Five Golden Rules for Working with Fearful Dogs by Nicole Wilde

The Fearful Dog’s Blog is happy to introduce you to our guest blogger, Nicole Wilde CPDT, RM. Nicole has worked with fearful dogs for years and her book, Help for Your Fearful Dog is a must read for anyone working with a fearful dog. I was attending one of Nicole’s seminars recently, it happened to be my birthday, and a friend gifted me with a copy of Nicole’s latest book Energy Healing For Dogs, which would be another great topic to include on this blog. I hope you enjoy and I know you’ll learn a lot from the following post.

Five Golden Rules for Working with Fearful Dogs by Nicole Wilde

Nicole & MojoHaving worked with hundreds of shy, anxious, and fearful dogs over the years in training, shelter work, rescue, and yes, even in my own home, it’s become obvious that regardless of the type of fear issue, certain precepts apply. Whether a dog is frightened of a family member, a thunderstorm, or other dogs, keep these five rules in mind when implementing your behavior modification program:

Employ good management. For example, if your dog is afraid of the vacuum cleaner, for the length of your desensitization program, don’t turn it on when he’s close by (until you’ve build up to that step). Take him for a walk while someone else vacuums the house (ladies, put your husbands to work!) or put him out in the yard while you vacuum. Ideally, keep your dog from encountering the trigger for at least two weeks before beginning your behavior modification program. That way the stress hormones, which can circulate for up to a few days in the body even after that initial adrenalin rush has subsided, will be at low levels and the dog will be as calm as possible.

Always work under the dog’s threshold. It’s fine for the dog to notice the trigger, but you don’t want him to have a major reaction to it. If you were doing a desensitization and counter conditioning program, ideally you would start feeding treats as soon as your dog noticed the scary thing, not after he’d started barking or trying to run away.

Progress in teeny, tiny increments. It’s very tempting to move forward rapidly when you’re excited about the progress your dog is making, whether it’s about holding a stay or being less frightened of other dogs. Don’t do it! If you push your dog too far too fast, you risk having to go back to square one and start over. Progressing in small increments will allow your dog to feel good about the trigger and secure during the process.

Put the power in the dog’s paws. Let the dog decide whether to approach the big, scary thing rather than forcing him. For example, the “touch” command (also known as targeting) is excellent for fear of objects, because you can teach a dog to touch her nose to your hand, and then transfer that to the object. The dog can then approach the object of her own free will, as she is comfortable. The extreme opposite of putting the power in the dog’s paws is flooding, a technique that forces the dog to deal with the trigger in massive doses—to become immersed in it. Although the technique has been used successfully in laboratory tests, and it could potentially work with your dog, the chances that you are going to traumatize your dog instead of helping are very high. Leave flooding in the lab and let your dog feel confident, and trusting of you.

Be an advocate for your dog. Let’s say your dog is afraid of people. You’re out on a walk, and someone approaches as if to pet him. It’s your job to stop that person. Stand in front of your dog, put your palm out as if to say, “Halt!” and relay in no uncertain terms that you’d rather they not pet your dog. It is especially important for a dog with fear issues to feel you will keep him safe under any circumstances.

Help For Your Fearful Dog

Nicole Wilde is the author of eight books including Help for Your Fearful Dog. She teaches seminars around the world on canine behavior, and runs Gentle Guidance Dog Training in southern Calfornia. You can follow Nicole on Twitter at @NicoleWilde


72 comments so far

  1. Marie on

    Regarding going in tiny increments.
    My puppy mill rescue dog showed major progress the first 10 days with no pushing from us (took treats from our hands, became more confident in approaching us, sat on the couch with us). For the last 2 weeks he is worse than he was on day 1. He won’t eat in front of us, won’t come near us at all, stays in his bed/pen while we are in the room. Right now our tactic is to leave him alone except to take him to the bathroom and offer him treats. Is that the way to go?

  2. Nicole on

    Hi Marie,

    Without knowing more about the situation it’s difficult to give advice as to how to proceed. I wonder whether something happened to cause the sudden change in your dog’s confidence level. Can you correlate the change in behavior with anything? Medical issue? Change in the household? Environmental issue (e.g., construction next door)? Training that was too much for him somehow? Something that frightened him while he happened to be in proximity to one of you (I don’t mean you caused it, more like hearing a loud noise that scared him, etc., that he might then relate to you)? It just doesn’t make sense that he was doing so well and now he’s avoiding you.

    Another thought, did someone in the family maybe feel that because he was doing so well, you could now approach him more/pet him more, or take some other type of liberty of familiarity and it spooked him? Just considering some possibilities. In the meantime, if he’s friendly with other dogs, do you have a friend with a social dog who could come over and interact with you? When this dog sees the other being social with you it might get him back into feeling friendlier with you.

    Take care,

    • Marie on

      Thanks for the reply Nicole. I can’t think of any one thing that happened. He is much more fearful of my husband since then so I can only assume something inadvertent did happen and it is too ‘little’ for us to notice but it frightened him.

      This past week he has discovered sitting on the couch and looking out the window so we just leave him be. He seems ok with sitting on my lap once a night. I read about the ‘TTouch’ massage technique and tried that last night and he fell asleep pretty quickly in my lap. He also doesn’t run away from me when I pick him up like he did with my husband. So I am the primary caretaker now and we will wait for him to approach my husband on his own.

      Regarding other dogs a friend said the same thing as you and volunteered his calm pug. But how do I know if my dog likes other dogs? I have never seen him around other dogs other than the shelter when we adopted him. I do notice that he doesn’t jump or acknowledge when we hear barking of passing dogs.

      • Nicole on

        There really isn’t a way to know whether he likes other dogs without introducing him to some. Of course you want to do this in a controlled, careful manner. At a distance first. Loose leash rather than tight on both dogs, owners relaxed. Professional in attendance would be best.

