Keeping Perspective

black dog with frisbeesThis past weekend after a presentation I had given at a nearby humane society, a trainer in attendance was kind enough to approach me and compliment on the work I had done with Sunny. I’m not bringing it up to brag, it was just that having someone who understood the challenges of working with a fearful dog acknowledge his progress, was reassuring. Over the years I’ve had people who call themselves trainers claim that they could ‘fix’ my dog or that it was somehow my fault that I still have a dog that startles easily and remains wary of people. The belief that there is a cure for the lack of early socialization (which is likely the cause of Sunny’s fears) is tempting, and dangerous.

Dogs like Sunny die by the thousands in shelters everyday. Their inability to feel safe with people often leads to aggression and reactivity. With the mistaken belief that forcing their shy dog to deal with the things that scare them is going to teach the dog not to be afraid, owners unwittingly contribute to the degradation in their dog’s behavior. Not becoming more anxious and afraid around its triggers may be the biggest hurdle for many fearful dogs, and learning to manage their dogs to prevent an increase in their dog’s reaction, the challenge for owners.

Sunny is not like other dogs that are happy to see people, and I’m encouraged to see that his response to people in some situations is leaning more toward neutral. Last night after a training class with my border collie Finn, I brought Sunny in to play with a small dog. Two trainers who have known Sunny for years were there and even though Sunny was his old apprehensive self, he was willing to target both of them in exchange for the chance to chew on a squeaky toy that had his attention. He ran and played, stole a tennis ball and chose the agility table as the location to lord his triumph over the other dogs.

Accepting that there is no magic cure for the damage done by neglect and abuse is not easy for people. Not giving up may be a trait that has stood humanity in good stead historically. Sunny might have become one of those dogs thrown away at a shelter, or was left to spend his life alone on a chain. I’ve almost forgotten that once he was a dog that couldn’t move because of his fears, or defecated when handled. His remaining limitations are often what I choose to see, so it was helpful to have someone remind me of his successes.

It has been the goal to help Sunny become the happiest dog he can be that has propelled me to learn as much as I can about animal behavior, dog training and the physiology of fear. In the process I’ve learned a lot about the limitations to my patience and skill. The picture of the potential reality we can expect with our fearful dogs is often too rosy, but there are plenty of shades of pink to enjoy along the way.


22 comments so far

  1. Michele on

    I never heard the term “fearful” until I met our rescue dog. He was one of many brought into Canada from New Orleans. I didn’t know what I had gotten my family into, but the internet is a wonderful thing and your website has helped and encouraged me imensely. We are slowly making progress and at times it seems as though thats as far as he is willing to go and then he surprises us and goes a little bit further. It is a slow process but a rewarding one and I know he feels safe with us. I know in time we’ll get there.
    Wherever it is he’s taking us, because it is “his” journey.
    Thank you for all the information you provide. Michele

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for your comment Michele. Change happens, rarely as fast as we’d like it, or as much as we’d like it though. I think that not only do our dogs begin to change but we also get better at managing and training them. Sounds like you’re being taken on quite the journey as well. All the best to you and your dog.

  2. Lizzie on

    I sometimes feel the opposite happens with Gracie. Just when I begin to think that she is acting more like a ‘normal’ dog, something comes along that really scares her and it’s like we’re back to square one.
    It is a slow and sometimes very frustrating process and days go by when there seems to be no progress at all, but as Michele says I know she feels safe with us, it’s all the scary stuff outside that she just can’t cope with.

    I guess Gracie’s normality is really that little bit different from most other dogs, so it has to be treated as such.

    I read in a magazine article the other day, ‘behaviour is the expression of emotions, and if we can change our dogs’behaviour we can alter the emotional state’. Sounds straightforward enough.

    But what if the behaviour is so imprinted in our dogs brain, that it can never change? That, is the hard part for all us fearful dog owners.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I use a lot of ‘incompatible behaviors’ to help Sunny out. So for example-when we go to a place where there will be people I try to get him to play, chasing a frisbee or running with another dog. Instead of cowering and feeling scared he’s playing and feeling good. The place and people around become part of this feel good experience.

      Techniques like CAT & BAT, use the systematic rewarding of non-reactive/calm behavior to change how a dog responds to triggers. It can start with rewarding an eye blink. Slow? Can be. If you’re interested you can check out Grisha Stewart’s group on Yahoo.

