we then moved to manners and polite greetings (feet on the floor please).

    I also used a nearby park when no one was there to teach recall in a fun way. I used a long drag line (30′) at first. When she had explored for too long without looking at me, I would hide behind a tree and call her name and tell her to come find me. Other times I would just hide without calling her and she would always come barreling over to see where I’d gotten to. She was sooo excited to find me and it wasn’t long before she always kept an eye out for me to ensure I didn’t get lost.

    Her reward for coming each time? Big praise, laughter, and being told to “go play”. My reward is now having a dog who will stop on a dime no matter what she’s doing, chasing dogs at the dog park, escorting a cat or squirrel out of the yard, and come to me every time I call her.

    I also find it very effective to either squat down or go down on one knee and open my arms wide in getting her to come when I called her. Many people stand and bend forward over the dog as they arrive which can be very intimidating and threatening. Now all I have to do is drop into this position and she’ll come roaring over without me having to say a word. Great for longer distance communication too!

    So for me, educating a fearful dog is at the top of my list. But if I do it right, she’ll never know that’s what it is.

    • fearfuldogs on

      What great examples of how to play and train a shy dog Laurie. Sunny also likes the ‘go find it’ game, we started playing outside with me hiding toys in piles of leaves or snow. I love the way you used it to get her to interact with you by looking for the toys on you.

      I suspect Sunny would be as smitten by Chewy as you are!

  2. Laurie on

    I really appreciated one of your other posts when you said something to the effect that dogs can’t be afraid and have fun (or in Chewy’s case, focus on a job) at the same time. I had never thought about it that way before, but that’s exactly it. Thanks!

    I never would have predicted this, but Chewy now has a very calming effect on both timid and rowdy dogs (people too!) at the dog park. It’s not uncommon for them to follow her around and mimic what she’s doing. She generally ignores them after an initial greeting unless they can engage her in a game of chase.

    Another recent accomplishment of hers and something I never would have dreamed she could handle was qualifying as a therapy dog.

    It was a very thorough and potentially frightening test even for the most brave of dogs.

    One of many different scenarios was us standing in the center of a tight circle of about 8 people who then all converged on her, arms extended with fists, then all patting her firmly all over her body at the same time. Even I found this stressful. To my astonishment, Chewy went all squiggly bum!

    Less than a year ago, she would roll, pee and then totally shut down if two people she knew approached her at the same or even just tried to call her over.

    She sometimes still spooks at different things but we can move through it a lot quicker. For example, I recently tried the muffin tin game you have a picture posted of and thought she would love it (Ball jackpot!). Nope.

    Took me a while to figure out what was putting her off so much: I had neglected to introduce her to the tin itself! Plus she was not happy about using her teeth near the metal to work the balls out.

    So I simply removed the balls and used things like socks and balls of paper that are easier to grasp and then she really got into it.

    Great mental game! Thanks for that.

    • Lizzie on

      Very interesting to read about Chewy, Laurie.

      Do you mind if I ask how old she is and how long you’ve had her. You’ve obviously done wonders with this dog, mind you with a Border Collie you have a head start over the rest of us :) They are just so intelligent, despite the fear factor!

      Well done also to Chewy, great name BTW, becoming a Therapy Dog. My previous Lab Lucy, was a PAT Dog over here in the UK. She was bomb proof however with no real issues, unlike the poor girl I have now, Gracie.
      Her greatest fear is of people so the chances of her ever doing anything like Lucy did are zero. Still she is better than when I first met her but we still have a verrrrry long way to go……

      • Laurie on

        Thanks Lizzie!

        Chewy is now 2 and I’ve had her for a year. She was 13 mos old when I got her and had spent 3 mos at a shelter.

        She is very intelligent, but it took a lot of work (short bits every single day) to get past the fears and phobias to really start tapping into it.

        I doubt Chewy is anything like Lucy was either by the sounds of it. But I spent a lot of time very gradually exposing her to all kinds of people, animals, places,things and noises so that even when she startles now, she recovers quickly.

