Is getting another dog helpful for a fearful dog?

belgian malnois and terrier on pink bedIt’s not uncommon for people who are living with a dog who is afraid of people or new environments to wonder if getting another dog would be helpful. It’s a generous thought I’ll give it that, but there are many potential pitfalls to take into consideration before making that leap.

Being around others that a dog feels safe with and trusts can help lower stress levels. This is why comforting a dog who is afraid can be so beneficial. With lowered stress some fearful dogs are able to do things they might not be able or willing to do on their own. If we like the things they are able to do it makes sense that we’d consider providing them with that benefit all the time by adding a dog to our household.

Here are the questions I’d ask anyone considering getting a dog to help their fearful dog-

Why, if the dog you brought home felt more comfortable being around other dogs, did you adopt him to begin with if you didn’t already have another dog in the house?

Unless you deliberately set out to adopt a dog with fear based behavior challenges what makes you think that you, the breeder, rescue group or shelter is going to do a better job a second time around at finding an appropriate dog for you who: not only has to be a good pet, needs to rise to the occasion and be a stellar role model and companion for a fearful dog?

Are you willing to hire a professional trainer or behaviorist to help you find an appropriate dog to add to your household?

Are you prepared to spend more time training and more money for the upkeep of an additional dog?

What will you do if it doesn’t work out as you’d hoped? 

It’s a lovely thought that a fearful dog will see another dog interacting with people, other dogs, novel objects, etc., and learn to do so happily themselves. I could watch a dozen people jump out of a plane and still be reluctant to fling myself out the hatch. There are people who won’t taste a new food even though an entire group of people consumes it routinely, but we expect dogs to do better than this? What if instead the new dog learns to be more wary and cautious of things by following the lead of the fearful dog?

Pairing a friendly dog with a fearful dog for the benefits of social buffering can end up backfiring. I don’t worry when my border collie Finn races up to people to greet them. His behavior may be considered rude but the worst that is likely to happen is that someone will end up with paw prints on their pants. He likes people and sees every human as a potential frisbee tosser. Sunny on the other hand would be better off not being drawn toward people by following Finn’s example. He’s not comfortable with people and getting closer to them can end up scaring him. This could lead to an aggressive response.

Unless I have complete control over Finn’s behavior, being able to stop him in his tracks as he heads off to greet someone, I run the risk of having Sunny join him. Finn’s arousal is benign, Sunny’s is not. Annie, my adult cocker spaniel displays her ‘greeting disorder’ anytime a new person or dog appears on the scene. She is harmless, annoying but harmless. But her reactivity is not helpful when I am trying to train a fearful dog to stay right where he is. In trainer speak we call this ‘proofing’ a behavior, and means that we practice a cue, such as ‘wait’, over and over, in many different situations, with a variety of distractions, in order for the dog to gain the skill to perform the behavior wherever, whenever we ask for it, regardless of what is going on around them. It takes time and effort. Sunny has a solid ‘wait’ in many situations, but he is affected by the arousal level of other dogs, and this makes getting the behavior more challenging.

This is often when people will suggest the use of some kind of powerful punishment to teach the dog that moving is not an option. I will not go into it in depth in this post but the risk of ‘contextual conditioning’ is real. Anything that the dog experiences along with the punishment can become associated with the negative experience, including the thing they already are not feeling good about. To this day I am not inclined to eat cherry snow cones because as a kid I caught a stomach bug and the last thing I ate prior to being sick was a cherry snow cone. The snow cone itself did not cause the vomiting, but was associated with it.

To trust that a dog will not harm something we need to be certain that they are no longer afraid of it. Better that they love it, but short of that, a dog is less likely to bite something they do not feel threatened by. There are no magic bullet cures for fearfulness in dogs. The benefits of social buffering are real, but the tasks of training and using behavior modification are ours. We need to get our understanding of dog behavior and training polished up before we expect another dog to ‘fix’ our fearful dog.