  3. Lizzie on

    Thing is, my fearful girl, (ex breeder from a puppy farm) has extreme reactions to the environment. She is afraid of dogs, most noises, all humans esp. children, even my husband, and she’s been living with us for 8 months now. Whilst I can control her environment inside the house and yard, I cannot control it outside, where she suffers most.
    CC and DS are impossible with her because she cannot cope once triggered and just wants to flee. It’s difficult to explain exactly how bad she is. She also has OCD and that is another problem in itself. I tried her on the drug Selgian but that had no effect. I do give her a supplement of L-theanine but again I don’t think it makes any difference to the way she feels. She has made considerable progress being around me, and does relax now in the house. She is bright and is quick to learn simple instructions, but it seems that her brain is stuck as far as relating to people is concerned, and she is reactive to most everything.

    Debbie suggested that I stop trying to take her out for ‘regular walks’ as it most likely is making her worse, with which I agree.

    I would love her to be able to experience more positive things in her life but I don’t think that I have the experience to be able to help her to do that, and feel that I’m failing her.

    I have read many books, inc Debbie’s e-book, website and blog, had a trainer come to assess my dog, who could not get any where near her, and said she was too old to change, (she could be 8 years old, not sure), and the best I could do would be to manage her behaviour.

    She is now totally dependent upon me, as she avoids/runs away from any one else. Having said all the above she seems quite ‘happy’ just being in the house, not so happy out in the yard though, too may noises……

    I don’t really know what else I can do.

    • Nicole on

      Hi Lizzie,

      I hear you. When a dog is globally fearful, it’s pretty much impossible to desensitize to everything in the universe! The last section of my book “Help for Your Fearful Dog” has therapies that are what I would recommend for those types of dogs. They are not things that are going to turn her into another dog completely, and I doubt anything will do that, even drugs. But they can help to “take the edge off” so that you can start making things better. Things like anxiety wraps (which you might try on a walk), etc. Of course as Debbie mentioned pharmacological intervention is always an option as well. I always try to go the “natural” route first but if nothing there helps, I would suggest speaking with your vet. Best of luck to you and your girl.

  4. fearfuldogs on

    One thing I would suggest, since you don’t really have anything to loose is to talk to a vet about other meds to try. There are a variety available and each dog’s response is different. You may even need to play around with dosages, but it’s worth a try.

    • Lizzie on

      Thanks ladies for your support and suggestions.

      Even though I am a few thousand miles away across the Atlantic Ocean, I know that others feel the same as I do about our fearful dogs.

      I am thankful for the Internet every single day :o)

  5. Gina on

    I have a fearful and shy 12 week old English Mastiff. She like the other dog is afraid of everthing including her shadow. I can not even get my hands on her when i do she urinates everywhere. I am afraid if i dont get her confidence gained soon i will not be able to handle her as she already weights approx 30#. We have tried giving her treats but she could care less and just leaves them where you put them. will obedience classes help now or is she too fearful.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Just some thoughts. First have a read through the website, any advice or suggestions I’d make here, are on the site, and more. The first thing you need to do, before any classes is to create a positive trusting relationship with this pup, and classes can wait. It may be worth considering that this dog is always going to be a shy kind of dog, and if that’s not something you had planned for, talk to her breeder. Doing anything that scares this dog at this point is not helpful, and I understand how challenging that can be when you’re handling a dog that is afraid of everything.

      There is a link to trainers on the website listed above as well. Finding a positive reinforcement trainer to guide you is important. Do not use any TV trainer’s technique to work with this dog, you run the risk of making the behavior worse. A couple of foundation reads in my opinion include The Cautious Canine by Patricia McConnell and Help For Your Fearful Dog by Nicole Wilde. Making a dog deal with scary things often backfires. You must understand triggers, thresholds, counter conditioning and desensitization in order to get your head around how you help a dog change how it feels about things that scare it. Since the dog is young you may, with the right training be able to gain some headway, but a dog that is this afraid now, can get worse and begin to develop aggression issues. Do not punish this dog for growling or trying to run away. Dogs that are really scared often won’t eat treats, that’s your clue that the dog is over threshold.

      Obedience classes can be helpful in that you learn how to communicate more effectively with the dog, and that makes it easier for the dog to understand what is happening and what you want. But if the dog is only frightened in the class and has bad experiences, and learns that being with you means scary things happen, it’s not likely to make things better. There are no magic bullets for fixing fearful dogs, they take time, training and patience and you are right that a fearful mastiff is not going to be an easy or safe dog to live with.

  6. Pam on

    Dear Nicole,
    I adopted a 2 1/2 year old German Shepherd about 10 weeks ago from our local SPCA. She was a pitiful sight – very sick, underweight and apparently part of a home based puppy mill operation and was dumped when the people sold her pups. She has no experience with the outside world, so each day is a new adventure. She is now healthy and amazingly sweet, but scared to death of almost everything and does not respond at all to food rewards. She will surrender when cornered rather than show any fear based aggression. I know it’s going to be a long road for her. I had a male trainer come to the house and it set her back completely. She just wasn’t ready for that kind of interaction. I think obedience class would also put her on overload. Do you have any suggestions about what can I do to help calm her anxiety? I’m afraid to give her medication, as she is already so inactive.

    • fearfuldogs on

      This is Debbie, I get your messages first for approval and just can’t hold my tongue, no offense to Nicole. She hopefully will add her pearls to the mix.

      You are correct to be concerned about your dog’s inactivity, but not your impression that meds will contribute to that. The behavioral meds that are used for dogs include both TCA and SSRI classes of meds and though they may have sedative side effects, that is not their purpose. Sedation often subsides after the dog is used to the med, if it is experienced at all, or with an adjustment of dosage. These meds help fearful dogs in different ways. They can help lower the stress a dog feels and toxic, unrelenting stress is bad for brains and overall health. By lowering stress a dog is more likely to be able to learn new more appropriate behaviors. Since these meds work on brain chemistry they in effect go to the heart of the problem (hmmm is that a mixed metaphor?). Your dog’s problem is in its head, by adjusting brain chemistry, and subsequently the circuitry associated with that chemistry, you are actually making a real difference in how your dog experiences the world. The meds that vets prescribe have been tested on lab animals, humans and dogs, they have a track record for safety and efficacy.

      I am not saying there can’t be side effects, as there can be with any remedy we give our dogs, but in my opinion, and take it as that, behavioral meds are a gift for dogs with extreme fear issues. The road may not get any shorter but it can be smoother.