  3. Lizzie on

    But that’s the problem, Gracie is so afraid that she can’t play. It’s her over riding emotion of fear that prevents her behaviour from changing.

    Therefore I believe that emotion controls behaviour and not the other way round. It certainly seems to be that way with Gracie.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I think it’s not an either or thing. Both can work. People do it all the time. Take a deep breath…and……relax…..or stand up straight, stick out your chest, feel good about yourself!

      The problem we have with dogs is that we can’t talk them through things. So getting them to change their behavior is challenging.

      But I agree with you, when you’re dealing with a fearful dog you have to keep the underlying emotion front and center in your head so you can come up with ways to work with the dog without increasing and hopefully lowering their fear.

      BTW Sunny initially could also not play with people, or around people. It has taken the use of meds, training, tons of positive experience and management to get him where he is today. I have dual goals in mind when I ‘work’ with him. Get his anxiety level down however I can and give him the opportunity to practice both the behaviors that I want(sit, wait,touch it, etc.) and the ones that make him feel better(running, playing, chasing a frisbee). I’m not successful in all situations.

  4. Zizi on

    anyone have any info on how to deal with separation anxiety, that causes dog to bark non-stop when left alone?

    • fearfuldogs on

      Duplicate comment-written and removed by me!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Consider reading the book I’ll Be Home Soon. You can find it at

      It is also helpful to get a video set up and film the dog so you can actually see what is going on, not just go by the complaints from neighbors. You don’t say whether the dog is indoors or out. Dogs can bark for a variety of reasons, stress and distress being a couple. But an outdoor dog might also be bored and barking at noises or things it sees.

  5. sammystory on

    Hi Debbie and Sunny and your other dogs:

    This is me Sammy. And I am like Sunny. I was going to be euthanasia because the shelter said I was unadoptable because I was so fearful.

    But my Kind Friend came and took me away from there. Because she said I was abused. So now I have my Kind Friend and my Best Friend. He’s a Standard Poodle. He’s very handsome. And very nice to me. Except he eats my dinners if he can. But I don’t mind.

    What everybody wrote is right. Lots of people don’t understand about dogs being abused and afraid.

    Since I came to live with my Kind Friend and my Best FriendI have learned many many things. And now I can do a lot of things. Yesterday I even stood next to a man who had a big garden thing in his hand. And I wasn’t even afraid of him!

    Can we make a link to your website on my website? You can look at it at

    Bye for now


    Does Sunny like to play in the snow?

    • fearfuldogs on

      You are most welcome to add a link to the website and of course this blog. Please send me your postal address so I can send you a thank you collar pendant for Sammy! And yes, Sunny likes to play in the snow, in the dirt, in the water, in the sand, etc. He just likes to play!

  6. selkie on

    I’ve been reading your blog for some time. I try to help out dogs when I can on a very limited basis (I have three rescue dogs and 4 rescue cats AND a rescue bunny- so space and time is limited). I recently tried to rescue a VERY fearful young shepherd – but reluctantly was unable to take her on as my household would probably be the WORST environment for a fearful dog which requires a lot of time, patience and attention. It breaks my heart though. If I had the time I would take her in an instant as I KNOW she is goign to end up in a horrible life; her owner is advertising her on craigslist as “free unspayed female GSD” so I’m sure the backyard breeders are salivating.

    This poor girl was bought FROM a backyard breeder at 9 weeks. She was (accordign to the owner) in a cage, by herself at the back of a property – the bastard who was breeding indiscriinately said to the present owner causually – “damn, no one has been back here for two weeks” – she was shivering in a wire cage, filthy, matted, with a dry water bowl and no food.

    Tally is now 18 months old and so fearful her owner says she wasn’t able to get her neutered or shots – becuase she can’t get her on the bus.

    I spent 2 hours outside with the owner and my own two GSDs. She played wonderfully with my dogs but even after two hours would not come within 20 feet of me.

    Unfortunately, with a fulltime job, 4 kids, all the animals including my latest rescue, a fearful aggressive terrier (who has bitten DOZENS of people) I cannot devote the time she would need.

    Sadly, I don’t see a good life for this beautiful little girl ahead.

    I have contacted several rescue groups, but unfortunately, no one has capacity for this little girl.

    Life can be sad – thank god at least I ready our blog and kow some dogs get saved.

    • fearfuldogs on

      What a tragic story. Anyone reading about this dog has to ache for it. Two hours with a dog like this is nothing. Two months or two years may amount to something. So good of you to try.