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37 comments so far

  1. Mel on

    Interesting post Deb. I agree with many of your points, but I would have to say that my experience with puppy mill dogs and in speaking with many other folks who work with puppy mill dogs, that sometimes having another dog is extremely helpful. Puppy mill dogs are used to being around other dogs (not humans) and tend to do better when there is another dog in the home.

    However, getting another dog AFTER getting a fearful puppy mill dog is much more difficult. I think your points about hiring a professional trainer or behaviorist to help you find another dog is right on.

    In my situation, I already had a dog when I took on Daisy as a foster. I already knew that Aspen’s temperament would be a good match for Daisy, but I still made sure we did introductions in a neutral environment. When Aspen died, Daisy regressed. I really wasn’t ready for taking on another dog at the time so we managed through and eventually started to build a stronger bond. It wasn’t until I took Jasmine and Jasper as fosters that I realized that I saw Daisy really enjoyed having another dog around. I never planned on keeping Jasper, but I was fortunate enough that things worked out so that I could. I am so glad I did too. Daisy and Jasper are the very best of friends. They check up on one another, they groom each other, and they watch out for one another. I know my situation is a bit different than getting a dog for another dog. I didn’t exactly do that, but it was the best decision I made when I kept Jasper. Daisy came out of her shell when Jasper came into our lives. I’ll always be grateful he did.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I had a similar situation with Sunny. My border collie Finn has been extremely helpful, and my point isn’t that another dog is not helpful, but that people need to go in with their eyes open to the downside, if they decide to go that route.

      • Mel on

        That’s what I thought, but couldn’t help sharing Daisy and Jasper’s story. I have to completely agree with you. I think knowing the downside is important and also seeking the help of someone who can help you make the right choice is so important too.

  2. neighbornancy on

    Our situation is similar to that of Mel’s. I rescued the non-fearful dog, Nanook, first (lab/Jack Russell mix). At doggy day care, I was able to view her play with many other dogs via their webcam. One particular dog was her constant companion. They both kept gravitating toward each other. Since day care was also Weimaraner Rescue organization-affiliated and the dog was a Weim, I asked if it needed a foster home. It did. We fostered for 3 months before adopting. I knew I was adopting a fearful dog and have read numerous books (including yours) and hired a trainer. Unfortunately he’d not had experience with fearful dogs and I knew I was better off without him.

    I began to trust that my reading, my slow and steady approach and training in observation as a sociologist were going to give us a good base. We’ve a long way to go, but we are making progress. Not just Bleu the Weim. Our family. It is a family – and neighborhood – effort.

    I may still make many mistakes that the experts would know not to do, but I need confidence that I am the best advocate for my dog. As I gain confidence that I can actually help him realize his full potential, I see a corresponding change (however small) in his behaviors.

    I train Bleu separately from Nanook so as to reduce the likelihood of some of those reactivity issues you described above. We are fortunate to have Doggy Day Care available to help meet Nanook’s exercise needs; then I also have more time to work one-on-one with Bleu in a quiet, more calm environment.

  3. Lizzie on

    The Rescue Centre where Gracie came from insists that ex breeding dogs go to a family who already have at least one dog. It is their firm belief that dogs can and do help the fearful ones.

    Sadly for Gracie this has not been the case. I don’t know if it’s because they are too old now to be bothered with a dog like Gracie who is high energy and younger than them, or the fact that she has absolutely no social skills where other dogs are concerned, which makes me wonder just how bad her former existence was. Maybe it’s because my two are male dogs and she was used to being around bitches, I simply don’t know and will never know.

    I do know however that Gracie seems to be perfectly happy

  4. Lizzie on

    Apologies Debbie, finger trouble!

    I was saying that Gracie appears to be as happy as she can be without the close companionship of another dog. That is not to say that one day I may decide to adopt just one more Lab…….. you never know!

    • Mel on

      Lizzie – I have been thinking about adopting another Lab too. Not now, but later. Daisy has made me fall in love with Labs.

      I am sorry that your other two dogs don’t have that connection with Gracie. I think I was lucky that Aspen at age 9 was still interested in being a friend to another dog. She flirted with the Shepherd next door all of the time too.

