How To Help A Fearful Dog? Stop Scaring Them!

They grew up too quickly!In a blog about fearful dogs you wouldn’t think that I’d pay so much attention to this whole dominance virus that has infected the health of our relationships with our dogs, but it’s major. I run an in-home boarding business for dogs. It’s a nice set-up for the dogs and the owners that use my services are conscientious pet owners. It’s not a scene that every dog would appreciate, but for those that do, it’s not only a nice way to spend a few days, it helps them brush up on rusty social skills since most live as solo dogs.

A potential client and I had an email exchange recently about her dog. She described him as a friendly, good natured dog that had some issues with select dogs when he first meets them. He barks at them. She went on to say that she never had an ‘alpha’ dog before and was learning how to deal with it. Certainly a dog that sees other dogs and barks at them must be trying to dominate them right? Ah…no.

Confident dogs, or dogs that are intent on being the big dog on the block rarely spend a lot of time barking at other dogs, far from it. They get their point across with their bodies and their eyes. Well socialized dogs, even in situations in which they are establishing their place in the playground hierarchy, rarely even fight. It’s a beautiful thing to watch a group of socially adept dogs determine ‘who I am to you’. With looks, stances, paw & head placements, the messages are conveyed and then the games can begin.

So what difference does it make if someone mistakenly believes that their dog is trying to be ‘alpha’? It matters because our responses are usually based on what we think is going on, AND how we feel about it. The results of our responses to our dog’s behavior may or may not be what we were after, and if our responses don’t make things better, they can make what we see as a problem, worse. It is probably not far off track to assume that most of the behavior problems seen in dogs relinquished to shelters or by trainers, have been caused by inappropriate responses to their behaviors, by their owners.

Fearful dogs that never bit anyone in their life can be provoked into biting by a handler assuming that the dog’s behavior is a challenge or attempt to dominate the situation. Physical intimidation, promoted by National Geographic’s Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan, is exactly the stuff that can make this happen. Remember that one does not need to hit or touch a dog to scare or intimidate them. I remember cringing through one episode in which a dog that was afraid of the bathtub was man-handled until it finally bit Millan. His response to this bite was along the lines of ‘good, he was just having a tantrum’. Someone like Millan who doesn’t seem to mind the occassional bite can intimidate a dog enough so that it does not learn that biting works to keep scary things away. But for most of us the prospect of being bitten makes us back off, which is what the dog has been trying to communicate all along by cowering, growling, lowering its head, rolling over, etc. Now an owner has effectively taught their dog that biting works, that the dog basically needs to shout since the owner has proved themselves hard of hearing.

The dog whose owner believed it is trying to be an ‘alpha’ dog is one of the lucky ones. This owner is not into harsh or intimidating techniques of managing her dog. But what of the other scared dogs that are not so fortunate? Many defenders of trainers like Cesar Millan will say that it’s not his fault if people do not use his training techniques appropriately (even used as directed they can have disasterous results). I disagree. He is promoting the domination of dogs and is responsible for the outcome from that. Supporters seem to be willing to give him credit when the outcome is positive but not when it isn’t. When a leader of a country says publically that AIDS is not a sexually transmitted disease (as has happened) and therefore people do not need to take the appropriate precautions to prevent contracting the disease, I believe that he is responsible for the potentially deadly results of his actions.

The results of the belief that dogs need to be dominated can be deadly, especially with fearful dogs.


20 comments so far

  1. michele on

    Great article. I assumed my dog was being agressive toward dogs and dealt with it the only way I knew, agressively. Unfortunately it only made matters worse. I found a reputable training facility in my area that had an on site behaviourist and with her continual guidance and regular class work my dog is well on her way. As it turns out she is a very insecure rescue that needs to build on her confidence. If your dog is behaving inappropiately don’t assume you know the reason, get help, our dogs are capable of so much more than we give them credit for.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for sharing this info Michele. It’s important for folks to hear this, it may just make someone reconsider how they are handling their dog.

