Guest Blogger: Eric Goebelbecker

Discovering that I was not alone when it came to the challenges of living with a fearful dog helped me to keep my sanity when Sunny first came to live with me. Understanding that his behavior was not unusual for a dog that was not properly socialized, and getting advice and suggestions from other fearful dog owners and trainers has been key to the progress he’s made.

Eric Goelbecker owns and runs Dog Spelled Forward dog training part-time in Maywood NJ, while working full-time as a software engineer on Wall Street. He hopes to transition Dog Spelled Forward to full-time in a few years. He is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer (CPDT.)

After adopting a puppy that was a “bit of a handful” in 2000, Eric discovered modern dog training via classes at St. Hubert’s Dog Training School, experiencing first hand what can be done with dog-friendly techniques.

Gage’s Tale

gageinatorI have a fearful dog. The good news is I sometimes have to remind myself of that fact. Gage leads a pretty normal life, all things considered.

Gage is a “failed foster.” My wife and I had been volunteering at a rescue for a while and decided that Caffeine, our back-in-those-glorious-days-of-only-one-dog dog, was ready to share the house with a foster. We took her to the rescue and she got along very well with Gage. Gage seemed a little shy, but we didn’t see anything that afternoon that foreshadowed his fear of new people and well, just about anything else new. He rode home with us, settled into the house very well, and immediately took a shine to Caffeine.

Soon thereafter, we saw the fearful behaviors. Gage was afraid of just about anything new: a trash can, an open closet door, an open laptop carried like a pizza…a pizza. Any novel sight drew a least a startle response, if not flight.

Gage was also very afraid of traffic. We brought him home on a weekend, so he didn’t see real traffic for almost 2 days. His reaction that Monday was very bad, and my wife had to cut the walk short.

At that time my only experience was in obedience training. I did a few web searches and found the shy-k9s Yahoo Group, signed up, read the information in the documents section, and a whole new world opened to me.

For a while the goal was to get Gage to a good place and then adopt him out. I was still only considering the idea of becoming a professional trainer and Gage served as a good way for me to try different things.

I signed up for classes with a clicker trainer that has a good reputation for success with shy dogs and set up a behavior modification plan at home for his issues with traffic.

The problem was, working with fearful dogs takes time and frequently if you do it right, you end up pretty attached to the dog. (At least I did.) As I progressed I became more and more attached and Gage ended up being “my” dog.

Gage is one of the family now. He’s never going to fully accept a new person. He is able to focus on one of us when we we stop to talk to someone during a walk instead of fixating on the person. Strangers coming into the house require some management, but he can cope and calm down in another room. Traffic took a long time, as keeping a Gage under threshold was very difficult and we don’t control the cars. He’s come a long way, but we still need to be careful around garbage trucks and a fire truck is a big problem.

I can’t stress enough how effective the targeting games on the site are. Gage will now slow down when he sees an “unexpected” object and then frequently just reach out his nose and tap it on cue. Giving him something to do instead of just panicking is a very powerful tool.

I was pretty much on my way to becoming a trainer when we found Gage, but he put things into high gear and made me a much better one. I owe him for that.

You can find Eric on Twitter @dogspelledfwd

22 comments so far

  1. Blueszz on

    Eric, good to read that you also didn’t recognize how fearful Gage was when you decided to foster him. I adopted a shelter dog almost 5 years ago and despite I had several dogs before I couldn’t see how fearful she was when I was in and around the shelter with her. I often wondered if I missed signals that should have warned me.
    For instance, the first time she met my Dad, was in front of the shelter, the day before I could pick her up. She jumped up to him to say hello. Two days later she met him again and as with the other men she met she didn’t dare to get close to him. She even didn’t want to snip and when called by men she just backed off.

    The dog I’m talking about is a Belgian Malinois and they generally don’t do well in shelters. Maybe she was way to excited being out of the kennel and ‘forgot’ about her fears. I notice that when I can play with her (great ball drive) very often she ‘forget’ about the fears.’

    As with your dog, she was verry scared from traffic (lunging and barking), other dogs and every strange item in the house. Now after 5 years she is doing pretty well, as you I sometimes I forget I have a fearful dog, but that is because guiding and coaching her in difficult situaons has become almost a reflex for me.

