I’ve Got Your Back!

SunnyImagine living with someone who scared you every day, even if they didn’t mean to, they did. Imagine living with someone who at any moment might put you in a situation in which you were scared, and they did nothing! This is how many fearful dogs live their lives, anticipating being scared and then being scared, by one thing or another.

The training advice given to people regarding how to interact with their fearful dogs often includes the admonition to ‘ignore’ your scared dog, as though paying attention to your dog is going to confirm to them they have reason to be afraid.* Now imagine being with a friend and being afraid of something and rather than your friend acknowledging that you’re afraid they pretend you don’t exist. Does this make you feel better? Now imagine that your friend takes your hand and says, “Don’t worry it will be fine”. Does this make you more afraid? Hopefully not! Our dogs are not that different from us when it comes to being scared.

I was told a story recently. My husband and I were having lunch with his niece, her husband and his parents. As is often the case the conversation got around to dogs, I trust you know how that goes! The young fellow’s mother shared this story with us about her son-

As a boy he had enrolled in a training class with his beloved dog. It was the first night of class and the trainer had the group walking around the ring practicing heeling. One dog in the class consistently pulled on its leash and the trainer intervened, took the leash from the owner and ‘hung’ the dog, lifting it off its feet while the dog flailed and choked. When the procession around the room resumed and the boy and his dog were near the door he turned and walked straight out of the class, never to return. He was not going to let anything like that happen to HIS dog.

I loved the story and I loved the boy, now a man, who knew in his young heart that it was his responsibility to protect his dog. I let my fearful dog know every day that I have his back, so he doesn’t have to worry and keep glancing over it.

*Ignoring a fearful dog IS often the best way to deal with them when you are new to each other and have not established a relationship with them.

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14 comments so far

  1. Edie on

    It’s so hard to be able to trust your instincts; kudos to the man you describe. The trainer I went to when I first got my dog, Frankie, didn’t do anything so extreme as hanging, but she did insist on choke chains for all the pups in her Small Dog class, including my fearful little guy. I kept losing my chain — calling Dr. Freud — and luckily I wasn’t there long enough to do permanent damage. I did ask the trainer about more positive methods — which she dissed!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for joining the conversation about scared dogs Edie. It’s especially difficult to trust your instincts when the ‘professionals’ are telling you they’re wrong. The research is in and in my mind any trainer that disses positive training methods or the use of food rewards to train behaviors is showing how behind the times they are, or dare I say, showing their ignorance. Sounds like Frankie’s lucky that your unconscious was calling the shots when it came to those chain collars!

  2. Lizzie on

    Nice one Debbie.

    I find myself telling Gracie each and every time we come home from an ‘outing’, that I would not let anything bad happen to her, knowing how worried/nervous she is about the world and people outside.

    Sadly it makes no difference to her 😦 Of course I wish that she understood the spoken word a lot better, as I am at a loss to know how to communicate my intentions in dog language 🙂

    I’ll keep trying though!

    • fearfuldogs on

      I think the way we convey our intentions to our dogs is by the outcome of our actions from the dog’s perspective. The outcome for a scared dog may only be as important as whether or not they are scared. With repetition dogs are able to predict what something means, keys jingling mean a ride or being left alone for hours. A leash means going out to sniff stuff or being scared by something. It’s hard when you have a dog that is scared by many things, most of the time. Just some thoughts on it.

  3. Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart on

    I use certain phrases like “I see it,” “I hear it,” to acknowledge anything Lilly finds scary. So, I say these things, then I do something to help her cope — usually giving her more space/distance, giving her treats to help her cope, leaving, etc.

    People have said I use too many words with Lilly, but I think the repetition of the phrases linked to a protective action helps her understand that I’m noticing and responding to the situation to help her.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I think that if it works for you, keep doing it! I say, ‘thank you, that’ll do’ when my dogs bark at something. I know they don’t understand my words but it does quiet them down. I could probably train them to respond a similar way to a shorter cue, but sometimes I’m a trainer but often I’m a pet owner just getting through the day with a bunch of dogs!

