Management & Skills

The process of working with fearful dogs could be simplified and broken down into two steps; management and skills development.

Management: Handlers need to come up with plans for managing a fearful dog so as to eliminate or minimize their opportunities for responding in fearful ways. This can often be challenging and many owners find it inconvenient to do. Walking a dog that is afraid of the hustle and bustle of the streets, at midnight so as to avoid the scary stimuli, may not be high on anyone’s list of ways to have a good time with their pet. However each time a fearful dog responds in a fearful way can be seen as a failure of a handler’s management plan. This doesn’t make someone a bad owner or trainer, but it should be a learning experience so adjustments can be made in the future. And the reality is that it happens. We often do not have control of what goes on around our dogs, but it behooves us to be as conscientious of this as we can be.

Skills development: Both handlers and dogs need to learn and practice new sets of skills which can replace the behaviors and responses which do not contribute to helping the dog become more confident and resilient. It is important to practice these skills repeatedly so that when under pressure they can be performed easily, with little thought. For handlers this might mean learning how to deter people from interacting with their dog and how to respond quickly to potentially fear inducing situations. Dogs can learn alternate responses to being confronted by things which scare them; sitting and looking at their owner or turning and walking away.

Each dog’s situation is going to be unique. We need to become experts on our own fearful dog so we both can learn to feel more confident navigating a world in which scary stuff happens.

5 comments so far

  1. JAK on

    We have had a ~5yr old lab/mix for about 2-1/2 years now. He came down our drive way one day and we’ve kept him, loved him, trained him and he’s a big part of our family ever since. We already had another dog (lab) who’s a bit older, so he gets annoyed w/his ‘puppyish’ brother, but does enjoy playing with him, chasing him, sharing toys/bones with him, etc.
    The 5 year old has a ‘fear aggression’ as discovered by an evaluation from a certified behavior specialist. He bit one of our neighbors as they were crossing our year last april and we assumed it was territorial due to it being late in the evening, and the neighbor was crossing from the back corner unannounced w/o any of us outside. 3 months later, we had another incident of someone running around the corner of the house and he bit again. Both ‘puncture wounds’.
    That is when he was medically and ‘psychologically’ evaluated. All blood work and vet evaluations came back ‘ok’ and he displayed no aggressive behavior (food, bones, grabbing, etc.) during his 2-1/2 hour evaluation. He has never hurt anyone when we are ‘with him’, nor any strangers that we have come into contact with on walks/outings. He does charge to the front door when someone is there, but has never hurt anyone in the house or those who come in through the garage door. The behaviorist also believes that he is taking clues from our other dog, who although has a mean bark, has never nipped, bit or shown aggression/fear.
    It’s been 8 months since he bit and we have done 4 months of private behavior training and have fenced in our backyard. He has changed so much – getting much more comfortable in his skin, really being relaxed and comfortable around us/in public and is so smart and trainable… We were not prepared to hear that he bit again last night. When our daughter answered the door, she retained the dogs in another room (which we do until they enter the house), introduced them to the people on the step and turned her back to get something from the house. She did not invite the vistors into the house. The dog was smelling one of the visitors who he sees everyday, but for some reason, he turned to the unfamiliar one and bit her just above the wrist (one puncture). It is unclear if she was in the act of petting him, reaching behind him, or possibly touching his ear that has a fresh scratch on it. All we know if that he did it, and we are no longer comfortable knowing that what we tried so hard to correct through training, has happened again.
    He is SUCH a beautiful and INCREDIBLY smart dog, so affectionate w/us, visitors of all ages, full of energy and responds so well to training – his manners are well above the older dog!! We are hopeful that he could have an ‘incident free life’ if he didn’t have the other dog ‘reacting’ to the stimuli which he in turn ‘over reacts’ to and bites.
    While we sincerely believe that he is biting out of fear, we don’t seem to know what triggers it. We have house sitters that take care of him, and they too, because of no incidents w/him, believe that there is some ‘trigger’ that we haven’t desensitized him to. But, maybe it’s just him… Maybe it was something that happened in his first 2-1/2 years of life. Last night I stayed up wrapping my mind around having to put him down, but as the new day came, and he so affectionately greeted me and the kids, I have to wonder if putting him down is the only answer? Do you feel there are people out there that would adopt this dog from us? It’s so hard spending time with him as we await calls back from shelters and friends who are trying to see if there is hope… esp. if euthanasia is going to be his final chapter.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I am so sorry to hear that you are facing this kind of decision. I am going to suggest that your expectations for this dog are unrealistic. Many fearful dogs can behave normally around their ‘family’ or individuals they have had a chance to develop a relationship with but remain intrinsically afraid of strangers or novel events. Dogs do not generalize information easily, so just because he is good with some people does not mean he will therefore be good with all people. The trigger in your dog’s case sounds like it’s ‘people’. Anything that adds to the stress your dog is experiencing, the sudden appearance of a stranger, the proximity of someone, other dogs reacting, etc., makes it more likely that he will react in an inappropriate way.

