Minimum daily requirements

black & white dog with front paw on a basketballWhen my fearful dog Sunny, or if you are troubled by the labeling of dogs, my dog with extreme fear based behavior challenges Sunny, first came to live with us I had dreams for him. In the summer we’d go to South Pond and people would toss frisbees and balls for him to swim after, we’d take long hikes in the woods with friends, anywhere we go he’d get to join us. I imagined that as soon as he could get himself out of the corner all the pieces would fall into place and we could get on with pursuing my dreams for him.

As time went on the reality of the dog I was living with began to settle in. I set my sights on more mundane activities such as helping him go out of the house without a panicked dash and to come back in without having to be caught and encouraged back in on a leash. Being able to get all 55 pounds of himself in and out of the car on his own took precedence over my South Pond dreams. It did happen to be at South Pond where Sunny hopped into the car on his own for the first time, but it was because the voices of people, traveling over the water from a beach on the other side of the pond, scared him so much he sought out the security of his spot on the floor behind the passenger seat.

We attended a variety of training classes including agility and obedience. Sunny even went through a mock obedience trial where he ‘stood for exam’. But who was I kidding? I had no interest in entering him in any events and his ability to barely tolerate the classes was as far from how I want my dogs to feel when spending time with me, as you could get. Getting himself out of the corner of the living room was a big step for Sunny, much bigger than I had imagined it would be, but it was a step, not a leap.

Today I am content to have a dog who is; housebroken, can go in and out of doorways, comes on cue, gets in an out of the car on his own, stays with me (most of the time) during walks in the woods, can be handled by a vet, loves finding dogs to play with, and can enter a training facility and be excited to chase tennis balls I lob against the wall. I have lowered my expectations for my dog with extreme fear based behavior challenges, but I’ve never stopped dreaming of the fun he might be able to have, someday.


34 comments so far

  1. justthreadtwiddling on

    Your Sunny looks so much like my Ike. We are still working on the in-and-out of the car. It was really difficult earlier this winter, when Ike had cut a toe pad quite deeply on a large piece of glass Tina had carried outside. The foot required deep stitches and a splint to keep it from tearing open again. It was a hind foot so getting him in the car without his cooperation was hard on me as I have my own physical limitations. We have had the pups since they were 7-8 weeks old, and Tina has always loved the car and Ike has always hated it. My dream is to be able to open the back car door, say “come on” and have two happy dogs jump in. We are still working on it. 😉

    • fearfuldogs on

      A lot depends on why the dog doesn’t want to get in the car. For some the car itself is scary, or the riding is scary, or what riding leads to is scary. If I’m working on any behavior I try to give the dog a lot of opportunities to practice it and get good at it.

      For example-get in car, eat treat, get out of car, repeat a bunch. From there I might add shutting the door, eating treat, get out. Or get in, shut door, start engine, eat treat, get out.

      If it’s painful for a dog to get into a car, that’s a different story.

      • Ramona (Kit Katzz - on facebook) on

        I had to start with “oreo-cookie-ohhh” .. just being 10-15 feet next to the car .. today I can happily say she enjoys rides : ) Took 3 years to get to this point.. I could keep u busy reading about my stories for months, from how I adopted her to today : ))

      • fearfuldogs on

        Sounds as though you need to start a blog!

  2. Jen on

    Housebreaking was harder than I ever thought it was going to be.

    I think “fun” is a good expectation!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Housebreaking is a huge one for many people, in importance anyway. I know that my feelings about a dog change a lot when I no longer have to clean up after them.

  3. katie, Maizey and Magnus on

    Thank you Debbie! The last month I have been a struggle with certain people to get them to understand that just because I accept Maizey’s limitations doesn’t mean I’m giving up. If she needs to be a mostly stay at home dog I am okay with that. I would rather her run around everywhere with Magnus and I, but if it’s too hard for her then she can stay home where she feels safe. This is no an admission of defeat. It’s an acceptance and love of her as she is. It in no way means I’ll quit training and helping her to be more comfortable in her skin. It means if she can’t handle training that day, that week or however long, I won’t push it. I will accept her daily minimum requirements. Thanks for sharing another great post that let us know there are people out there who DO understand. I have to work with the dog that’s in front of me now while I never “[stop] dreaming of the fun he might be able to have, someday.”

  4. KellyK on

    I think that’s a good balance. You have to be honest about where you actually are today, but that doesn’t mean you don’t try to get someplace better tomorrow. Really, I think the only way you *can* make progress is to acknowledge where you are and work from there.