    I’m curious, do you have a clue why dogs are able to hide the fears sometimes? Or are we bad ‘readers’ from body language. I can’t imagine I wouln’t have noticed the fear for men if she had shown it to me, the fear she showed right after I picked her up was very extreme and she needed months/years to re-socialize.


  2. fearfuldogs on

    Thanks for your comment Nicole. I will just throw out my 2 cents regarding why it seems like dogs can ‘hide’ their fears sometimes.

    A dog that is over threshold emotionally will behave in ways that they don’t have any control over. So startling, cowering, running, growling and even jumping on someone are physical responses, not necessarily conscious choices. This occurs not only with fear but other emotional highs, so the excitement of the possibility of getting out of a kennel could have a dog leaping around without thinking about who or what they are leaping on.

    It also works the other way around in that a dog that is able to think and focus on something is less likely to react to triggers. This is why play can be such a great tool to use with a fearful dog. The play behavior and its accompany emotion, are compatible with being afraid.

    Someone watched the videos I have posted of Sunny and said that it looked like I had a dog that wasn’t even that afraid. But indeed he is, UNLESS he is engaged in a playful activity. So someone might think, what a great dog, he’s not so bad, let’s get him- only to find out when they got him home that he couldn’t come out from under the bed!

    Also, dogs don’t generalize information easily and fearful dogs seem to be even worse at it. So a dog that might become comfortable with strangers in one place is not necessarily able to generalize that comfort and be ok with strangers in a different place. I see that with Sunny and my husband. Outside in the yard Sunny can engage with him, in the house is a different story.

    • fearfuldogs on

      oops in the 3rd paragraph it should read-

      The play behavior and its accompany emotion, are INCOMPATIBLE with being afraid.

  3. Eric G on

    Thanks for comments.

    I definitely concur with Debbie. When a dog is over-threshold, all bets are off on making sense of his behavior. I’m sure Gage was utterly miserable at the rescue and getting out of his crate into the very nice large area and meeting Caffeine was probably enough to mask his “real” feelings about the situation.

    Most shelters wait at least 3 days before performing temperament tests on dogs because they need that long to settle down. I’m pretty sure that at ITC Sue Sternberg referred to a study where researchers actually documented hormone changes occurring about 3 days after a traumatic event (like a move) too. I’ve always wondered if that was related to his change too.

    I’m not sure how much of it is hiding their fears and how much of it is the way dogs just seem to live in the moment. Maybe CC&DS is just creating new, better, happy moments that eclipse the old nasty ones?

    When Gage relaxes he resembles nothing more than a goofball Lab. One of his nicknames is “Goofball” and if we call him that we have to be sure his rear end and huge tail is clear of any nearby shelves.

  4. Peta Love on

    Lovely post, thank you Eric and . I wanted to add a mention of the importance of stability and routine for a fearful dog. Such consistency of things happening at the same time each day and consistent treatment builds confidence at a fundamental level. Incidentally, this is what child psychologists recommend for very young traumatised / fearful children.

    Also, again learning from helping small children who experience fear / flashbacks of frightening situations, with children it’s helpful to remind them of “what’s different now”. That is, you help them focus on the positive safety of what’s happening in the now.

    When a fearful dog is redirected into a positive / play / rewarding behaviour it may well be the canine non-verbal version of that effective psychological technique.

    All very interesting! I have experience of the minefield that is living with a fearful dog – never knowing what may set them into fear / reconnect them with a traumatic experience (a cold breeze, rain on their nose, a knife, a particular smell…)

    I think it’s important to plan what you will do beforehand since you are always taken by surprise and your response in the moment is so very important for the dog’s recovery.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for your comment Peta, you make very good points about working/living with a fearful dog. If nothing else these dogs force us to pay more attention, be more patient, and think more creatively. And I suppose that’s not all bad!

  5. Lizzie on

    What is it about our fearful dogs that make them seem all the same? When I read Eric’s post he could have been writing about my Lab Gracie!

    I do so agree with Peta that these dogs need consistency and a routine, although the trainer who came to assess Gracie told me that I would have to ‘push’ her because they do like a routine. Confusing for an owner such as me being initially quite out of my depth with Gracie’s needs!

    However I do know that even though Gracie has improved so much, fundamentally she will, I think, remain a fearful dog, and I don’t know if she will ever be able to form a relationship with another human.