  7. Pam on

    Thank you so much, Debbie, for the great response. That makes perfect sense. I will start her on the meds today and see how she goes. I think you are absolutely correct – constant anxiety takes its toll on both the mind and body. Also, I think that one of the reasons she gets so tired is that she has hardly any muscle tone from being confined nearly her entire life. I don’t believe she had ever been on a real walk or to the park until I got her (who are these people, that do this to dogs?). Let’s hope that with patience and consistency, meds, regular walks and premium food, she will continue to recover. Thanks for being there!

    • fearfuldogs on

      You are most welcome. Be sure you do your homework re: meds. Some vets have lots of info and others, not so much. It takes time to see any changes and the changes may not be earth shattering. You may need to adjust dosages or even try a different med. Movement, exercise, anxiety wraps, ttouch, DAP, etc. may also helpful in making changes in your dog’s brain.

      Good luck with your dog. No one can predict how much their dog will improve but some kind of change is always a possibility if you do the work with them.

  8. Christa Unger on

    Licorice is my 125 pound newfoundland/golden cross. He was a gift from my brother as a very young puppy.
    He was a rescue puppy.
    The only things we know about his history is that Licorice’s mother disappeared during a violent storm. They owners tried for a couple of days to bottle feed Licorice and his litter mates but grew tired of the situation and gunny sacked the babies. My brother got to the creek as the man was going this and gave mouth to muzzle to the one puppy. His litter mates didn’t make it.
    Licorice is now almost 2 years old and is TERRIFIED of the water. He was also very fearful of the dark, but we were able to get him over that fear. Does any body have any suggestions on how I can relieve my poor dog of his fears?

    • fearfuldogs on

      Get a copy of Nicole’s book it gives very detailed step by step instructions on how to change how dogs feel about things. You need to work on counter conditioning and desensitization while keeping the dogs triggers and thresholds in mind.

  9. linda on

    For Lizzie or Gina –

    Something you might want to try is some energetic work. As you or perhaps someone else commented … you have nothing to lose!

    Something I have been working with recently is a book by Dr. Bradley Nelson called ‘The Emotion Code’. His experience has been that when traumatic experiences occur (both with people or animals) that emotions become ‘trapped’. Those trapped emotions can then have a profound effect on how the being perceives everything that follows. His technique for removing these trapped emotions is pretty simple. He has written of many experiences where releasing these emotions has made night and day difference immediately!

    Though just a ‘rookie’ I’ve had a few of these dramatic results myself, though have not worked with any severely traumatized dogs like yours. If you are open to ‘alternative’ treatments, I’d be glad to try working with your dog (it can be done by proxy). At worst, it won’t work … but what if it does! I’d love to try. I feel so bad that her current view of life makes everything scary!

    Or pick up a copy of the book yourself, it’s a fascinating read and very easy to do.

    You can contact me through my website, which should be linked to my name above.


    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for sharing that info Linda. Nicole has also written a book about using (not sure if that’s the appropriate verb or not) Reiki on dogs. I’d also enjoy hearing more about what you do.

      • linda on

        Glad to help. I have long been interested in energetic healing and all things holistic. I have used Reiki, TAT, EFT and now the Emotion Code on my dogs and sometimes student dogs though I don’t do any of those things as a ‘business’.

        A couple years ago I used TAT ( a student’s GSD who was extremely stressed. She had gone through several agility sessions with me and the dog was doing the obstacles, but it was obvious he was NOT having fun. You could tell that he was extremely stressed and uptight through the entire class. I was to the point of being ready to tell her that continued classes weren’t appearing to make any difference in his confidence level. (very unusual)

        As a last resort, I told her I had been doing some energy work (and luckily she didn’t think I was too nuts) and I’d like to give it a try on Seneca. I told her I had no idea if it would work, and I frankly wasn’t all that optimistic, but was willing to give it a try. Before the next class I worked on some of his fear issues by proxy and crossed my fingers.

        WOW. The whole class saw it. He finished the course sequence with the last obstacle being a collapsed tunnel. He actually turned and looked to his owner with a look of amazement and a big doggie smile on his face. Like ‘Wow, that wasn’t so bad!’ Both his owner and I were more than a little misty eyed. Previously if he got anywhere near the end of the course he’d take off to hide by her chair.

        I think the Emotion Code is going to prove even more powerful than that ! You can get more info on his site. He does take private clients (both animal and human) but he’s not cheap.

        While I think clicker training can go a long way towards teaching a dog to be brave and even enjoy things that previously scared him, i think removing emotional blocks causing the fear in the first place should make that process so much faster.

        I would love to hear the experiences of any of you who give it a try.

    • Lizzie on

      Linda, I’ve only today seen your post. Thanks for your interest, I appreciate it.

      The one thing Gracie loves to do, apart from eating that is, is running. However I am too old to run very far with her, because she has to be on a lead, and it would be impossible to take her to any place where people are, ie classes, agility. I am in the UK anyway and over here there is a distinct lack of help for those of us with fearful dogs.

      I have been able to gather knowledge about fearful dogs from Debbie’s web site, e-book and advice, as well as from others who read Debbie’s blog, and for all those I remain eternally grateful.


  10. Dolores on

    Hi Nicole. I have an almost 1 year puppy that I have has since 12 weeks old. I researched breeds because our last dog was an American Eskimo and was a skiddish, fearful puppy and became an aggressive dog (only to strangers). Through all my research, I ended up with a Coton de Tulear, which seemed to be a perfect breed for our family. She has been shy and timid and this past weekend bit a worker at the kennel. I cannot go through another 15 years of a fearful dog that fears people and bites like before. Please guide me in the right direction, books, advice, training, whatever you can recommend! Thank you so much, I am just distraught over this.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Not sure if Nicole is going to get your message but let me share my thoughts with you. Have a read through of the fearful dog site which I created to help owners with fearful dogs understand how to think about their dog’s fear issues. Nicole’s book is an important one to read. I also like Patricia McConnell’s The Cautious Canine to help give you a foundation in triggers, thresholds, counter conditioning and desensitization. Probably the best thing you can do is find a trainer in your area that uses positive reinforcement or ‘dog friendly’ training techniques. You DO NOT want to work with anyone that bullies, scares or tries to make your dog be ‘calm submissive’. These tactics can backfire and only make helping the dog more difficult. The has a link to training help. It’s not an extensive list but if you tell me where you live I can see if I can find a trainer nearby to help you.