  7. selkie on

    agreed, I wasn’t antiicpating the two hours would do anything – just hoping I could actually APPROACH her or have her approach me- even if timidly or with fearfulness. I can hardly take her when she won’t come wihtin 20 feet of me.

    breaks my heart though. I had dealt with a fearful dog similar to her (terrible story there- even worse) but she was in a humane society where I volunteered. Thus I was able to gain some trust with her over a few months until they allowed me to foster her. (she did find a lovely home, TG).

  8. Melfr99 on

    Amen Deb! I so agree. I think people think that if they just train a fearful dog they will be fine eventually. Or, if they force them to do something they’re just “get over it” So glad you shared this insight for all of us who own a fearful dog. Education is key!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Mel. Few would question a person’s fear of snakes even though they’ve never been harmed by a snake. I can’t imagine that they’d force a person to drape a python around their neck to get over their fear. Yet this is the line of reasoning we use with our scared dogs daily!

  9. Jim Stay on

    Hi Debbie,

    Thanks for your work on this very difficult topic. I got into working with fearful dogs somewhat by accident. First I fostered a few puppies. Then our local shelter had some fearful puppies. I brought them home, let them play with my dogs, and they quickly became socialized. Then I took in a pup about 14 weeks old, and everything changed. My first decision was to let the dog decide. It took 3 months to be able to touch him. At 5 months, I can pet him, but he is still careful not to get where he feels cornered. My second pup ( both were born feral ) will play with the other dogs in the room with me, but I still can’t touch him after 4 months.

    I’ve read your e-book and many of your writings and they are helping. Is there anyone else I should be following ? I know the shelter will be calling me soon with another beautiful dog who will be “put down” if I don’t take it. I need better skills to at least get them past the very basic fear of all humans.

    Thanks again for all you are doing.


    • fearfuldogs on

      You are really doing good deeds Jim! It sounds like you are on the right track. I’d probably be looking into behavioral meds for dogs that had no socialization and were not young pups. Talk to a vet and do some research into Karen Overall DVM. The meds won’t cure fearfulness but they can lower a dog’s anxiety just enough to help them learn new behaviors more easily. The sooner you can get a dog started on practicing new behaviors the better. The window for a dog’s brain to most easily learn to deal with new situations and objects, people and dogs begins to close around 16 weeks. It doesn’t get nailed shut but it sure helps to get as much accomplished with them as young as possible. In some cases meds will give you enough boost to make the difference. It doesn’t mean that they have to be on meds their entire life, but drugs like Prozac actually help the brain build connections. The meds take several weeks to begin to build up in the dog’s system. is a place where you can order many generic meds inexpensively. Anything that you can do to lower a dog’s anxiety is going to help them in the long run.

      As much as skill is helpful, patience and the understanding that for these dogs the opportunity to be ‘normal’ may have passed, may be more helpful. It doesn’t mean they can’t have a good life, learn appropriate skills and behaviors or make someone a loving pet, but they may always be at a deficit. Or they may not, you never know, so you keep working with them, since brains can continue to change throughout the life a dog. A dog that is going to improve easily will usually do so within the first few weeks of handling. Dogs like this can be very difficult if not impossible to rehome since although they may learn to be comfortable with one handler and environment, do not easily generalize that information. They require special owners who are willing to accept the dog and its limitations.

      Having a good understanding of triggers, thresholds, counter conditioning, desensitization and behavioral modification sets the foundation for any work you do with scared dogs. A working knowledge of positive reinforcement training is also important. These dogs get very good at being afraid and need all the practice they can get at feeling good. There are no magic bullets I’m afraid but finding ways for the dogs to feel good and create positive associations with whatever they are afraid of is the meat of the process I think. Each dog is going to be different and it’s a dance figuring out how much they can deal with and when they have enough confidence and resiliency to stretch their boundaries.

      Books to read include The Cautious Canine by Patricia McConnell, Nicole Wilde’s Help For Your Fearful Dog, Click To Calm by Emma Parson. All will give you techniques and the steps to take to work with scared dogs but they may not address how to deal with dogs that are too scared to be handled or focus on people. I tried to address that in my eBook and on the website. Both Nicole and Patricia write blogs but do not necessarily focus on fearful dogs in each post.

      Good luck with these dogs and be sure to take care of yourself, it can be stressful living with fearful dogs.