  5. Kathy on

    We adopted a pitbull that was almost starved to death about a year and a half ago. He trusted no one and ran if you just looked at him. we have an older pit who became his BFF and you can see him look to the older one to see if he should do something or not. He still has issues but is 90% better than he was and I give most of the credit to the old dog. We have 2 smaller dogs too, and he is now really part of our pack.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Bringing a dog into a household that already has a dog who is confident and comfortable is different than going out and adopting a new dog with the hope that the new dog will make things better. I had a very similar experience with Sunny who is much more comfortable with other dogs around him.

  6. Catherine McBrien on

    Debbie, As always you make very legitimate points, but my own experience differs in that I consistently see my less shy dogs really helping my more shy dogs on a regular basis. I think it’s always prudent to see things from a worst-case-scenario perspective, but if we completely operate from that mindset we’re unduly constraining our lives and those of our dogs.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Again I fear my point has not been taken. The benefits of social buffering are very real, but for a pet owner who already has their plate filled with one challenging dog, they need to understand that taking on another dog might be helpful, or they might end up with twice as much work. Suggesting that people look at, consider, and plan for the ‘what ifs’ is not constraining, it’s prudent.

  7. Tegan on

    Loved this post and I have queued it to tweet. 🙂

    I did want to comment, however, on sometimes the reverse is true: Sometimes a fearful dog can ‘corrupt’ an otherwise confident dog. This is normally a subtle and long process, but it can occur. I much rather put time and energy into one dog with problems than add another dog into the mix!

    • Debbie on

      Thanks! And yes there is no guarantee that the new dog will not follow the lead of the original dog. Another possibility people should be aware of when considering adding a dog to their household.

      Debbie Jacobs Fearfuldogs.com

  8. honeysjourney on

    Debbie your point is well taken in this household. The problem may not be with the fearful one we have, it’s with the “what if it doesn’t work” What do we do with the new dog if it doesn’t. As you have said before working or homing a fearful soul they need consistency and to know what is going to be the outcome of something happening in their life.

    I may loose my trusted, stable old girl this year, I hope not, but the chances don’t look to good for her to be around much longer. I have brought a few dogs home from the kennel over the past year just for a sleepover on the way to their new life and it freaks Honey out big time, just the smell of another dog around. Just to confirm my belief, I brought home a young very vocal male Canary the other day and it took Honey 2 days to realize she wasn’t going to be eaten by the singing bird, whew.

    It depends on each and every dog, they are all different. It may help but then again it may cause more problems than it’s worth. Maybe some day a new friend may help, but not in the near future and I don’t need to worry about the “what if it doesn’t work” part of the mess I may have created.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Sorry to hear that you are nearing the end with your dog. I am so grateful that I had my border collie Finn when Sunny came to live with us. I am fairly certain that Sunny stuck around to be with him, and not me, at first. But now I find myself thinking how much easier it would be to just have Sunny or ‘just’ any one of my dogs. If I feel that way and I have some idea how to shape and change behaviors in dogs, I can only imagine what pet owners, without that experience, end up going through.

  9. KellyK on

    Thank you for this. I think these are a lot of points worth considering, particularly the question of, if you didn’t set out to adopt a fearful dog to begin with, how will you know that you’re not getting another fearful dog?

    I think that if you’re adding another dog to your household primarily for the sake of a dog who’s already there, you need to work with a rescue or shelter that is really committed to good matches, not just to getting dogs out the door. You want the opportunity to have the dogs meet on neutral territory so you can see what they think of each other, and you want enough detail about the new dog’s personality to give you an idea how they’ll interact. (Actually, that’s probably the case even if the dog you already have is calm and happy and stable—sometimes two dogs’ personalities or play styles or whatever just don’t mesh.)