  11. Kathy on

    We’ve had an 8 mth. old labradoodle (purchased as an older 7mth. old pup from a breeder) for about 7 weeks now. He was adult shy but is getting better, adores our three kids & likes other kids & dogs, but is fearful of most men in general but extremely fearful in the presence of my husband (who is a recently certified dog trainer!). My husband has tried all the positive training techniques – approaching him from side, not looking him in the eye, walking him, taking him to the dog park, rewards for good behavior, praise, etc. The dog growls & barks at his presence, runs away, urinates & even defecates sometimes when he approaches. He seems to have improvement one day and will approach my husband, but then do a 180 turnaround for no reason the next day. The dog has started yelping in his presence like he’s being hit but my husband is no where near him. Hy husband is positive and is the biggest dog lover in the house. This dog would be the perfect dog otherwise – doesn’t chew, destroy, is sweet, calm, loves kids, dogs & is doing well on basic training. He’s also doing better with adults in general (but prefers females).PLEASE HELP!!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Just going to share my two cents. A dog that is frightened enough to defecate is REALLY scared. It doesn’t matter what your husband’s intentions are, how much he loves dogs or even how he approaches or interacts with the dog, the dog is afraid of him. You didn’t need me to tell you that though! There is no way to ‘make’ a dog less afraid of something. If you were afraid of snakes and every time I approached you it wouldn’t matter whether I approached you without direct eye contact or sideways, if I’m holding a snake in my hands you’re likely to experience fear. Men and your husband in particular are your dog’s snake.

      In order for your dog to start feeling good about your husband he has to first stop feeling bad. Every time your husband interacts with or approaches the dog and the dog feels afraid, it is just making it more likely that he’s going to experience this emotion in the future, and it sounds like the dog is anticipating it. My husband has the same problem with our dog and my personal theory is that since the dog gets scared by him daily, he’s even more afraid of him than by someone he rarely sees, he has more practice at it.

      By ignoring the dog and removing all social pressure from the dog it can begin to stop having those scary emotions. It may take several weeks or months (or longer) for the dog to stop feeling afraid when your husband is around. This is the first step. You then begin to add something positive to the mix, so that when your husband comes on the scene you feed the dog steak for example or a ball is tossed. Fearful dogs are more comfortable around people who don’t pay them much or any attention. Your husband should understand that he’s not alone, animals tend to be more afraid of men than women, for whatever reasons, and it’s not personal.

      My dog is unable to interact with my husband inside the house, but outside, if they are playing with a frisbee, the dog can be around him and respond to verbal cues, like sit or down. It’s been a very slow process for them with a long way to go. I put a short video of them playing frisbee on youtube.

  12. Kathy on

    Thank you so much for your help and your advice. It’s helpful. My husband is pretty much ignoring the dog but does correct the dog when he begins to growl at him. A firm “No” is my husband’s response & I too correct the dog the same way. No one pacifies the dog for this behavior. And, like your husband, our dog does better with my husband when they are outside on a walk & will even follow commands for him & walk great on leash with him. One major issue, though – when my husband is home alone with him, he can not get him to go outside to go to the bathroom. So ignoring him otherwise is fine except having to get the dog outside. What then? He’s tried various techniques. The dog won’t go outside unless he’s “dragged” on leash & this, of course, results in more fear & peeing inside anyway (even when being done in a happy,positive, “let’s go” approach).I’m supposed to take a 4 day trip w/my kids & leave my husband w/the dog. So…I may not go due to our problem. Any other suggestions? Thank you kindly.

  13. fearfuldogs on

    A thought on growling. Growling is a dog’s way of sharing information, they are saying, “I’m not comfortable with what you’re doing.” It’s not difficult to get a dog to stop growling, in fact it’s easy, people do it all the time. It does not necessarily change how the dog is feeling. The risk you take with this approach is that the dog one days skips the growling step and goes right to snapping. Also, you need to consider that your firm ‘NO’s’ are also intimidating and scary to the dog and that is counter productive to what you’re aiming for. A scared dog is not a thinking dog and anything you think he’s ‘learning’ by being spoken to firmly is not likely happening.

    It’s not uncommon to hear people say ‘the dog bit without warning’ and either they didn’t understand or see the warning or the dog has been reprimanded in the past for giving a warning and then finds itself over threshold so snaps or bites.

    It would be well worth you looking for a good trainer who understands fear based behavior. There is a list on the website. You might also speak with a vet about meds that might help your dog through this process.

    I have found that a long line worked best for my scared dog. It gave him space to move away and pee or poop without having a scary human near by. Keeping a leash on a dog can make is easier and less threatening when it’s time to go out, you just pick up the leash and head out. But for my own dog I put papers or pads down for him when he was too scared to be moved.

    It takes time and patience to work with a fearful dog and they unfortunately cannot be expected to change on any schedule but their own. Believe me I do understand your dilemma, my own dog would go out with my husband but was unable to pee or poop and then would ‘go’ in the house when he was alone and felt safe. I had to replace one mattress and went through several gallons of Nature’s Miracle.

  14. allie on

    I am fostering a two year old little girl. She is likely from a puppy mill although I don’t know that for sure. She is in excellent health, current on all shots, spayed. She gets along well with other dogs but is terrified of people. I have had her for several months and prior to that she has been in two other foster homes where she apparently made no progress. She will come to me for treats but doesn’t willing let me pick her up or touch her. She does follow me around the house, stays in the same room I am in, will sometimes play, chase toys that I throw for her but she won’t bring them back to me. She acts like she wants to play, bouncing happily at a distance when I play with the other dogs. Lately I have been carrying her from her crate in the morning to put her out and she is tolerating that but doesn’t love it. I hold her to groom her, speaking softly to her while I’m brushing her. Again she tolerates it but is not comfortable with it. She is beginning to walk well on a leash providing another of the dogs is with us. She is a papillon, very smart, very cute and will make someone a wonderful pet if I can just get her past this fear of people. Any suggestions?

