The gift is in the giving

dog with stuffed catepillar in his mouthChanging how we think about our relationship with dogs can be one of the hardest leaps for many people to make. The whole ‘pack leader’, ‘alpha dog’, ‘I’m the boss of you’, mentality has been around long enough to have permeated many of our thoughts about why dogs behave the way they do and how we should respond to them. And although we will never know exactly what dogs are thinking or experiencing, because we share the same parts of the brain that deal with fear, we can make some pretty good guesses about how it feels for them to be scared. However most of us, thankfully, rarely have the opportunity to experience the level of fear that some of our fearful dogs experience routinely. Think about that for awhile.

When we deal with scared humans, whether they are children or adults, we often offer them something. In some cases we offer solace, words of encouragement and support. In other cases we offer them something tangible, a pacifier, a sheet of Mickey Mouse stickers, lollipops or a hand to hold. When we interact with our scared dogs we can also offer them something rather than make them give things up. Scared dogs are often forced into situations, made to deal with interactions with their triggers which they would rather avoid. We take away their autonomy and control of their lives. We take away their opportunities to feel safe and less stressed and pressured.

Next time you are faced with a scared dog think about what you can give them. One way to know what that is to figure out what they are asking for.


26 comments so far

  1. kimhalligan1 on

    Thinking about this since I’ve come back with Stanley from neighbors home. Stanley seemed to say to the workers next door to them “Hey,I’m not to happy with you going back & forth, woofywoo, so Ive got me eye on you.” offered for him to come close to me, he did, but then showed interest in being able to see them closer. Was fine then but was stacked, but content to watch them, tail not stiff.

  2. Irith Bloom, KPA CTP on

    Lovely post, Debbie!

    So much of fear has to do with lack of control (a.k.a. not having choices). We humans often lose sight of how important it is to give our pets the right to make decisions for themselves (even if we do try to encourage certain decisions). There’s a big difference between approaching something scary because you are physically being forced to, and deciding to approach it since you know you will earn a reward you want (which might even be increased distance from the scary thing, but I digress), and you are willing to face your fears to get the reward.

    In my work with fearful, reactive, and aggressive pets, my goal is always to teach both the animals and their handlers that the pet has a choice.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Irith. May the tides turn and trainers like you will be the norm, rather than the exception!

  3. Mary Doane on

    I’m noticing in just the last few days that foster dog Aaron is coming TO me when he’s afraid rather than running away from me. I think he’s beginning to build trust. And, I think he’s asking to be near me for security. I like that.

    • Irith Bloom, KPA CTP on

      Mary: That is heart-warming! Thank you for sharing!

    • fearfuldogs on

      A friend once said to me “there’s nothing quite like winning the trust of a small animal”.

  4. Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart on

    Sometimes that “gift” is actually NOT trying to do anything with the dog. We used to train with a super shy little mixed breed dog, and I would ignore her (as requested), and it was the cutest thing … over time she would sneak up to me, and I would hand her a piece of cheese (or whatever), without looking at her, without talking to her.

    I would just reach down, hand the food, and she would grab it and race away.

    Over time, she got brave enough that when we did “pass the pup” exercises, her mom and I would trade dogs because we each knew the other wouldn’t do anything goofy with our fearful dogs.

    The two of us really had a nice connection, but we haven’t seen them at class for ages. I hope that means she is doing well.

    • fearfuldogs on

      So true Roxanne. Giving space, time and our patience may indeed be the best we can offer.

  5. melfr99 on

    I did the same with my Daisy Roxanne and the same thing happened.

    What’s kind of been amazing over the past summer is that Daisy now seeks me out when a thunderstorm comes through during the night. I know she is afraid and will wake up and put on her Thundershirt. Often she ends up staying on my bed out of choice. This is the first time she has ever done that. She continues to surprise me every day. Like you said Deb… Choice is a wonderful thing!

