Losing ground with fearful dogs

woman waving from high rocksAs a member of an online group which addresses fearful dogs I routinely see questions by others about what to do when their dog ‘regresses’. Your dog is doing great and then suddenly, seemingly with no cause, they revert to an old behavior you have struggled with replacing. Look around and you’ll see shattered dreams and dashed hopes scattered all around.

Imagine watching a toddler who after getting the hang of taking a few steps plops down on their diapered behind and hearing her parents groan, “Darn it, I thought for sure she knew how to walk.” If they can get past their disappointment and see her through childhood let’s hope each skinned knee isn’t met with the same concern.

Change is a process. Humans can be an impatient bunch. We want stuff fast and we want it our way. Not being satisfied with baby steps we can push too hard and topple the kid over. Walk goddammit!

Learning never ends. Unless it’s an indication of conditions which hinder the ability to walk in general, it’s not the falling on your butt that’s the problem. The problem is not wanting to get up and try again. Dogs can appear to ‘regress’ and still be moving in the right direction. We humans have a saying- ‘shit happens’ which implies that sometimes things don’t go as planned or as hoped for, but that’s the way life is. Learning to step around the stinky piles, or scrape off your shoe and move on are skills that are developed as much as any other.

Behavior will change as conditions change. It may not be obvious to us, but when we see changes in our dog’s behavior there are usually other things going on. During a seminar the fabulous trainer Ken Ramirez shared a story of working with dolphins at Shedd Aquarium. Dolphins that were usually willing to approach the side of the pool and interact with him, refused. They hung back, unwilling to go near him, even for the offered fish rewards. Ken is no novice to training and began to try to sort out what might be different on this day that would cause the reaction he was seeing. Were they sick? Was there something in the environment spooking them? Was he behaving differently? Finally he figured out that he had changed his shoes and the pair he was wearing had a line of lighter colored material around the sole. That was enough to cause concern among these observant and intelligent animals.

Something which might seem inconsequential or even silly to us, may not be to your dog. Respect their decision to choose a different response and even if you never figure out what is causing it, try to, or at least acknowledge that your dog does have a reason for their behavior and your lack of insight or understanding about what it is does not indicate a shortcoming on their part!

If you handle a fearful dog with kindness and respect, helping them maintain a feeling of safety and building skills, the chances are good that if she does slide down the slope a bit she will have to skills to regain the ground that seems like it was lost. The view from the summit is still glorious however long it takes to get there.

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19 comments so far

  1. honeysjourney on

    I’ll raise a glass to this post. If anyone needs to verify this, just ask me. We have been making great progress this summer, Honey and I. She has been coming in and out of the house just for a couple hour visit then back out, a few minutes later back inside. Last Sunday she refused to come inside for a visit and just hung out in the backyard under her sacred tree. What had I done to cause this regression, I thought, checked everything I could think of, nothing seemed different. Then I spotted it, my Wife had been doing some gardening and had taken her floppy hat off and placed in on the car hood next to the rear door. Once that was removed we were back to the normalcy of the day, in, out, whining for treats and Maggie to come and play, recovery is fast if there a good trusting experience for them to fall back on.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I can so relate that that George! There is no rearranging furniture without Sunny looking skeptically at everything. He is more likely now to investigate the switch but he acts like everything just might be electrified.

      • honeysjourney on

        I’ve gotta use that excuse, “I can’t move the furniture because of Honey, so no need to vacuum or clean.”

  2. fearfuldogs on

    Give it a try but don’t blame me!

  3. robertforto on

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. Jen on

    Good post, and thank you for it! Progression and regression are all part of the learning process, and I think one think we humans always need a reminder about is patience and understanding.

  5. Deborah Moore on

    Really enjoyed your post — well said!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment Deborah. Appreciate it!

  6. Andie on

    This is great and so true. Anna, my fearful Border Collie, is so observant of everything. Patience and baby steps are the keys to working with fearful dogs. I have learned so much from her and she keeps making progress.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for your comment and all the best to you and Anna. We do learn a lot from our challenging dogs that’s for sure!

  7. Diane Garrod on

    Great article! Thanks for writing it. I always tell clients that regress is a part of progress. AND you said that eloquently!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Diane, glad you enjoyed the post and appreciate you stopping by to say so.

  8. Kay Liestman on

    Thank you for a great post, Debbie. Our ACD Mattie is a “poster dog” for observing differences and reacting. BUT she now can react by looking instead of lunging/barking/attacking. In our recent travels, the barks and growls have come from other dogs and Mattie has watched me for the treats that come when she ignores their behavior. Yes, she sometimes resorts to the old stuff, but we’re working on applying those layers of new behaviors that you taught us to do. It’s working!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Yahoo! The system works! Thanks for filling me in.

  9. Steve on

    A frustrating part of the process so little addressed by trainers. A needed call for humility.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading Steve. We are always building new behaviors ‘on top’ of old ones. The old ones rarely go away (unless injured or dementia sets in) we just hope we never need to use them again.

  10. Kim on

    Thanks, Anna. Our dog Daisy regressed on her fear of the stairs again…thankfully, we know what worked to help her overcome her fear last time (some TLC, yummy treats and lots of positive reinforcement), that we’re more prepared than the first time it happened! Your point about ‘regress leading to progress’ is exactly the reminder I needed, to not be hard on her or us. We can figure this out together.

    On another note, I’ve been looking for any good reading material about “fearful and shy” dogs…all the books I’ve found seem to talk about fearful and reactive dogs (who will become aggressive when pushed)…maybe I’m naive, but my dog is more of a fearful and fleeing kind of dog. Any recommendations, beyond your wonderful, helpful blog?

    • fearfuldogs on

      Visit fearfuldogs.com and check out the page on recommended reading. My book, McConnell’s and Wilde’s books all are helpful resources. My dog Sunny is a shut down kind of dog too.


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