    • fearfuldogs on

      Do I have suggestions? You know it! A created a whole website of suggestions.

      The idea that these dogs will suddenly just figure out that life is good, usually doesn’t happen. They don’t have any skills for dealing with people and feeling good about it. That’s our goal, to help them learn the skills AND feel comfortable and safe. If you don’t understand the concepts of triggers, thresholds, counter conditioning and desensitization, it’s a place to start. Just exposing dogs to things may lead to habituation, but it often does not when the main emotional response is fear. Learning how to not put pressure on the dog, along with rewarding any forward steps she takes will help you.

      Where are you located? It’s very helpful to find a trainer who can show you how to handle dogs like this. You might enjoy watching some of the videos put up by Mary at She is currently working with a fearful foster dog, and while we each have to tailor how we work with our own dogs to their needs, she does a good job of showing how to break down behaviors into manageable slices so the dog can be successful. I would also suggest speaking to a vet about medications that can help lower the general anxiety this dog is feeling. Dogs like this need all the support they can get and sometimes that takes the form of a medication or supplement which helps to balance out their system.

  15. linda on

    Hi Allie,
    Poor little thing! I have Papillons of my own and have had them long before they became popular. (Probably 20 years now.) I am drawn to the plight of your little rescue.

    I would love to volunteer to do some energy work aimed at clearing her fear issues. I work with an energy modality called the Emotion Code (and also Body Code). Its developer Dr. Brad Nelson, has found that strongly felt emotions can become trapped in the body causing energetic disruptions. This can cause both health issue (they disrupt the bodies natural energy flow) and emotional issues. (For example – If the emotion of fear is trapped in the body, it’s resonance can cause even normal things to produce a fear response.)

    I have been very successful in using this work for rescue dogs. I am also a clicker trainer, and find that once you clear the fear issues themselves the retraining goes soooo much faster! This has also been shown to be very effective with reactive dogs. On my website I have video of a student’s reactive dog using JUST the energy work. Though it took a number of sessions, you can see how much change it produced in her behavior.

    If you want to contact me through my website (which should be linked to my name above) I would be glad to do a couple free sessions for her to see if it would help her to be more comfortable. Email addy is on the ‘How does it work’ page.

    Best of luck!

  16. manny dominguez on

    I have a female gsd 5 month my daughter was visiting for the hollidays in wich my puppy showed some fearfull behavior and the back of her hair standing and Itook her to pet edge she was barking at other dogs she is really nice to me and to my wife but to others she is fearfull can you give me some advise thank you

    • fearfuldogs on

      Please visit for lots of advise regarding ways to work with dogs like yours. There is a list of books on the site where you will find Nicole’s book as well. Her book will give you step by step info. While you are learning to change how your dog feels, do not put her in situations in which she is afraid. Scared dogs can become aggressive and you don’t want that to happen. If she is aggressive just get her out of the situation do not punish her.

  17. Amy on

    I adopted a 2 year old German Pinscher from rescue. We dont know anything about his past. He was with his foster dad for 8 months and was doing great. He also lived with 4 other dogs. When the foster brought him to our house, he didnt seem afraid, was very friendly, but once the foster left and didnt return, the dog became very afraid. He was afraid of everything around the house. He was also afraid of my husband, but has gotten over it. He is very loving to me, my son and my husband, but when someone else visits, he growls and even has snapped at them. We signed him up for training and he only lasted 1 1/2 classes before we had to stop going. We are now looking into private training. He just was out of control and we had to sit behind the counter so he couldnt see the other dogs or people. Even then, my husband had to hold him so tightly, it just wasnt working. He is great at clicker training, for me. But when too excited, he will not obey anything. I dont want to worry whenever someone comes over, and I dont want to get rid of him. Any suggestions would be great.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for visiting and sharing Amy. Finding a trainer who uses positive reinforcement training techniques, or a clicker trainer would be helpful. Please visit for lots of ideas about how to work with a dog like this. The concepts of triggers, thresholds, counter conditioning and desensitization form the foundation of handling these dogs. For example, when you say, ‘too excited’, I hear ‘over threshold’. Dogs cannot learn new skills when they are too aroused or frightened to think straight (as we might describe it). I’d also recommend the book Control Unleashed and check out Grisha Stewart’s website for Ahimsa Dog Training to learn more the concept behind BAT.

  18. Nicole on


    I recently started fostering a shelter dog (8 weeks ago) that I know has a history of abuse by a female (leg broken). It took 2 weeks for him to come out from under the bed without growling or snapping at me. He still cowers if I move to fast around him or raise my voice. He does not fear my son or husband. He is terrified around new people in public but if they come into my home he barks aggressively/fearfully and I put him up to avoid somone getting bit. I have tried letting him approach new people on leash but he is still a mess. All his other training has come along amazingly well except for his fear of new women. I guess he assumes all women will hurt him until trust is built, cannot say I blame him. Several people have come to look at him, but noone is willing to adopt him because of his obvious fearful behavior with women. What can I do to help him heal this wound and get him more suited for adoption??


    • fearfuldogs on

      In case Nicole doesn’t see this I suggest you visit to help you get ideas for ways to help this dog. Getting your head around triggers, thresholds, counter conditioning & desensitization will be useful. Changing how dogs feel about things takes time. It’s something you can ‘make’ happen and risk causing the problem to become worse, if you push too hard.

  19. Louise on

    I am rescuing a very timid, scared dog from a terminally I’ll friend. Paws was living in an animal shelter for 8 years until my friend rescued her. My friend has had Paws for 2 years and Paws is extremely scared of almost everything, and has lived in a house where she could go outside whenever she wanted, off leash. Now we are having a nightmarish time trying to walk her outside on leash to go to the bathroom. She”ll walk but won’t go potty. What do we do???

    • fearfuldogs on

      It is good of you to do this for your friend and her dog. The first thing I’d do is go to a vet and find out about medications that can help lower the dog’s stress and anxiety. Being afraid of everything is a horrible way to live and is not good for one’s physical health either.