        I think what really helped me get started on the right path was resisting the very strong urge to feel sorry for her, waste time and energy dwelling on her past or to treat her like she was broken.

        Instead, I simply accepted her as she was and started fresh from there.

        That included immediately and cheerfully introducing a few house rules so she knew what was expected of her in this strange place (i.e. no dogs on the furniture, my bed or in the kitchen. Do your job outside. On your bed when I’m eating. You get to eat food that’s good for you. That does not include mine or the cat’s!) Despite her fear, she caught on quickly (a few weeks)

        Gracie may never do some of the things that Lucy did and that’s as it should be. The key, I think, is to find out what our particular dog’s special talents and interests are and help them develop those. Confidence always follows success.

        One thing I did that helped Chewy learn to be more comfortable around visitors was tell them to completely ignore her. At some point I would give them ball to squeak while still ignoring her.

        If she showed a lot of interest, they would toss it for her. If her desire to play was greater than her fear of them, she would bring it back for another throw. It was a fun way to make her go close to and interact with strangers without them actually touching her. (A year later, she will now finds sticks at the dog park and approach total strangers with a hopeful look lol)

        What types of things does Gracie enjoy?

  3. Lizzie on

    Ah well that’s a good question Laurie.

    Gracie has no play drive she is only motivated by food. At around 7 or 8 years old, not sure as she came from a puppy farm, and had been there, I think, all her life being used for breeding.
    No socialisation and extremely fearful of people, and most novel and new things, noises, voices, you name it!

    She’s been with me now for 13 months and does only relate to me, avoiding my husband at all costs. It has been painstakingly slow to get her trust but now she is much more comfortable around me and in the house. Outside however is a very different thing. All I can do is manage her behaviour as she panics at the sight of another human and wants to flee. That’s put very simply.

    Debbie has helped me a great deal and I feel lucky that I found her web site and bought the e-book. Otherwise, being a novice with a dog like this I honestly don’t know how I would have coped with Gracie.

    Some time ago Debbie encouraged me to find a trainer to help and now I think I’ve reached the stage where I do need some other imput with Gracie, as she isn’t progressing at all outside where people are concerned. She can be calmer than she used to be, but that only works when there’s no one around. I take her out at odd times of the day and very late at night.

    It does upset me a lot when I think of how Gracie was treated. I can’t say that I feel sorry for her, more anger at the person who kept her and never gave a thought to her welfare or emotional well being. It has reduced me to tears at times, for the sheer waste of a dog’s life and all for money. :(

    However I have a beautiful Labrador whose behaviour has certainly improved, and I can but hope that it will continue to do so.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I hope you don’t mind if I jump here Lizzie. One of the reasons I think that I have made as much progress with Sunny as I have (I suspect he and Gracie are very similar in their disabilities) is that we don’t live where there are many people. Going outside for us means going into the woods. When we have been outside and come across people he has the freedom to get as far from them as he needs to. As you can imagine this probably makes him feel less worried, as opposed to a dog that when it is frightened by something has no option to flee.

      If you can find someone who would be willing to be outside when you are taking Gracie out for a walk, and they know how to behave, you might be able to begin desensitizing her to seeing people. You can also teach her that when she sees people you will do the right thing by her, which may be turning and going the other way. This is where a good trainer can come in handy ;-)

      I continue to work with Sunny and see progress with him all the time, however it is the case that some of the damage done to our dogs is irreparable. You have given Gracie a good life and for these dogs that is much more than they might have received otherwise, despite what you see as the limitations to it.

  4. Lizzie on

    Thanks as always Debbie for your words of encouragement, it is much appreciated.

    At this stage I’m not looking for Gracie to want to be near people let alone interact with them, afterall I am so aware of how she feels by just watching her around my husband. It would be wonderful however if she could just learn to ignore them though instead of panicing all the time. This is really the thing that has prompted me to consult a trainer.