  2. nick k on

    I can’t figure out if you are saying you agree with Cesar or not. You seem to slander the whole philosophy and then agree with him, and then back and forth……..

    • fearfuldogs on

      It would be easier if I thought that CM was a closet dog hater, but I don’t think he is. I believe he loves dogs and cares about him. The problem is that his techniques are not appropriate for many dogs and unfortunately many viewers don’t take his online disclaimer, not to try this at home, to heart. I can’t tell you how many people come into training classes with problem dogs, are using his methods, and making the problems worse. You can get similar information from other trainers. If he wasn’t on a well respected network, just doing his thing like any other trainer, affecting only his clients’ dogs, it wouldn’t be that big a deal, but he’s not. And trust me it’s not jealousy or envy as many CM fans will proclaim. It hurts me to see how he handles fearful dogs, he’s often just flat out wrong in his interpretation of the dog’s behavior and in his response to it. Just because a dog looks like it’s ok, it doesn’t mean that it is feeling ok.

      His techniques are not new and innovative, they have a history and foundation in what I’ll call ‘old school’ dog training. But as we’ve learned more about animal behavior and specifically about how dogs learn, trainers have moved away from those techniques. It’s actually been quite a fabulous thing to see actual real animal training skills be applied to our pet dogs. If you have had success using his techniques, that’s great. I share my thoughts on him because there are many people out there, especially with fearful dogs, who need to know that his techniques can make behaviors worse. If that’s problematic for you I’d suggest that you not drive yourself crazy by reading my blog, because I’m not going to stop.

  3. Claudine on

    We have had two German Short-Haired pointers. Anyone who knows the breed, knows they can be a challenge to train.

    The first one was a natural alpha – according to boarding kennels owners, dogs followed him around the play yard and he ‘supervised’ the play. I once saw him leap into a pack of 10 squabbling dogs, where a fight over a stick was developing between a large Rottweiler and a sheperd-mix. He grabbed the stick, stared down the aggressor and barked off the others. The pack separated, he put down the stick and left. That was it – dealt with in about 10 seconds. We brought this dog home at 8.5 weeks and he was a MASTER at reading people – even their minds! He used to run down the stairs the minute I THOUGHT the word walk – if anyone can explain that, I’d be interested.

    Our second dog belly crawled around our house for 5 days and didn’t eat. He was afraid of everything and was picked-on constantly by even the smallest dog. He eventually bit someone who was visiting. We took him to a training place that used treats but he was completely unmotivated by treats and we spent the class cleaning up his urine, with him quivering between our legs. We brought him home at age nine months, he had had virtually no contact with people or the world.

    So, I can tell you from experience that there are nuggets in all training methods because we’ve tried everything. But, in the end – it’s all about gaining your dog’s attention and trust, creating a bond and using your instinct.

    I saw a clip where Cesar Millan gave a body massage to a dog while it was cowering near an object of it’s fear. That worked for us. Doggy claw? That worked too – our second dog didn’t know people but he certainly knew ‘dog’. Throwing something at your dog to make him come back works too – I read it in a book and used it one day when our first dog bolted and was on a collision course with a vehicle. Showing leadership when your dog is afraid – critical. Showing you are smarter and more adept when your dog is an alpha – definitely a must-do (water guns are a great way to say, “I can get you even when you’re out-of-my-reach”!).

    But, research shows that dogs are better at reading humans than monkeys (and perhaps other humans), so keeping your dog interactions on the level of dog-to-dog just doesn’t make sense. They do learn words, sign-language and ‘people-skills’.

    I think dog trainers, like most teachers, need to acknowledge that there is more than one way to do it. But, I also think we as dog-owners need to respect the knowledge and experience of people who have formally studied the science of dog-behaviour – in other words, spend the money and find a Vet-Association certified person (usually a vet who specializes in animal behaviour) to help you with your dog’s behaviour problems. And, don’t be so sure that it’s your fault that your dog isn’t responding to the basic obdience training – it may just not be the right kind of training for your dog’s personality.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Hi Claudine, thanks for reading and commenting. I’m not sure what a Doggy claw is.