      As for pottying, I’d create a space indoors, with papers or pads where she can go. Put down plastic sheeting if you are concerned about the floors. This will take a lot of the pressure off of her, and help her to at the very least get some relief from worrying about being taken outside. If the dog has been housetrained in the past, this is not necessarily going to ‘ruin’ that. Once she feels safe enough with you, you can work on leash walking. For that I’d recommend a harness and a long line (not a flexi!).

      I offer phone consultations if that’s of interest to you, and/or you could look for a rewards based trainer experienced with fearful dogs, in your area.

  20. Mandi on

    Hey, I know this is a very old article but I’m hoping you may be able to suggest how to go in the right direction with our little Maltipoo rescue dog named Titan. He’s 1yr and 4mths old, we’ve had him for 4mths. He was doing really great and had no anxiety or fearful issues for the first 2 months. Then in November while on a walk with my boyfriend he was chased down and nearly attacked by an (off-leash) dog who lives in the apartment building next to ours. He was completely freaked out by it, I could hear both the growling/barking of the other dog and Titan’s whines/cries from our closed upstairs apartment about 10 feet away. During the same week, in about the same area of the complex, he was stung by a bee. His fear of the outside world has been getting worse and worse since that point. now he’s very reactive to uknown dogs and unknown people especially while on a leash-walk but even when he hears them from upstairs he will tense and bark/growl. I’m just not sure how to get him past this so we can move back into the happy state of mind he had before. I’m looking around for a behavior specialist or trainer for him, but here in Austin, they sure are expensive!! Any suggestions or help would be appreciated!!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Have a read through the website for lots of info. You might want to speak with a vet about medications that can help lower the overall stress and anxiety your dog is now experiencing on a daily basis. The longer this goes on the harder it will be to change. You should get your head around triggers, thresholds, counter conditioning and desensitization.

      There are no magic cures for this. A trainer skilled in rewards based methods along with understanding fear based behaviors would be worth the money.

  21. Tom Gaffney on

    My New Foundland Male when off the leash on our walks, emits a “guttoral” growl when finished urinating, then flicks his back paws upwards (scent glands)…

    My question is why does he only make the “guttoral” growl sound only when he is urinating, and not on every tree. Part of me thinks its territorial and the other thinks it is the joy of the walk and the freedom…friends of mine who “show” New Foundlands have been unable to help me out on the meaning…thanks, Tom G.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Good question Tom. Keep paying attention to the whens and wheres of the behavior and see if you can notice anything else about it. Sometimes there are behaviors that are triggered by different events, and only the dog could say what they “mean” for them.

  22. Kevin Hull on

    “mploy good management. For example, if your dog is afraid of the vacuum cleaner, for the length of your desensitization program, don’t turn it on when he’s close by (until you’ve build up to that step). Take him for a walk while someone else vacuums the house (ladies, put your husbands to work!) or put him out in the yard while you vacuum. Ideally, keep your dog from encountering the trigger for at least two weeks before beginning your behavior modification program”

    so this sounds like good advice, but in my particular case, i have come to the care of a massively abused dog. and I am curious to how i would take the fear trigger away from a dog that is afraid of wind. men, voices, loud noised like something falling. doors. yelling. Loud TV, u name it, he is afraid of it. How do i remove him from this for TWO weeks…………..
    real curious. cuz I dont know how much longer i can get frustrated by this 😦

    • fearfuldogs on

      We can’t always go with the perfect world option, so we make do. Desensitization alone is rarely enough to change how a dog feels about a trigger. If you have not yet had the opportunity to visit please do, there is lots of information to help you get your head around working with this dog.

      I’d speak with a vet about behavioral medications to start with. A dog who you describe as “massively abused” is going to need all the support they can get.

      You need to incorporate counter conditioning into the rehab protocol.

      Once an animal is frightened by something the memory of the fear doesn’t ever go away. We can change responses to whatever extent our skills and the dog’s allow, give them skills, develop confidence, but there is no good reason for survival purposes to forget about something you thought was a threat to you.

  23. Anna on

    Hi Linda and Nicole! A month ago my husband and I adopted a dog who was born at a shelter, his mother was rescued from the streets when she was pregnant. When our puppy was burn he had canine distemper, so he spent the first months of his life in quarantine so he wouldn’t get other dogs sick too. The first couple days he was scared and shy, he would sit on the couch all day and not move from there, he didn’t even explore the apartment, but with time he started getting so much better, sometimes he’d walk to where we were and sat there, and at night he’d jump on our bed to sleep with us. He started playing with toys and he was finally starting to enjoy life a little. He’s always been active at night, walking around and playing with his toys, and then he sits on the couch all day and doesn’t do anything, if we take him off the couch and put him on the floor he just runs back to the couch. We were still feeling like progress was been made even though we couldn’t potty train him because he refused to walk on a leash, or just walk if we were watching. My husband and I had a rough patch in our marriage last week and fought constantly for 2 whole days. There as a lot of screaming and crying. Right after this my sister and her friend came to visit and when the dog saw them he ran in the corner, pooped and peed himself, and didn’t come out for 2 whole days. Now it feels like all the progress we had made is lost. He’s hiding under something or in a corner all day long, not approaching him, and if we approach him he gets terrified until we calm him down and tell him that is ok. We used to approach him all th time and never had this problem. Why did we lose all the progress? Will we ever make progress again? Were so worried and a little frustrated.

    Thank you so much for listening and helping!


  24. Federico on

    Hi!, I’m from Argentina, and we adopted a dog from the street. He just started sleeping in our door, and a week after, we bring him inside. But, we can’t put him a leash or collar, he is extremely afraid to it. I’m a runner, and i’d like to take him with me (only 5k or 10k, i think it would be great for him), but i can’t teach anything to him if i cant reach the control I need. What can i do? He’s about 2yrs i think, and he’s very sensitive when you pick up any kind of stick, he runs away!… Please help!!, he is a really good dog, and i think he can be happier!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Please visit the website for more information to help you with your dog. I offer skype consults as well.

