No, YOU get over it!

When people talk about their fearful dogs I often hear the questions, how do I get him ‘passed his fears’ or ‘over his fears’? It’s as though fear is a location that a dog just needs to journey through. Although it makes a nice metaphor, the image of a path from a place of anxiety to one of confidence, I think it also leads people to envision forward movement. And if a dog is unwilling or incapable of making that movement on his own, all we need to do as his owners, is make him move. Afraid of; a flight of stairs, walking on a new surface, getting into the car, little kids? Here, let me help you by dragging you by the neck. Unfortunately for dogs, this can work for some, leaving trainers and owners to believe that it’s the route to take for getting a dog ‘passed’ his fear. Movement can help dogs in many ways but it doesn’t have to be forced marches.

I consider myself fortunate that I have not had a life which was filled with constant fear and dread. I find it hard to imagine what that must be like. Perhaps an inadequate substitute that I can imagine, is being cold, the kind of cold that keeps your muscles tensed and your breath short and rapid. When I’m cold like that, as it seems I have been a lot this winter, what I notice the most is the comfort of warmth. My shoulders relax, my chest loosens and I sigh audibly. It feels so good not to be cold. I don’t think I will ever get over or passed being cold.

Rather than trying to think of ways to get my dog over his fear I begin by thinking of how I can help him find relief from his fear. Often it’s management and the control of his triggers or his proximity to them, but it also includes giving him the training and skills to make safe and appropriate choices when he’s around a trigger. Sunny can find relief in moving away from people who scare him, or sitting and waiting for me to decide what our next move will be. After four years together I think that Sunny is able to predict that my next move is going to be one that provides him with relief, and doesn’t force him to get passed or over anything.

15 comments so far

  1. Mary Haight on

    Great post! We are all so conditioned to achieving solutions to anything and everything, that in our haste we attempt to apply these mechanistic strategies to the psychological, making everything worse.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading and commenting Mary, appreciate it.

  2. Sweetpea on

    I always enjoy reading your posts & this one is no exception. You make a great point! I am going to pay attention to that a bit more in future with my own dog. She has come a long ways and looks to me a lot for “our next move”…

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. These dogs always give us something to think about!

  3. Trycja on

    Excellent point 🙂 Allowing your dog relief from his fears is not only a kind move, but beneficial for training as well. Relaxation protocol requires that a dog sits and stays. He is never pushed past the lowest level of anxiety. Baby steps! (seems I still can’t get away from the forward movement metahpor – LOL)

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment Patrycja. Knowing when our dogs are ready to; move on, pass or get over something becomes a constant study with a fearful dog. We’re usually too impatient or are following inappropriate advice. Misinterpreting a dog’s behavior, the refusal to respond due to fear and not as a display of dominance seems to be topping the charts these days.

      Nice to meet you and if you have not yet already done so I created to help people learn more about the most effective and humane ways to help their dogs. My goal is for it to be a resource for folks with questions about their scared dogs. Feel free to share!

  4. Lizzie on

    I have been corresponding with a lady who is a certified companion animal behaviourst/trainer with a view to visiting Gracie for assessment.

    Although I respect this lady’s experience she seems to disagree with the act of reassuring dogs when they are experiencing fear, claiming that it reinforces their fear.
    This leads me to think that she perhaps has not had to deal with many if any dogs as fearful as Gracie. It’s difficult for me to disagree with her as I have asked her for a consultation.

    Debbie, I have had only you and your web site and blog for support ever since I’ve had Gracie and your methods certainly have worked for us and makes perfect sense to me.

    Nothing I have done with Gracie has been by force, what would be the point? She may not have ‘come on’ as fast as I may have liked and yes there is frustration at times, but when you try and see life through your dogs eyes you can see why.

    I am truly grateful for all that you do for our fearful dogs.

    • fearfuldogs on

      When it comes to ‘reinforcing fear’ through reassurance it’s just a silly idea. Why else would we hug children who fall down and are scared or hurt? Why don’t we shout at doctors who hand out stickers to scared children, Stop you’re only reinforcing her fear! Why do we hold someone’s hand when they’re afraid of flying?

      What happens is that people get caught up in the definitions of reassuring or comforting or coddling, or rewarding. If what you do lowers your dog’s stress and anxiety, call it coddling or whatever, it’s likely to help the dog’s behavior. If what you call comforting is only making a dog more anxious, it doesn’t matter what you think you’re doing, you’re likely not helping.

      Emotions decrease when they are rewarded, behaviors increase. When we are dealing with fear based behaviors we focus on eliminating the fear, the behavior usually follows.

      Thanks for reading and commenting Lizzie!

  5. Rod@GoPetFriendly on

    Hmmm. Am trying to picture my behaviors. THANKS.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Good luck! If nothing else working with animals can force us to examine and assess our own behaviors. It’s something good trainers and good humans are willing to do on a regular basis IMHO.

  6. mpoggio on

    As an anxious new dog owner, I took my shy dog to training sessions after only one month with me. I thought it was the right thing to do. But she wasn’t even comfortable with me, let alone a room full of strange humans. We stopped going after two sessions. It was obvious I was putting too much pressure on her. She is not at all aggressive, no biting, but she would run to the couch whenever she felt confused by my commands, which happened after about three minutes.
    What helped us most was walking on leash around the neighborhood. At first, she was reluctant even to poo. She shied away from anyone walking past us, even other dogs. But as she got used to me, things got better. The first good sign was her excitement at meeting other dogs. She was not shy of them. She was just shy of being on a leash attached to me. Eventually, she stopped veering off path when other people were approaching. Now, she even shows interest in passing people, although she is still, and may always, be reluctant to allow them to pet her.
    Penny doesn’t like to engage in rough play with large dogs, but she loves meeting other dogs. She will let puppies literally walk all over her. She is great at the dog park, loves walking on trails through the woods. She does answer my simple commands. She is pretty easy with children–will sometimes let her pet her right away, but not adults–especially men. but even with that, I have never seen her strike out at anyone. She will back up and show the whites of her eyes, but that’s about it.
    Penny is such a great dog. I got her only because a family had returned her because she was too fearful, but they had only had her for a few weeks, and she never had the time to get used to them. It does take her a long time to get used to people. I am not sure that that will ever change. But she has met the people I work with several times. And now, she runs up to them. She does recognize them. She often does instinctively pull away if someone tries to pet her too fast, but, again, that may just be the way things will be. Or not. She surprises me with new found bravery every day.
    I am going to schedule us for training again. I think that this time will be far more successful. She just needed some time (a lot of time) to get used to me and feel comfortable.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Sounds like a great relationship you have going with Penny! You can learn so much by working with a fearful dog. With more experience and gentle handling sounds like she’ll continue to ‘bloom’! Don’t confuse her tolerance of being handled with her being ok or happy about it. ‘Whale eye’ is an indication of fear, by keeping the scary things away from her she will not need to ever try to defend herself.

      • mpoggio on

        Thanks for your reply. I have to admit, that I didn’t understand “whale eye” at first. I do now, though, and I try to be very conscious of not pushing her. Thanks again!

  7. Shady on

    My mom loves this post, and will be sharing it. It is a short read but changes one’s perspective. I am afraid of a lot of things and once Mom learned how much was to much pressure for me, things got a lot easier.

    • fearfuldogs on

      So glad that this post will make your lives easier!

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