  10. dogdaz on

    Thank you for your post. I find your thoroughness of thought on many topics to be right on point. My fearful 2 year old Hound/Lab mix rescue, Louise, gets aggressive toward other dogs she does not know when they get about 3 feet from us if on leash. She is fine with strange dogs in the dog park and at doggie daycare because I think she can back away. Since I rescued Sofie (Sheltie/Corgie), now 1, Louise has not become any less fearful, but Sofie, who when puppy would run up and greet anyone, has now started to bark if people come to close on leash (to be honest she barks a lot but this on leash behavior is new). I make them sit when I see another dog coming up the road and try to continue on when the dog has past, but if they get to close to us, Louise will lunge. I also notice at the dog park that Louise has started being protective of Sofie (who likes to play with the big dogs and gets in the middle of things). Any suggestions to ward off escalation of this behavior? Thanks – DogDaz (http://dogdaz.wordpress.com)

    • fearfuldogs on

      Management is always a place to start. This means not putting dogs into the situations which cause the inappropriate behavior to occur. At the same time we train dogs to perform other behaviors so that when in situations we have something else we can ask them to do, rather than just rely on trying to stop behaviors we don’t like. But it goes beyond this.

      If you don’t have your head around triggers, thresholds, counter conditioning and desensitization, you should. They help form the foundation of how to think about a fearful dog’s behavior. When we change how dogs feel about things, not just how they behave around them, we will usually see improvements in behavior. This is why protocols like ‘look at that’ and BAT are as effective as they. Instead of making a dog sit when they see something that worries them, the trigger itself becomes the cue to perform a behavior. If that behavior works for the dog (i.e., makes them feel safe or better about the trigger) it’s easy to get compliance from the dog.

      Too often what we want for our dogs conflicts with what is actually best for them. Though we want them to be able to play at a dog park if it’s creating behavioral issues we should rethink our plan. You could leave Louise at home when you take Sofie to the dog park, it doesn’t sound she’s really enjoying it anyway. Or worse, she is finding being aggressive rewarding.

  11. EngineerChic on

    I’m thinking that I need to start leveraging other nearby dogs to build our dog’s confidence outside his own yard. Just today we went to some trails we’ve been to a half dozen times before and he did NOT want to walk. He’s not sick, he was feeling energetic at home before & after the short drive. But he was displaying all his fearful signs as we walked from the parking lot toward the trails (holding one foot up, tail down, ears tipped back, and that low slung posture).

    When other dogs came out of the trails he happily greeted them and his whole body changed – tail curled to where it normally is, head was up & ears were in “happy & interested” position. He even let the other owners pet him (great progress there). But when those dogs walked away, he went back to fearful mode. He wouldn’t walk forward unless I kneeled down & coaxed him. Needless to say, this wasn’t the energy-burning walk I’d hoped for!

    At home he’s a snuggle bug and he only has to share his humans with the cat. I worry he wouldn’t get as much snuggling if he had to push another dog out of the way for it, and he’s not a top dog at daycare (not the bottom, either, but definitely isn’t in charge of the yard). So I don’t want to get another dog and risk that he backslides in accepting and enjoying human contact.

    It’s odd, he’s making such progress in some areas – but still fears walking in new territory. If my neighbors didn’t think I was the crazy dog lady before, they certainly will when I approach them to find out if their dog is friendly & would enjoy a walk with our dog now and then.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I’d say that more importantly you should be figuring out what is triggering your dog’s fearfulness out on the trails. If he’s afraid of people there are ways to work on that without needing another dog around.

      I started offering daycare and boarding so I could get people and other dogs around for my fearful dog, so I’m not one to say asking people to go for walks with their dogs is crazy at all!

  12. Rachel on

    I’ve frequently considered getting another dog to hang out with my shy pup. He really enjoys being around other dogs – other familiar dogs at the local park, other random dogs at the less-local dog park, etc.

    Raleigh is really a follower, so I don’t think I would need to worry about the other dog picking up his nervous behaviors. I do worry that Raleigh’s _good_ habits could be corrupted by another dog (excellently housetrained, quiet, generally polite with the cats). Although I’m quite sure that if I managed to find the “right” dog, then Raleigh would love having a playmate and would love the reduction in human social pressure.