    • SeeDogThink on

      Roxanne, I do the same thing. I’ll say “yes I hear it too” or “I see that, that looks scary” and then we try to make it better (increase distance, treats, etc). I use pretty much the same phrasing every time and I do think it helps, if nothing else sometimes just because when I start speaking it’s a little interrupter. Also, it helps ME remember to be patient vs “shut up already” because it reminds me SHE IS SCARED and makes me acknowledge it out loud. I also think it helps anyone who may overhear us recognize that this “bad barking dog” is actually scared. For what that’s worth.

  4. Mel on

    Great post Debbie!

    I just had a fellow volunteer and friend at my shelter adopt a stray Lab. She lives up north in MN and the only dog trainer around insisted on prong collars (and also had a penchant for using them to hang a dog). My friend really had an issue with it given her experience with shelter dogs. She called the trainer after the first session and told her she would not be back and why. I am so glad there are people like her and that little boy out there who look out for their dogs!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for adding to this discussion Mel. What is up with this hanging stuff? If you routinely put yourself into situations in which you need to choke a dog in order to protect yourself or other dogs then some serious reconsideration of your techniques needs to happen IMO. I can’t understand any other reason to physically subdue a dog this way.

  5. Laurie on

    Good topic!

    It took months, but initially I focused on establishing a bond and earning my fearful girl’s trust. A lot of this was simply by being quietly confident around her and teaching her through body language that I would handle things (my job, not hers). For example, if a dog started to bully her at the park, I would immediately intervene. If a dog started coming towards us and she was stressed about it, I would step out in front. It wasn’t long before she started coming to me when we were out and she felt out of her depth.

    Not many months later, she took care of a large shepherd herself who was trying to mount her. It was short, noisy and he didn’t bother her again.

    I also dismissed the notion that any attention when they’re fearful re-enforces the behavior. A little encouragement goes a long ways with my girl. Coddling, however, would have kept her emotionally crippled. There’s a big difference.

    One technique I read to help diffuse a stressful situation, like startling at a loud noise, is to yawn and stretch without looking at them. Dogs do this when they’re calm and relaxed and will take their cue from you that everything’s just fine.

    I felt silly doing it the first few times, but she always watched me and then would go lay down again. Weird, but it works.

  6. mars on

    i thank dog every day for this website. We are 3mos into our adoption of Frank, and i do believe he is starting to bond with us. He spends less & less time under the desk (his safe spot) He is looking at our faces more and more. He hasn’t bolted under the car in months. I usually say “it’s Ok frankie” when a BIG SCARY THING comes by or is down the street. We are just now working with a positive trainer who has experience w/ fearful dogs. THANK YOU SO MUCH for this website.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thank you so much for your comment. Good luck with Frank. The more skills we can give these dogs the easier life can be for them. I’m so glad you found a good trainer to help you out.

  7. Cade'sOwner on

    When Cade is scared, she gets on my lap if she can. Has from the moment I got her (being afraid of me has never been her issue). People continuously tell me not to let her…but, why not? She isn’t bad…she climbs up and just sits there with me – or lays right next to me on the couch with her head on me – and it calms her down. I have kept doing it, because, hey…it works. And I kind of find 50 lbs of mohawk haired lap dog cute…but I guess that it is good to know that I am really not ruining her like trainers keep telling me.

    • fearfuldogs on

      So much depends on what the dog may be capable of and what we need from them. If I need my dog to lie quietly on the floor when people are around then that’s the skill I will try to give him. I don’t walk my dogs on leash much so don’t need to spend a lot of time working on loose leash walking skills. At some point we need to sort through the list of behaviors we need from our dogs and work on the ones that matter most to us. At some point we may need to compromise with some dogs on some behaviors. Having a lap dog doesn’t sound all that bad given that you could have dog that couldn’t even be in the room.


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