    • fearfuldogs on

      That is so cool Mel. Change happens and perhaps the best we can hope for many of our super scared dogs is to steer the direction of change. Moving toward trust is always nice!

  6. Lizzie on

    Most definitely time and patience is the greatest gift a scared dog can have, in my opinion.

    Today I was able, for the first time ever, to take photo’s of Gracie without her backing off and running away, in fact she came forward each time I asked her to and sniffed the camera.
    She is so relaxed indoors now that I have started hiding her Kong at breakfast time so she has to ‘go find’ it, and looks forward to doing so every morning.

    It’s only taken two years, so here’s to the next two or three!

  7. Kenzo_HW on

    So true! I tried with Viva when meeting other dogs by giving her treats. But that definitely didn’t had her interest. Now we turn away when we meet them, and that is what she wants.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Yeah, I had a dog that was just not interested in meeting other dogs. She would eat treats but it never changed her dislike of having dogs sniffing her. So…I tried not to let dogs sniff her, seemed easy enough to me!

  8. Sue on

    Hi Lizzie,ive been reading your blog with interest as 3 months ago, i adopted an ex-breeding puppyfarm Bichon.
    Its so good to hear that your little dog is finally finding some peace after her horrific start in life. Someone recently told me that it can take years for these poor little dogs to start to act like a dog should act.
    Some days i feel we take 3 steps forward and 2 back, and the slightest small upset seems to send her into a kind of depression that lasts for 24 hours. My heart breaks for her during those times, but it is always so good when she comes through it.
    Really hope that things will now get better week by week for you and Gracie.
    I know what you mean about the camera. 99% of my photos of Poppy are when she is sleeping, as the click of the camera terrifies her.
    I would love to get my hands on the people made her this way.
    I look forward to reading more updates from you.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Glad you are finding this blog and all the sagas of its readers of interest, and hopefully of help to you. Be sure to check out for more ideas about ways to work with your dog.

  9. Lizzie on

    Hello Sue, As you mention your Bichon came from a ‘puppy farm’, I’m wondering if you are in the UK as I am.

    I would be very happy to share my experiences with you if you would like, but as this is Debbie’s fearfuldogs blog I think it might be a good idea to exchange e-mail addresses for that purpose.

    I look forward to hearing from you.

    And thanks Debbie for your continued support.

    • fearfuldogs on

      You are more than welcome to use this forum for sharing information. I’m glad for shy dog owners to find each other for support and idea sharing.

  10. Lizzie on

    You are so very kind Debbie, thank you 🙂

  11. Sue on

    Hi Lizzie…Yes, i am in the UK. The best email to contact me on is Although i have 2 good books about rehabillitating dogs, i find the best advice comes from speaking to people who have firsthand experience.
    I found the first month with Poppy was very daunting and i did wonder if i had the strength to help her with her problems. In the last few weeks though, i feel like she has been with me forever, and love having 2 dogs. Poppy came to me through Many Tears, who do the most wonderful work.
    look forward to hearing from you, and also to reading everyone elses updates.

  12. Lizzie on

    Hi Sue, that’s remarkable, I hoped that your dog was from MTAR, so is mine!

    I will contact you again via your hotmail address as I am most interested to hear about your experience with MTAR and just how scared Poppy is.

  13. […] Debbie from would be SO proud of me. I didn’t pay any attention to Ty at all. I ignored him, and he was perfectly fine with me sitting right there in the RV chatting mere inches from him, after our hike. See her recent post The Gift is in the Giving. […]

    • fearfuldogs on

      We need a coalition of shy dog savvy people to help us with our dogs!

  14. KozyDogs on

    Thank you I never thought of treating a scared dog this way. I will use these tactics next time!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for visiting the blog Karen and taking the time to comment. I’m glad you got some ideas from it. If you haven’t yet visited be sure to, there’s lots of information there regarding effective and humane ways to handle and work with scared dogs.

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