      You might be interested in reading this article Stanley Coren who wrote The Intelligence of Dogs

      You might also find the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior’s position statement on dominance of interest as well.

      When working with fearful dogs using anything that scares them into behaving the way we’d like, water guns, shouting, throwing something, can backfire on us. These dogs are very good at being scared and do not need to practice it. When we interrupt behaviors by squirting or using other aversives we do not teach them what behaviors we want them to perform. Sure if a dog is going to get run over by a car we do whatever we have to, to keep that from happening. But let’s hope that doesn’t happen often.

      Just taking a dog to class and giving them treats is NOT counter conditioning or desensitization. The first indication that a dog is in over their head is their inability to focus on rewards. If giving a dog a massage when they are scared comforts them and lowers their anxiety level, fabulous, go for it. I agree with you 100% about taking the lead from those who have studied the science of dog behavior, which judging from Mr. Millan’s book that I read, he has not. A dog’s personality does not change the way they learn. It may change what motivates them, but learning theory is learning theory, whether you’re confident and bold or anxious and cautious. Or whether you’re a dog or a chicken for that matter. It is common that many trainers pick and choose which ‘nuggets’ of learning theory they prefer or are most comfortable with. Some may be blessed with better ‘instinct’ than others and hopefully those others did their homework and studied dog behavior.

      I don’t need my dogs to know I can ‘get them’, i.e., punish them, even if they are out of my reach (why would they ever want to be in my reach if it meant me punishing them?). Besides, my border collie would think it was great fun to be squirted by a water gun! Research also shows that dogs learn faster from their successes rather than their mistakes. I don’t need to prove to any dog that I am smarter than they are. I just am, courtesy of my brain with the capability of higher cognitive functions. All I need to do is show my dogs that I control their resources & rewards and all they need to do is sort out which behaviors they need to perform to get them. And that’s accomplished with training.

  4. Dog Bath Tubs on

    Just one of my dogs begins hanging out not far from us before and during storms. I usually guessed it was the static, since she actually is pretty reliably clingy before the storm begun. And it’s detectable when she starts to cling, because she’s a dog who really likes her space.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Not sure if you have access to these products but here in the US we have the Thundershirt, and Storm Defender cape. If you go to the website there is a link to a page with info on storm phobias where you can find links to these products and other information. People have found these products to help their dogs. These phobias can get worse so anything we can do which lowers their anxiety is helpful.

  5. Matt on

    We recently adopted a Chihuahua from the humane society, a sweet albeit timid dog. She seems to have had trauma in the past from either being kicked or hit in the face, as she can be very fearful when hands get near her mouth area. Another thing that makes it hard is she is not food motivated at all. What suggestions might you have for getting this dog out of that state of mind?

    • fearfuldogs on

      Fear is not just a state of mind, it’s a state of body as well. I created the website to help folks with dogs like this begin to understand how to interact with them. The dog first and foremost needs to feel safe. A dog who is not food motivated may be sick or so scared their appetite is suppressed. Both possibilities need to be addressed. If we cannot create an environment in which a dog feels safe we NEED to do something. There are no magic bullets. You can talk to a vet about meds to help lower stress and anxiety. Finding a trainer to help you is also a good idea so long as they are familiar with fear based behavior challenges and understand how reward based training changes brains. You might also check out the category of blog posts called NIBBLES. In them you can find videos of some work I did with a group of fearful chihuahuas. You might get some ideas.

  6. Poe Pater on

    i’ve beenr eading a few of your pages and notice it seems devoted to putting down Cesar Millan rather than helping people deal with their dogs.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Might I suggest that you keep reading. If you are looking for help with fearful dogs you can also visit And the work that CM does has been and remains detrimental to dogs in ways I haven’t even begun to write about.