  5. Patty on

    Your blog is so encouraging! Some of the entries I have re-read many times just to maintain my perspective. I have to share a not-so-small victory today with my fearful boxer, Connie. She has been with us for 3 months now and was a puppy mill rescue. From the start, Connie was terrified most of my (rather large and apparently scary) husband. At first, she would pace around the house furiously whenever she saw him. Sometimes he would have to quickly step aside so she wouldn’t run into him! Slowly, she stopped pacing and progressed to being able to stay sitting in her safe spot, near me, when he came in the room. It has been much easier for me to accept her as she is, I guess because she does feel safe with me, but I know he finds her avoidance disappointing. To his credit, he always talks sweetly to her and gives her treats if she’ll accept them. Today, I was talking with him in his office. (She NEVER goes in there!) She came in, we ignored her. She sniffed around, we ignored her. Then, she curled up on the floor, not next to me, but right at his feet! I could cry! She even stayed when I left the room to bring him some bits of chicken to offer her. She’s still there now, almost an hour later! I’m so proud of her! Thanks for letting me share!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for joining me here Patty. If you haven’t yet had a look through the website it’s a good place to find ideas for the most effective and humane ways to work with fearful dogs. You could also look through the ‘nibbles’ category on this blog for videos about how to work with these dogs.

  6. Barbara on

    Hi, thanks for your blog, it is very enlightening. I have a fearfull dog too. I am wandering how did you teach Sonny to tolerate handling by a vet?

    • fearfuldogs on

      Good question Barbara. First I had to get him used to being handled by me. I made sure to do things to him that a vet would do, hold his leg (for blood draws), look at his teeth, touch his body, hug him for restraint, etc. We also went to the vet clinic for visits to get him used to going into that space and not having something more horrifying happen then having to go inside (which was pretty horrifying for him to begin with). I have 3 other dogs so there were plenty of opportunities for him to accompany one of them if we went.

      Sunny is a dog who will ‘shut down’ or ‘give up’ when he is ‘trapped’, unlike a dog who responds aggressively. This means that anyone could handle him if need be, but it didn’t mean he was ok with it. I wanted to tone down the horror of the experience for him as much as possible. None of my dogs enjoy going to the vet, but they can cope.

      I gave him anti-anxiety meds when it was ok for him to be medicated prior to an exam. When he needed surgeries my vet would give him something to knock him out while I sat with him and once he was ‘out’ he was moved for surgery prep.

      I always bring good treats with me and while we’re in the exam room we do ‘tricks’, giving him something else to focus on other than the dread of what is going to happen next.

      You should check out the protocol developed by Emma Parsons on helping dogs tolerate handler initiated touch.

      Every dog will need something different to help them deal with the vet. If I had a dog who went wild I’d keep working on handling comfort but I’d probably ask about an appropriate medication, get them desensitized and counter conditioned to a muzzle, give my vet specific instructions as to how to interact with him (no petting or trying to chat him up, it only scares him) and then try to get it over with as quickly as possible. I put my dogs back in the car while I pay the bill and then head to the fast food drive thru for burgers.

  7. Kerry on

    The only thing I’d add is if you don’t already have one, get a good vet for fearful dogs. I was looking for a new vet when I adopted Huck so I had to try out 3 vets before I found one with good dog handling skills. The other vets loomed and made eye contact and thus couldn’t touch him. When he is scared, he can bark and lunge so we didn’t want to force a touch even though it is awful useful for a vet to be able to touch the dog.

    My current vet knew he was scared so she just quietly sat on the floor and ignored him while talking to me until he approached and smothered her face in kisses. She is now one of his favorite people and I’m so relieved to have a vet who can touch my dog. I don’t think that would have ever happened with the first two vets.

    • fearfuldogs on

      You are so right Kelly. I travel an extra half hour to get to the vet clinic where I feel my dog is ‘less’ scared. He’s scared wherever he goes but at the preferred clinic I not only really like the petite, female vet, I think she’s less threatening to him. Overall I’ve had good look at any of the clinics I’ve brought him to, except the emergency clinic I took him to on a Sunday to have quills removed. They would not allow me to accompany him into the back. I was not happy but with a muzzle full of quills I decided I couldn’t walk out the door with him.

      I am very forthright with vets and anyone else who is going to handle him. As I’ve gotten older, and had him longer, am less likely to allow someone else to tell me what is best for him.

      • Patty on

        I couldn’t agree more! The right vet can mean the difference between life and death! Before Connie, we had another (adopted) fearful boxer, Jasmine. She was a fear biter – a warning “snap” really, when she was afraid. I don’t think she ever intended to do real harm. But when we got her home, she had two badly infected ears. So I took her to the vet I had taken my cat to for over 10 years. I told him that she might have a problem with him touching her ears, and she did. His response? “You need to put that dog down. I can’t treat her if I can’t touch her.” I was floored! This was my first experience with a fearful dog, and I didn’t know what to do. So we took her to a nearby university vet school for more help. They showed us how to work with her, how to get medicine into her ears, and gave us medication to help her anxiety. What a difference! Then I found a great local vet and Jasmine had no more problems with vet visits. We had 7 wonderful years with her before we lost her to Cushings Disease. If I had listened to the first vet, we never would have had that time with her. We need to stand by our fearful dogs – many times, we’re all they’ve got!