    Luckily, I don’t really feel like I’m in a time / money / effort position to care for another animal, so I don’t have to obsess over pros and cons. Maybe in the future.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Good to look at the whole picture that’s for sure.

  13. 2 Punk Dogs on

    I wish I had found this blog 4 years ago! Maggie was extremely fearful when we adopted her. She had been found in an empty house in Puerto Rico at about 4 months with her mother and 2 other puppies and had missed a lot of necessary human socialization. She had been carried at the shelter as she was too nervous to walk. She immediately bonded with me but is still nervous around the Mr. and most other men. She likes other dogs, but is definitely dominant. She does not like puppy energy, and will curl her lip at dogs who approach too fast.

    We had her about 2 years when we decided to try and find her a large, older male dog as a friend, as all of her favorite dogs are large males. When we went to the shelter they said that they had a younger male whippet mix that was “just like her.”(which was NOT the plan) He was more nervous than she had been at first, so much that the first shelter he had been at declared him unadoptable, due to fear aggression issues. We walked the 2 of them together, had no problems and then let them run in the fenced area. Duke jumped up onto the shelter couch and cuddled up to my husband, who said “what fear aggression?”

    Duke and Maggie have been best friends since the first day, and have improved together over the past 2 years. We really hadn’t planned to adopt another project dog, as my husband calls them, but they are such a good match that they have helped each other more than we could have ever expected. When we bring Duke to a new place or new people come over he will sit and shake at first. Maggie will lick his face as if to say “it’s not so bad,” and will sit or walk right beside him for support. She loves having a younger brother to boss around and cuddle with. They have different issues, will probably never be truly “normal dogs”, but they have fun playing together and are nearly inseparable. Hopefully we will have them both for a very long time.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to share your story. I’ve worked with Puerto Rican satos a bunch over the years. Social buffering is SO important. So glad you all have each other.

  14. 2 Punk Dogs on

    Thanks so much for this blog and the website! The knowledge that others are also dealing with incremental progress is a great support. Last night Duke took a treat from our neighbor at her house for the first time, it’s taken about 2 years for him to feel comfortable enough there. It helped that Maggie was trying to get his treat & the husbands were at our house.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It’s funny how our time frame changes. But we can continue to see change and success in dogs throughout their lives. Indeed it’s what we’re after.

  15. Patty on

    I’ve been thinking about this particular blog for a long time. I know the last post is a few months old, but I’d like to share our story. Back in November, we adopted a puppy mill rescue named Connie. She was sooo afraid that all she would do was pace around our house, frantically avoiding my husband and never settling. She wouldn’t eat or go outside. Slowly she got to the point where the kids or I could take her out or feed her, but not the big scary man. She spent her days curled in a tight little ball by my side. Wouldn’t play, walk farther than a block away, go upstairs or get on the furniture. She didn’t make a peep. (We’ve since discovered that she can bark, but that she was de-barked at the puppy mill – so sad!) Over several months, she began to warm up to my husband, but still spent her days curled in a ball. On a couple of play dates,we saw a different, happy, energetic dog, and I decided to look into getting another boxer to be her friend. When I read this blog, I was really worried that I was making a bad decision, and I went back and forth. Finally, after several months of working with rescues to find a good match, we brought Lady home on a foser basis. She’s a little older, much better socialized, energetic and happy to know everyone! The change in Connie was instantaneous and so remarkable! The very day Lady came home, Connie did everything she never did before – she went upstairs, hopped on the beds, played, even greeted my husband! Now, about a month later, they are such good friends. They play, they groom each other, they travel around the house together and love, love, love to wrestle around outside! I have two new dogs in my home! I know this isn’t an instant “fix” for every dog, but for us, because we had tried Connie with other dogs and saw her come out of her shell around them, and because we searched carefully for a good match, we have success. Maybe because she was a puppy mill dog who was more comfortable with dogs than people, it worked for her. Dogs from different situations may not react the same way. But I agree with the first commentor that puppy mill dogs may really benefit by the company of another dog. No matter how kind and sweet we were to Connie, we just couldn’t be dogs!