    But here’s a thought…. we were all strangers to our dogs when we first took them on, and somehow they became less afraid of us. I wonder Debbie do you know of anyone who has a dog that couldn’t respond and move forward at all?

  6. fearfuldogs on

    I think a lot of aggression issues that dogs exhibit are the result of their inability to ‘move forward’ or respond in a non-fearful way. I’m sure there are dogs living on chains or in cages, or sent to shelters who were not able to feel better around people given the way they were being handled. I suspect that unless a dog has some other neurological problem other than lack of socialization (which is HUGE problem) the potential for improvement exists. Whether they get the kind of handling they need is another story.

    My dog Sunny was terrified of me and remains afraid of strangers and even my husband. But the quality of his fear has changed. He used to get that wide eyed panic-stricken look, defecate, and be totally unable to respond to any cues I gave him. Now he acts like a fearful dog who would rather not be near people but can respond to my cues when I ask him to sit or wait for me to put a leash on him. It has taken years to get these behaviors. That timing could have been the result of his limitations and/or my own in regard to training skills.

    His motivation to play has been key in getting him to want to be around other people, as much as he is able. Finding a dog’s motivation, food is often the most obvious, is up there when it comes to first steps owners need to take. But I think that the biggest challenge is probably the time and energy it takes to work with these dogs. Few people get a dog to deal with stuff like this, and even fewer have any clue as to how to proceed.

    There may be limitations to how much a brain can change and improve. However since there is no way to know that for sure, I will never give up working on helping Sunny make these changes, yet at the same time I accept that he will probably never be like other dogs that were properly socialized as pups.

    I don’t want to spew on too much more 😉 but I think that the trainer who told you that you needed to ‘push’ Gracie may have only been guilty of using a word that lacks a precise definition and can be misinterpreted. Routine and predictability are important for a fearful dog. If a dog can predict what the outcome of an interaction with a person will be, and that outcome is a positive one (I look at my dog, say his name (both scary for him) and ask him to ‘sit’, he sits and gets a treat) they are less likely to react fearfully.

    ‘Pushing’ a dog in my mind means continuing to ask for improvements in their behavior, as they are able. Raising the criteria as trainers would say. So if a dog can enter a room and sit quietly within 20 feet of a scary dog or person, I would work on decreasing that distance. But the pushing is more like a subtle pressure, not a shove. And the dog is constantly rewarded for performing. Most of us ‘shove’ and then complain that the dog isn’t getting any better and may instead be getting worse.

  7. Lizzie on

    Thanks for your response Debbie :o)

    As ever your comments make perfect sense and I can relate to all. From how you describe Sunny’s behaviour and the time it has taken to get to where you are now with him, by comparison I think that Gracie has done extremely well in the nine months that she has been with me, even if I do say so myself! After all there is no one else who can give an opinion as Gracie has not come into contact with anyone during this time, apart from the trainer, who did get to see her, but that was all. He was not able to handle her.

    There are still on going issues where my husband is concerned, rather like Kathy on one of your other posts, but I am now trying to work on that. My husband is not ‘dog savvy’ you might say, and I think his nervousness makes Gracie nervous. She has managed to live under the same roof as him for all this time and has successfully avoided him directly, we do not live in a large house either! You have to give her credit for that, mind you she is a past master at avoidance…. And yet she will follow him, at a distance when he goes out to fetch our other 2 dogs in, and even wags her tail! I think it must be the anticipation of seeing the boys ;o
    I tend to see her avoidance as comical, and I think I can understand why she doesn’t go near him. It is no big deal to me, except that as I am the only human whom Gracie relates to it does resctict my life somewhat. I can’t go away on holiday for example, can’t put her into Boarding Kennels. Because my husband cannot handle her he can’t even take her out, most times she won’t go out into the yard for toileting if I’m out say grocery shopping.

    Having Gracie is a life long committment, her life that is, I am well aware of that, and we have come this far together. I see no reason why she shouldn’t continue to go on and do well even though she will always be a fearful dog.

  8. fearfuldogs on

    I was wondering where you were located, the nearest big city, I might be able to find a skilled trainer for you.

    • Lizzie on

      Debbie, I think I mentioned before that I am in the UK, Scotland in the SW about 30 miles from Glasgow. WOW if your contacts reach this far that’s mighty impressive!
      The trainer who came to see Gracie was recommended by my vet. He has a fearful dog himself but with aggression, Border Collie, but he had to admit that he had never worked with an ex puppy farm bitch.