  10. Jim Stay on

    Thanks Debbie,

    I realize that meds may help, and plan to try that on my next seriously fearful dog. I will read some of Karen Overall.

    I have read excerpts from Nicole Wilde’s book and plan to order it. I just finished “The other end of the leash”. I like Patricia O’Connell’s practical attitude.

    My big problem remains getting started with a dog that wants nothing to do with me. I know the first several days are critical to showing him that I’m going to be there every day. I guess I’ll have to let the dogs teach me that part.

    I know each case will be different and they will take time. I do hope to rehome them, or I won’t be able to continue rescuing. Each rehome will be a process of working with the new parent and dog together.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It’s tough, but imagine you are working with a wild animal. Here’s how it might work.

      Dog is provided with a safe, low stress environment which requires little or no handling by you. I put papers down for my dog for months, because he was too freaked out to be on a leash and walked. I worried about house training later. In our case it turned out to be a non-issue. He had lived outside his whole life and as soon as he could go out to pee and poop that remained his first choice.

      The dog is fed its entire meal by hand delivery. This does not mean it has to take it from you hand, but that you appear with the food, place it down wherever the dog can get it (my dog was plastered in a corner so I put it close to him, but you might not need to get so close if the dog will go to the food) and either turn away or leave, if that’s what it takes for the dog to eat. Make the food super good. If the dog gets a cup of kibble you might feed that cup in half a dozen drops. Start with fewer if the dog is super scared. So the first few days you might appear with food 2-3 times a session. As the dog gets more comfortable with your appearance (it may eat sooner, or move toward the food sooner, eat while you’re there, etc.) you can do more reps. So a bowl of food takes 6-10 reps to finish. You could spread the food out throughout the day as well.

      As the dog gets more comfortable with you, you’ll find that he may be willing to eat while you sit on the floor, facing away and place handfuls of food down for him to eat. If you can lure the dog into moving toward you to eat it’s ok, but be careful not to do ANYTHING that will spook it. This just makes more work for you. Continue to ignore the dog. If talking to the dog scares him, don’t do it. Talking can get added in the same way you slowly decrease distance.

      This process can take hours to months, depending on the dog. You just have to keep assessing the dog’s emotional response and responding in kind. As he gets comfortable with one level of interaction you SLOWLY increase it. It can be painfully slow at first but you are building the foundation of trust (predictability) with the dog. Get that nice and strong and future work may be faster.

      This make sense?

      It’s probably a good idea to accept that there are going to be dogs out there that will never be able to be comfortable with people or other dogs. The damage done by the lack of socialization is in some case, irreparable. I’m not saying this to discourage you, but it’s important that potential adopters understand what they are getting. People often believe that with love a dog will ‘heal’. Love helps for sure but the risk that the dog will be put into situations which are over its head is great, and this can cause the dog’s behavior to degrade and that often means aggression.

      You are working with special needs dogs and many are going to need special owners. Being able to find the right environment and owners with realistic expectations may be time consuming. It’s good work to be doing but it may all take longer and require more patience than you anticipate.

  11. Jim Stay on

    Hi Debbie,

    Thanks for your comments. I like the idea of feeding several times a day. My early successes have involved food, but I hadn’t thought about splitting it up.

    I am trying to very careful about placement.I spend time explaining the dog in detail, avoiding painting an unrealistic picture.

    Do you know Randy Grim of Stray Rescue in St. Louis ?

    They are rescuing dogs from the street and have a lot of experience with the extremely damaged dogs. I am going to mention you to Tara Schaper of that group. I think some exchange of ideas would be helpful. There seem to be few people doing this.

    Thank you,


    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for sharing this blog and the website with folks doing rescue.

      Just like people, dogs get better at any behavior/feeling they have the change to practice and repeat. The more often a dog can ‘practice’ feeling good about seeing a person (hey here comes that cheese machine again and oh look it’s got a tennis ball!) the more likely that feeling will occur again in the future.

      You may want to look through older posts for one that I wrote about what I call PET therapy. The idea is that instead of focusing on what we want/need a dog to do and being concerned about getting those behaviors, we first determine what is ‘play’ for a particular dog. When we know what activities make a dog feel good, whether it’s running, tugging, chewing, rough housing or getting treats in exchange for doing things (training ;-), we can give them opportunities to feel good as well as have a reward which is intrinsically valuable to them.

      Dogs are learning all the time so we are in effect training all the time, but our obsession with getting or stopping behaviors can put too much pressure on a people scared dog.

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