    • fearfuldogs on

      My own fearful dog is much better when he is around other dogs. But even dogs who are more comfortable with other dogs can be handled in ways which still allow them to feel safe and learn new skills, without having to add another dog to the household.

      My point is not that it never works the way you experienced but that it’s a HUGE responsibility to live with one dog, never mind 2 or more and that owners shouldn’t leave the task of helping dogs feel safe and learn skills to another dog. It can work out well, as it obviously did for you, or it can backfire big time. I routinely talk to people who now are living with two dogs who need time, work and attention and their fearful dog is still a fearful dog.

      Puppy mill dogs who grew up in crates isolated from other dogs and did not have the opportunity to interact with them can be scared out of their minds by other dogs.

      All I am suggesting people do is consider the possibilities and find someone who can help them decide what is going to be the best choice for their dog and their lives. If all people go on is the anecdotal experiences of someone else they may be in for a rude awakening.

  16. Vince on

    Ellie was not only terrified she was a social misfit! Living in a small cell for so long didn’t leave that little BC much room to learn social skills. I tend to agree with you that a second dog to help the first is not always the best idea but in Ellie’s case it worked just like it was planned. Soon Ellie was flying through the yard with Hank clamped to her tail. She watched Hank get in the truck and THEN COME BACK!! Holy Mackrel she must have thought. Now these 2 dogs are hell on cows and sweet as cream. Ellie, who once would not come near me, now won’t stay away. I reckon I was lucky or she was. If you have an animal heart they know it. Of course I don’t expect them to be more obedient than I was; that’d be a bit hypocritical I think. Reckon it’s mostly good to be the Alpha. I didn’t ask for it it just came out that way. I suppose it’s like raisin kids; we make mistakes, a lot of ’em but we try to make them only now and then and not too bad. What I didn’t know about fearful abused dogs would fill a book. They aren’t much different than us or at least me. That’s how I looked at it and what would have worked for me. Would Ellie be her red headed Gemini self if Hank, ever the gentleman, hadn’t come along? Who knows. Rhett surely helped Scarlet and that’s the fact of it. We hope for the best, prepare for the worst and work to the middle. You’ll teach each other what works.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Social facilitation and learning are very real. And the value of social buffering for dogs who are comfortable with other dogs is also very real. The point is for us to use our big brains and think through any solution we plan to implement. Many are looking for a magic bullet solution to living with a scared dog and hope that another dog will be that bullet.

      It’s less about being alpha than being consistent, predictable and providing enough positive reinforcement for the dog to have reason to attend to us, rather than attend to us out of concern for when we may hurt, scare or threaten them.

      • Vince on

        Hi Deb
        Gee Sunny and Finn sound a lot like Hank & Ellie; paw prints and all!!
        Hanks happy as a clam to see anyone and Ellie, well she can come along but never feels forced. Interesting about wait. I just started using that with Hank on HIS agility jumps. Of course now Ellie wants to “wait” until Hank finishes then they can tear off into the sunset. I have been so lucky with these 2. I guess it’s true about blind hogs and acorns! They are charmingly competitive. We won’t talk about habitual but soon I can sell my watch.
        You sure were and are a big help from the beginning of “The Velvet Ear Gang”

  17. fearfuldogs on

    You are an inspiration for all the men out there living with dogs who are afraid of them.

    • Vince on

      Thanks Debbie. Ellie has finally turned the corner with me. This week I had to carry her AWAY from the truck. Somebody has to go to work! And actually work. It’s priceless and only 6 years or so. Well what’s time to a hog. Like the Irishman said “all I have to do is carry the hod to the tird floor and the poor fool up there does all the work.

      • fearfuldogs on

        The joke in our house is how much better Sunny will be in another 9 years. Gallows humor.

      • Vince on

        I think I get to be the Alpha because I am the only one with keys to the truck.

  18. fearfuldogs on

    You get to be whatever you want because dogs don’t have “alphas.” 😉 We are lovers of fiction.

    • Vince on

      Never thought it’d be a chauffeur!! Drivin Miss Ellie.


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