      My fearful dog is NOT allowed to join other dogs barking at the door. They are not at risk for biting, he is. He is not encouraged to approach people. It’s not just a question of desensitizing a dog to the things that scare them but also counter conditioning them so that they change their emotional response to those things. It’s not something that happens quickly, if it can happen at all. I doubt that my scared dog will ever love seeing people in the same way my non-fearful dogs do. That’s what I have to accept and it means that I manage him differently than I do my other dogs. I continue to work with and train him, but I never forget that he’s not ok with people. Perhaps the best I can do is to give him a set of skills for remaining calm around people, and making sure that he feels safe enough to never have to react aggressively.

      I don’t think that there are people out there who would gladly take on a dog with a bite history. And honestly, I would be extremely wary of anyone who said they would. There are hoarders, no-kill shelters, dog traffickers and wackos out there that can talk a good line, take your dog and subject it to a life of misery or end up killing him themselves, it happens more than we’d like to think. In my opinion euthanasia is a kinder alternative. I’m not trying to discourage you from looking, but I do feel obligated to make sure that you understand that there are no ‘farms in the country’ that take on damaged dogs to live in paradise. Even if a shelter agreed to take him, there is no guarantee that the home they find for him is going to work out. When that happens the dog is returned or dealt with by the new owners. And unfortunately there are few people who truly understand the most effective and humane ways to help fearful dogs. The wanna be dog whisperers and rehabbers often do more damage than good.

      If you do not think that you can manage this dog so that people are kept safe from him, while you learn more about how to help him (, then fully weigh the alternatives. This is a dog that is afraid of people, they rarely show improvement when they are faced with having to deal with the unpredictability of a homeless life.

  2. Lizzie on

    My heart goes out to Jak having to make such a decision as ending a dog’s life because of his fear/aggression.

    I understand what time and effort goes into working with a dog that has ‘issues’, but I am lucky, my Lab is not aggressive just terrified of people. I agree with Debbie that rehoming is maybe not the answer, I have considered that myself on days when I feel there is no end in site, but what would that achieve for the dog, he’ll just take his problems with him.

    It is a huge concern I know but I am not brave enough to take my dog to a vet and ask him to end her life.

    I wish you well.

  3. Michele on

    I understand what you are going through, several years ago I had to have a dog put down or so I thought. I realize now that in my case there were still options I hadn’t been aware of. I still question that decision. I have two fearful dogs the younger one more severe than the older. It has taken me a long time to get them to the point where I can actually walk them in the neighbourhood and by people. However I still don’t allow strangers to pet either dog, to date they have never bitten but I realize that its a possibly if they become overly stressed. Dogs like these change our lives, they have so much to offer but in return we have to keep them safe and ensure that they are not put in situations where they feel threatened. A difficult task at times. If you feel you and your family can do this, keep the public as well as the dog safe, then he can have a good life. If you feel that it would not be possible, then you have a very difficult decision to make and my heart goes out to you all.

  4. fearfuldogs on

    Thanks for sharing your story with us Michele. We are often required to make tough decisions about our dogs. I believe that no matter what the outcome, the fact that a decision was made taking the interests of the dog into consideration, makes it the right choice for us at that time.

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