      Just as an aside, he also told me that Labrdors are not good communicators, ie with other dogs, and that all dogs understand other dogs, it’s just that some are better at communicating than others! Borders are one of the best apparantly!

      • fearfuldogs on

        Will let you know if I come up with any leads for you regarding a trainer with fearful dog experience.

        I can see why someone would think that labs are not good communicators, I see a variety of play and interaction styles among dogs that I board. I’m never really sure if a dog isn’t a good communicator or it just doesn’t matter all that much to them.

        Sunny who was raised in an enclosure most of his early life with other dogs seems to have one of the largest vocabularies of doggie language that I’ve seen, and he uses it. If a dog has not spent much time with other dogs or has only been exposed to a limited number of dogs they may not have had the opportunity to learn those communication skills. I suspect you’d see that deficit in a border collie too if that were the case.

      • fearfuldogs on

        Check out this link for trainers in your area. I don’t know them personally but they are members of an organization that recommends positive reinforcement training. Ask questions- any trainer that understands fearful dog behavior should explain to you that it requires time and patience, there are no magic cures. You want someone who has worked with fearful dogs before and talks about using counter conditioning and desensitization to help your dog. If they run classes ask to observe them in action and find out how you feel about them.

        There is no replacement for a having a skilled, experienced trainer look at your dog and show you techniques for working with her. But it can be challenging finding one!

  9. Blueszz on

    Thank you every one for the comments. Very interesting to read.
    Debbie, you wrote:
    [i]A dog that is over threshold emotionally will behave in ways that they don’t have any control over. So startling, cowering, running, growling and even jumping on someone are physical responses, not necessarily conscious choices. This occurs not only with fear but other emotional highs, so the excitement of the possibility of getting out of a kennel could have a dog leaping around without thinking about who or what they are leaping on.[/i]

    Reading this made me so sad. I realized that you are right. During hikes, sometimes I come very close to the front of the shelter and she pulls me away from it. Still, after 5 years.The period in the shelter must have been very traumatic for her. The last few times I had to walk around the shelter, I choose to walk on the other side and she was fine. Her shelter period might even explain why she still is afraid of sounds from iron gates, shopping ‘baskets’ on wheels (don’t know the correct translation for it, sorry). Not that it does matter as it comes to helping her over her fears.

    After reading all of these posts I realize Ilja does very well. Today I met some friends, who met her the first day I got her from the shelter. She loves them and despite her fear for men, she adores the male friend. “She” said that she couldn’t believe how easy and relaxed I could walk the dogs, including Ilja. Well… as long as we don’t encouter her fobia’s, she is right LOL
    I loved this moment (talking with friends outdoors), Ilja was so happy to see them and wanted to be petted by both of them and even wanted to jump in their car when they wanted to leave. It’s so great to see her relaxed in every day live. I wished it was like this every day.

    I wanted to write: I love her to death – and realized we all love our scared dogs to death. Otherwise it wouldn’t be possible to work with them in a constructive way.

    A few days ago, 1.30 am, I was walking the dogs and behind a gate was a GSD, barking and lunging. Ilja the same… and when she stopped she kept looking at me, almost asking not to got beaten up now, as if she wanted to say: sorry I couldn’t help myself, I know I shouldn’t have done this… I only said “it’s OK” and started a hand targeting game.

    This is how we build trust. When I first got her she lunged at every dog, tail ducked under her belly… peeing from fear. Now she ignores most dogs, but when another dog lunges at her or stares at her, I have to coach her thru this situation. The GSD behind the gate came unexpected for me, as normally that dog is indoors during the nights. I couldn’t blame Ilja…

    Finally at home, when I took her leash and harness of, I only could say: that was a challenging walk, wasn’t it? Gave her a hug and told myself to make sure something like this won’t happen the next few days so that she can recover from this event.


    • Eric G on

      The fact that Ilja was able to settle down quickly (I assume from your story) and not redirect is great. Sounds like she did fine to me. You’re instinct to start up a rewarding game with her was a great call too.

      • Eric G on

        Ack! “Your” instinct. I hate it when I mess that one up. 🙂

  10. fearfuldogs on

    Lots of dogs would react if a they had GSD lunging and barking at them, fence or not! The ability to react and then stop reacting is huge. There is a saying that ‘that which does not kill us makes us stronger’ and while I don’t think it necessarily always does us much good 😉 it may apply to dogs sometimes too!