  25. cannotquenchlove on


    I just adopted a 2-year-old great pyrenees/boxer cross five days ago. She was being kept in a foster home, but before that she was found as a stray on the streets. She is super sweet and gentle, but won’t eat. I’m feeding her Purina ProPlan, which is what she’d been eating at her foster home for six months, so it’s not a new kind of food for her. She’s only eaten about 1.5 cups since I got her, and she should be eating 3 cups every day (she’s just over 60 lbs). She’s had diarrhea twice, and only one solid poop (and that was inside, but less than an hour after we got home from a walk). I’m trying not to spoil her, but it worries me that she’s not eating, so I’ve been giving her some hot dog–she shows no interest in any other treats. The time she ate the 1.5 cups was when I buried hot dog in her dish. I’ve tried that since, and she just digs out the hot dogs without eating any of her dry food.

    She’s got to be hungry, right? She has eaten a dental stick and cow ear, both of which I thought were meant to be chew toys, not food, exactly. Except for the diarrhea, she shows no sign of illness or discomfort.

    I have a Kong for her, but even when I stuff it with hot dog, she shows no interest. I’m allergic to nuts, so I can’t stuff it with peanut butter.

    She’s obviously nervous about me leaving, which is understandable. My guess is that she’s super anxious, and too nervous to eat. How can I counteract this? It’s a long weekend here in the US, so I’ve been spending a lot of time with her, but starting Tuesday I’ll be back in school and gone 4-6 hours each day.

    Help? She was a bit emaciated when I got her, and I don’t want her to drop any more weight than absolutely necessary.


    • fearfuldogs on

      Fear and anxiety impacts an animal’s digestive system so until the dog feels safe they may not eat.

  26. Debra on

    My 2 year old Doberman is afraid of the backyard.I’m at my wits end, he will “go now” when I take him in yard, but I have to stand over him to make sure he pees on the grass, you can tell he does not want to be soon as he does his business he bolts back into the house. if left alone he will pee/poop in the house or garage. it’s so bizarre he will go in the front yard,park, neighbors yard, no problem. Not the back yard. I’ve been extremely patient,calm .2 years of this . So frustrated.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Living with this kind of fear and anxiety is hard on you and flat out miserable for a dog. Speak to a vet about medications that can help alleviate anxiety and stress and find a trainer who understands how to desensitize, counter condition and train using positive reinforcement. Accept no excuses or alternatives to these techniques.

  27. Kay Turner on

    I adopted my Lab from the humane society. She is 5 years old now and was about 10 weeks old when I got her. She like the others mentioned is so afraid of EVERYTHING. My concern now is that she needs her nails trimmed and ears cleaned but I cannot get her into my car to go to the vet. She won’t let me near her with anything so I can’t do it. I can’t lift her either. They have mobile vet service here( expensive) but they want to muzzle her and drug her to do it. I don’t want her drugged and I fear it would traumatize her. Any suggestions? I really need help.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I hope you found someone to help you with your dog. Good trainers can show you how to change how your dog feels about handling and nail trims. There are very straight forward plans that we follow to do it.

  28. makayla on

    My 8 year old female mastiff dog has been pooping and peeing herself and she has eats but it just goes right through her and I want to take her to the vet but I want to know what I should be prepared for. She also just stopped being in heat and when she poops and pees herself she just gets up and moves a few feet this just started last night and I try to clean her up but she won’t let me. She has other issues such as her back legs are bowed out and she has arthritis in her hips I would really appreciate an answer as to what I should do or to what might be wrong with her thank you

    • makayla on

      She also is scared of any water being sprayed on her and she is always hiding from us so I think this might be related to what is going on with her

    • fearfuldogs on

      See a vet.

  29. Alysha on

    Hey Nicole,

    I have the absolute most amazing chihuahua. I’ve had him sense he was 3 months old. Sense the day I brought him home he’s been my dog. He doesn’t leave my site he’s always gotta have my arm around him, or he’s laying on my chest. He loves other people he always gets excited to see new people. But he’s always hated children and strange women. Which isn’t the problem. I started dating my boyfriend a year ago. And my pup who is now 3 loved him! slept with him and absolutely adored him. Well a few months ago he pooped in the house and my boyfriend punished him by spanking him and he yipped. I told my boyfriend I never hit my dogs. There small delicate dogs he’s a tea cup chihuahua. I disapline them by saying no bad dog and putting them out side to potty and when they potty out side I reward them with a treat. But small dogs have accidents sometimes. Ever sense he did this. My boyfriend can’t even kiss him or go to pick him up with out him screaming like he is being torn apart. And then he started to pee on him. Well the peeing stopped and now he’s starting to scream and poop when ever he picks him up or even kisses him. It’s got way out of hand. He has never spanked him sense that day but idk what it is that my dog is so terrified of. I do baby him and he is my pride and joy. I just don’t know how to fix this. But it makes me and my boyfriend fight constantly cause it stresses me out to see my baby stressed out and cry. How can I get my family to have peace and make everyone happy. I also have 6 year old regular size chihuahua who is now getting severe anxiety because she feels my other dog stressed out. Any advice you or anyone has would be very helpful. I’ve tried telling him good boy when he is being held by my boyfriend and doesn’t scream and when he screams I say no it’s ok im right here and he seems to calm down a bit but as soon as he’s let down he jumps in my arm like “mom save me”. Am I babying him to much?
    Thank you!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Your dog is scared. The problem isn’t with babying him.

  30. lianne on

    hello I have a rescue springer spaniel who we rescued hes 20 months old but lately everytime he goes for a no 2 he yelps quite loudly no one is outside with him just himself , also he wont lay still for 2 seconds he will lay then get up whine then lay back down again , but he runs round the house doing it , we have calmed him down everytime , but this morning at 3 am in morning as he sleeps downstairs I heard yelping came down to him and he had the runs but he was scared when doing it I calmed him down again and hes gone back to sleep , is there anything advice as im shattered to help him hes on dry food the same food the shelter gave him when he was in there thank you x

    • fearfuldogs on

      I am quite late in responding, but I hope you found a vet to help you out.