      • matt s on

        Caesar Milan teaches that fearful dogs need to be exposed to new situations so they can build self confidence (see the first couple episodes of Caesar 911 on Netflix). Your assertion that these methods are detrimental lacks evidence.

      • fearfuldogs on

        That you have not bothered to look at the evidence provided by decades of research on classical conditioning does not mean the evidence does not exist. Sorry Matt, that’s your fail, not mine. Your misinterpretation and misunderstanding of what desensitization and counterconditioning are, are also not my failure.

  7. Patti Panasci on

    I recently rescued 2 dogs that were a bonded pair. They both had were somewhat housebroken from the start and quickly learned to go outside. My problem seems to be that one of these dogs appears very insecure and skittish. We are working on building trust but have no real clue as to the backgrounds of either dog and how they were treated previously. They appear comfortable in our home and sleep in our beds with us. The insecure dog will sneakily pee on the floor only if I come home with another animals smell on me. Am I correct to assume this is due to insecurity rather than a controlling or jealous behavior?

    • fearfuldogs on

      How nice of you to take on these dogs. It doesn’t matter what their history was in order to help them. We use the same techniques of desensitization and counterconditioning along with teaching new skill using positive reinforcement regardless of what went on in their past. Regarding the peeing-don’t know why the dog is doing it, but the solution is to anticipate the problem and prevent it from happening. Perhaps greeting outside first? I’d lose the words; sneakily, controlling and jealous. It’s best not to label a dog’s behavior and instead deal with it humanely, ethically and effectively through training.

  8. Lee on

    I have a dog that was my brothers and aside from neglect, he used the dog as an ego boost, making it cower and physically abusing it when he was angry.
    I think the dog is genuinely frightened, but I also think he displays the cowering behavior as a form of submission. This is where Caesar’s philosophy of discouragement of unwanted behaviors,difficult to apply in this situation. I have no answer and I’m here because I’m trying to find out more. Good luck.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Professional trainers who are good at what they do understand there is science to animal behavior and learning and that the current trend in the industry of making stuff up about dogs ala Ceaser Millan, is not only inefficient it’s potentially dangerous. Dogs need 1)to feel safe 2)to be desensitized and counter conditioned to the things that scare them 3)be taught skills using positive reinforcement. There’s no magic here, just sound training practices.

  9. karine on

    My 1 year old GSD is barking and lunging at dogs on walks but seems extremely stressed out when just walking too. He is Amazing at home or so I thought.. After trying every trick to stop him from lunging on walks I stopped. And decided to examine him on walks and what I saw was a VERY VERY insecure dog. When I got home, I started seeing that he does follow me everywhere and listen to me very well in a place where he knows the rules quite well. But I noticed that his body language was also insecure. He would come to me when called but but without the happy tail wag. Then I noticed that he doesn’t do the happy tail wag very often. That’s when I realized I may be the one to blame for using all those pack leader ”LAWS”.
    We have rescued him when he was 4 months old and he was very insecure like stressed out. We have never physically corrected him but we have not helped him at all by being THE ALPHA. He never really liked being touched either.So this week I let the Pack leader theory completely out of my head and gave him Love and pet him when ever ”I ” wanted. I even would pet him when he came to me to say hi. Within 1 hour he started wagging his tail. The HAPPY tail. This Pack Leader theory was totally ruining my dog’s confidence. It was making him very unsure and insecure about everything. I do believe that there are rules he does have to follow in my home but they are mine to decide, No theory when I give my dog affection and love and build up on his confidence. I am positive that him feeling more relax and building his confidence slowly he will build trust in me and in the outside world. He was listening only because he was scared not because he wanted to please. I see a little more Happy tail wagging every day when I ask him to to something. Man’s best friend doesn’t need a bully, he needs love and praise and belly rubs.

    • fearfuldogs on

      The site has some great info to help dogs like yours.

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