  11. Blueszz on

    Eric, yes she did recover fast and in the past it would have effected her behavior days after such an event. Todays walks went very well, even when confronted with several triggers at once. After she was allowed off leash and could run the stress away, she was fine.
    Redirect… She used to redirect her drives in the past (auch). I don’t know if that is what you meant? Luckily for her I recognized this behavior as redirection aggression and it only happened once in the first 6 months I owned her.
    Eric I don’t know if you know that Ilja is a Belgian Malinois from Dutch KPNV breeding stock, but keeping this in mind and as a dog trainer, you might understand with what kind of explosions she can react to things (the happy ones, the upsetting ones etc).


  12. Lizzie on

    Thank you for the link Debbie.

    My guy is an experienced trainer. He is a trainer and advisor for His name is Alasdair Bunyan, you can read about him on their web site. He stays in touch with me and I can ask him to come and visit any time I feel it necessary.
    He said this of Gracie after he’d seen her back in January,

    ‘He thinks that her problem with people has escalated into a phobia and has little confidence that she’ll ever ‘get over it’. She of course would have nothing to do with him, so he only saw her at her worst. With me she is fine, she is fine outside as well so long as we don’t come into contact with anyone, other dogs included. Alasdair says so long as I can control her environment that’s OK but of course I can only do that at home, out in the big bad world it’s impossible, unless we go and live in the Highlands or some other remote place! Therefore walks are the most stressful times and he thinks I shouldn’t put her in situations that she can’t cope with.’

    It was after his visit that I started to follow your philosophy and advice from reading your e-book and web site. It has been entirely down to your knowledge that Gracie has improved so much since then. Yes she still has a phobia about people but I do not take her out for ‘walks’, simply over the road several times a day 5 or 6, to a patch (large) of grass, now, I might add on a 30ft trail leash, for 10 minutes or so, where she is relaxed and can see the house.
    She has learned to hand target and also targets her food bowl if I ask her to. She will look at me to focus and then get a treat. She will wait and sit if we do see someone, and when we have to cross the road, sometimes without me asking her to, also she has recently started to wait for cues from me before say jumping in the car or going through doors. She watches follows and listens to me all the time. We don’t have any more ‘whale eyed’ looks as she clearly is not scared out of her wits any more, inside the house at least! These are just some of the positive improvements.

    Whilst I acknowledge her contiued fear of people, including my husband, I am so pleased with the way she has been able to learn new tasks, that surely her brain must function in a near normal way. Watching her today, she is far removed from the dog I brought home last October.

    My opinion is this: The more self control Gracie has the more confident she becomes. When she stays calm she can think and be in control. It is my job to keep her calm and from stimuli that trigger her loss of control. I think that I am doing that as much as is humanly possible, obviously I cannot control other people. As time goes by and Gracie becomes even more confident I am hopeful that she may even start to overcome her fear of people.

    I just wanted you to know. 😮

  13. fearfuldogs on

    Sounds fabulous actually. At least your trainer didn’t try any miracle ‘cures’ on her, too many in the U.S. are doing that.

    With continuing counter conditioning and desensitization along with manageable challenges I think that you will continue to see improvements in Gracie, small as they may be, they add up over the years.

  14. Kendra on

    I am a trainer and I work with a lot of puppy mill dogs through a local rescue that saves hundreds of puppy mill dogs and am learning more and more about fear in dogs. I am never shy about telling people the truth about time and patience. I always remind them that if they push too far, too fast they could do more harm than good. People are often looking for a “miracle” cure and I’m very honest about the work that is involved.
    My “foster failure” Enzo came to me with severe Separation Anxiety (REAL Sep Anx…not just barking when alone which is what so many of my clients call me about panicked that their dog has Sep Anx). I put sooooo much time and love and patience into working him through his fears and anxiety that I fell head over heels for him and adopted him. It was a great learning experience for me and I’m a better trainer because of it. I am not a patient person and after spending at least two grueling months working on his fears and anxiety every minute of every day, I really learned that a little hard work goes a long way.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for taking the time to share that Kendra. Unfortunately in this era of fast food and 30 minute dog training shows on television many people have unrealistic expectations for their pets. Good to be reminded.

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