  31. Tamara on

    I adopted a rescue dog this week. She is a hound mix. Clarabelle is 3 and lived the majority of her life in the shelter. I know she has been adopted 2 times before and returned. I brought her home thurs and spent thurs and fri and most sat with her. We went on walks and she seemed to be adjusting well. Hates going in crate at night and whines alot at sat evening we introduced her to lilah, my 1 1/2 year of hound mix that i rescued last year. They immediately started playing together. They both had waggimg tails and i thought this is a perfect match. Well when i got home with both dogs her attitude changed. Clarabelle just lays lifeless and wont come near us or lilah. She hasnt eaten since yesterday morning. I dont know how to help her. Please help me..

    • fearfuldogs on

      I hope you saw a vet about medications to help this dog. Dogs need to feel safe. We change the association they have with scary stuff and we give them skills using positive reinforcement. Meds can help with this process. Think of fear as pain, and treat it.

  32. d graham on

    Hi there,
    I have a two year old collie cross. She was fine toileting when we got her. But recently she has heard some gun shots in the wood behind our house and it has put her off going into the garden. Then came Halloween which completely freaked her out. So now she wants to stay in all the time and will not wee when out on walks. She goes for up to 18 hours without weeing.
    We bring her on several walks during the day and one late at night to make sure she has plenty of opportunities but I can see she is stressed on the walks by her gait/panting/ears up.
    I though if we kept walking her and putting her out the back anyway (there are no loud bangs at the moment) she would desensitise but now I’m worried about how long she is holding her wee.
    Any suggestions would be much appreciated. We do have another dog (who is a great role model! and pees and poos anywhere!)
    D. Graham

    • fearfuldogs on

      Maybe you can find a trainer to help you understand how we add counterconditioning to the process to help our dogs feel better about things. Do you use lots of yummy food during training?

  33. Sally Ahlgren on

    We have had our rescue dog for two weeks. She is making excellent progress and is a wonderful pet. It is icy and snowy where we are. When I was taking her for a walk this morning the leash slipped out of my hand and because of the noise of the leash behind her as she ran, Emily became terrified and ran away. The good new is that she found her way back to our home in 30 minutes and waited by the front door for us to come. We took her to the vet as the pads on her paws were damaged and bloody from the frantic running that she had done to find her way back to our house. She is on an antibiotic and pain medicine. We carry her out to the back yard with her leash on so that she will go to the bathroom. We do not want her paws to become further damaged by a walk and the vet suggested that for a few days this is what we should do; just go to the back yard rather than take her on her usual walk. It has been 12 hours and she still has not either urinated or pooped. She is house trained and up to now with four walks a day this has never been an issue. Do you have any suggestions for us as to what might make her want to go to the bathroom? Thank you in advance for your reply.

  34. Mrs Sandra Jones on

    Hi, I have a three year old greyhound that refuses to go for a walk. We’ve had her for six months, when we first got her she did’nt like walks and i would have to virtually pull her out of the door and up the road then she was ok. Now she even refuses to venture out of the door unless its in the car. She shakes when she sees her lead and no amount of pulling or pushing can get her out. Ive tried treats but the nerves take over and she won’t have anything. She loves the car, i’ve tried taking her for a walk after she’s been in the car but she has sussed me out and was reluctant to even get in the car so i’ve had to stop that.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I’m sorry to hear you dog is struggling so. It’s very sad and frustrating to see it happening. Did you want to schedule a consult to talk about how you can work with and help your dog? There are things we can do to make it more likely that they will feel comfortable in their world.

  35. Meryl on

    Thank you so much for having this blog. It’s a major resource for me. My dog is fearful of other dogs (and lots of other things). His reaction is either fight or flight. When we first rescued him, I noticed that he won’t even take treats in over stimulated or triggered environments. He has made progress over the course of the two years that we’ve had him. He responds well to “leave it” when around other dogs but I still notice that depending on the dog and the situation, he’ll either get really bothered and try and go towards the “threat” or tug on the leash to walk away quickly. These two different reactions makes it hard to decipher what situation will cause him to react in which way. Still trying to make sense of it. When we walk, every yard we pass it’s as if he’s looking for a dog behind the fence. I’m not sure whether this is an obsessive drive or out of fear.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for your comment. I’m glad the blog has been helpful. If you are ever looking for training help keep in mind that I do offer Skype consults. I am familiar with the issue you are dealing with and have training plans for changing how your dog behaves. A good trainer in your area should also be able to help you out. They will not do anything that hurts or scares your dog. A good one won’t anyway. It’s good of you to keep trying to help your pup.


    Just adopted a white boxer she definitely is suffering some separation anxiety, and hasnt eaten in 2 days, maybe its the culture shock she had a brother named Blaze and he was placed in a different home, so i imagine all of this is alot for her to deal with loss and separation of her home ,her brother, new family….shes only 2 and I know IT WILL just take time, but she drinks her water just won’t eat any food. Any advice?

    • fearfuldogs on

      It was good of you to adopt this dog. Moving is one of the most stressful experiences for a social animal and losing a friend is hard. It may just take time or it may require more than that. Help her feel safe by giving her a place to hide out if she needs to. Use fabulous food to make your appearance a good thing. Don’t force her to do anything. If it is just a matter of time you need to be very patient, we can’t force them to feel safe.

  37. Karen on

    Dear Nicole
    Last week we adopted a 3 year old Maltese poodle that was rescued from a puppy mill. She is the sweetest little thing, but incredibly fearful of humans and it’s heartbreaking to see her cower when we approach.
    Nearly a week in our home and she’s become quite attached to my teenage daughter and loves to cuddle with her, but even when my daughter approaches her, she runs away or cowers. Sometimes she follows my daughter and then cowers when my daughter turns around and notices her.
    We bought her a basket immediately when she arrived and she does tend to see this as her ‘safe place’, but she also often hides away and we’ve had to carefully secure our garden as she tends to want to escape.
    We find that she is most relaxed with another friendly dog or two around, but this isn’t always possible. Unfortunately, I’m only allowed one dog in our Cluster complex, so no chance of getting a live-in friend, although we do have a dog-friendly cat and they are comfortable in each others’ space.
    I know that we just need to be patient and give her a lot of love, but I was hoping you would have more guidance for us?
    Thank you.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Nicole was a guest blogger and does not read or respond to comments. If you are interested in working with a trainer to help you with your dog I’m happy to help you with that. There are ways you can help your pup.

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