    As I mentioned in an earlier post, I do let her off the leash now, so she does have the option to get away from potential threats, as she sees it, but that’s not helping to change the way she feels. Yes I could enlist the help of a person who would maybe be in a certain place at the same time every day, and yes she would get used to seeing them, but she is used to seeing people anyway, and I always take avoiding action if it is humanly possible. If I can’t and we have to cross someone’s path I ask her to sit which she will do, when I’ve stopped her from wanting to bolt away. I try and get her to look at me but she won’t, as she has to watch where the person/dog is until they are out of site, when we then carry on she behaves like nothing has happened.She is not interested in taking treats at this time either, she is just too scared.
    I must emphasise that this does not happen on a daily basis, most of the time we do not encounter any one on our walks. The longest time we are out for is 25/30 mins, because Gracie does not like being too far away from home. She knows our route and knows where the house is, and if she gets so scared by something, even a noise sometimes scares her, she simply makes her way home, if she’s off leash at the time.

    I used to live in the country before we came to our present location, and I really do miss walking in the woods. It would have been ideal for Gracie, as she loves dark places!

    Anyway I’ll give the trainer a go and hopefully she can teach me how to manage Gracie better in these scary situations. :)

    • fearfuldogs on

      Are you familiar with the ‘Look at that’ game? You can find it in Leslie McDevitt’s book Control Unleashed. Basically the idea is that your dog is clicked and rewarded for looking at what bothers them. Some people find it helpful. It makes sense that a dog wouldn’t want to take their eyes off the monster they’ve come across.

  5. Laurie on

    Lizzie- I’ve read on a number of other sites where dogs were afraid of the spouse. I was interested to know how Gracie is with him when they’re alone together.

    He must be frustrated at times. I know my adult son was. I think he took it personally and it took a long time for that relationship to happen. The longer she spooked around him, the less interest he showed or spent time around her.

    I finally convinced him to come on some of our off leash night walks. He didn’t have direct interaction, he was just there with us during a time she enjoyed. It was a start.

    Having an experienced trainer there in person to help you and your husband continue your work with Gracie is a fantastic idea. I hope they have some great ideas for you.

    I enjoyed reading some of your other posts too, especially about her first play bow and chasing around with you. That’s a huge step forward (it was for Chewy too. Her first bow made my eyes leak lol)

    It sounds like you’ve made a lot of good progress with Gracie. It’s good to sometimes look back and see how far we’ve come since the beginning.

    Debbie- I really enjoy your stories about Sunny as well. I envy you your “back yard”. We have to drive for miles for a peaceful walk in the woods -something that wasn’t possible in the early days because of her high anxiety (and throwing up) in the car. But that’s a whole other story. :)

    • fearfuldogs on

      I’m not sure how well Sunny would have managed if he was required to live in a more urban area. He was stressed enough as is having to deal with 2 people. When I told the trainer I first consulted with that I was fairly isolated (thinking that it was going to be challenging for me to ‘work’ with Sunny around people) I think she was correct when she responded, “That’s probably a good thing.”

  6. Laurie on

    It sounds like Sunny and Gracie are more afraid of people than Chewy was, especially once I gave her a month or two of mostly hanging out with me, earning a little trust, getting to know some of her triggers etc and beginning to learn how far I could go with her (and not!).

    She was pretty good about someone coming to the house and I let her decide if she wanted to be with me while I visited or leave the room. More often than not she would eventually lay at my feet, altho she was very jumpy for a long when anyone(including me) made any sudden movements or got up.

    Things improved a lot with a number of them as she got to know them over lots of visits.

    A few just never “got it” tho, and thought they had the magic touch with dogs. Have you experienced that?

    High pitched baby talk, trying to hug her, making Chewy pee and me crazy. For those visits I simply put her in my room for some quiet time and made it up to her later.

    • fearfuldogs on

      The best people with my dog are ‘cat people’ they know you can’t make a cat like you so they don’t try!


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