      • Barbara on

        Thank you all for advices, I will definitely look for better vet. Last time I went to the clinic I told the vet my dog is fearfull, she reached her hand towards Tarra and she smelled it (because she is taught so, and can handel that) but the next thing vet did, before I could react, she tried to pat Tarra. Luckily she had enough space to withdraw. I was surprised, I asumed vets know how to behave with fearfull dogs.

      • KellyK on

        “You have to put that dog down” because she snaps at someone when scared and in pain? Seriously? Any dog might bite if they’re scared enough, or in enough pain. That’s really an unwarranted snap judgment.

  8. fearfuldogs on

    If you like your vet and trust them medically, don’t write them off just because she might not understand how to handle your dog. I never assume that ANY dog professional knows how to interact with my fearful dog, so I tell them. If I trust that they accept what I am telling them, and don’t think I’m just a fussy ‘pet mom’, then I continue to use them, especially if I already have a good relationship with them. Because my dog is marginally more comfortable with women, I am happy to have a female vet who believes me when I tell her that there’s nothing she can do to get Sunny to ‘like’ her, so she can stop trying. I was pleased to see that during a visit she had added a jar of pnut butter to her exam room and offered Sunny a lick (in a low pressure way), which he took. Score a point for dogs.

    • KellyK on

      I think that makes a lot of sense. I don’t know what the percentage of fearful dogs is as part of the total dog population, but I wouldn’t be surprised if most vets have the majority of their experience with confident, easy-going dogs.

  9. Kerry M. on

    My optimistic self agrees with giving them a chance. My cynical self says if they haven’t learned how to deal with fearful dogs yet, how much will they listen to me? I am just talking about the basics: no looming, no eye contact, etc, not about any unique requirements. I do agree, though, that if you already have a good relationship, I wouldn’t throw it away without trying first.

    I was very fortunate that spending the time to look for a vet with good dog handling skills led me to a vet who has saved the life of my 16yo and not fearful dog with just good consistent medical advice. The quality of care and medical advice she has seen this past year is leaps and bounds above what I had seen in my previous vets over the past 8 years.

    I don’t know if this is true for all vets, but I now operate under the bias that a good vet takes the time to understand how to work with fearful dogs. In the future if I ever have to find a new vet, I will keep looking until I find one who understands the emotional needs of dogs, too.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I know what you mean Kerry, you’d think it would be the case but the amount of misinformation out there is rife. I don’t know how much behavior and training info vets get while in school, but I suspect it may not be up to date or comprehensive. There are still vet behaviorists who I’ve heard recommending that owners need to establish their status as pack leader with their puppy.

  10. Kay Liestman on

    Acceptance–what a novel idea! You’ve supported our long-held belief that Mattie needs our acceptance of who she is and what she needs, whether anyone else recognizes that need. Our vet is willing to work with us, in spite of the difficulty and need for extra sedation. Her partner all but advised euthanasia when we were trying to rule out physical reasons for Mattie’s fear aggression. So we have an agreement that the one vet who understands the issues sees Mattie and we will stay in the room because we’re her security blanket. Mattie’s able to do much more than she was 2 years ago, and I believe that she’ll be able to do much more in another 2 years. But she’s a valued family member, even if she’s already peaked.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Change happens…all the time. If we are pointed in the right direction, any movement is progress.

  11. Marc Luce on

    We adopted a fearful dog about a month ago. He has run away once (in a frightful moment). He appears to have bonded reasonably well with me, but still cowers in the corner when I am the only person around. We have a fenced in yard and I let him drag his leash but I stay outside with him – he is never unsupervised. About 50% of the time he will come back to me. The rest of the time, he walks away from me, and signals that he wants me to come get him by sitting down. When this happens he will cower in the corner when we get back in the house. When he comes in on his own he will go to his “place” and remain calm.

    I know this is progress. I have never been around a fearful dog and I know I need to have TONS of patience. I can actually SEE him be without fear. They are glimpses, but noticeable. It is hard to remind myself that it doesn’t mean he will be “fine” and/or continue improving quickly. I need to remind myself that we are healing on his pace – not mine. This blog will help.

    The one actual question I have is – I believe he has created a pretty good bond with me, but he is not yet ready for an authoritative voice correcting him and he is not ready to accept treats for positive reinforcement. Is there a way to get an in-home evaluation from an expert or at least a good resource to get me started training “my boy”? We just accept any negative behavior and try to limit his opportunities to make a mistake in the future. In the long term I know I am doing him and us a disservice, but I feel it is the ONLY way we can proceed at the moment. I just want to start training him “the right way,” because he have come a long way on the nurturing front.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Where are you located?

      Please visit for more info about handling dogs. We do two important things with these dogs. We keep them feeling safe and we teach them skills. It’s not about being able to ‘correct’ inappropriate behavior, but build the behaviors we want to see. A dog who cannot eat treats is not feeling as safe as they need to. There is no division between nurturing and training. We are always training our dogs whether we know it or not, because they are always learning. Every interaction with a dog is an opportunity to give them skills. There is no split between a caring, nurturing relationship with a dog and the training we do with them.

      Have a look at the book list on the website. There is also a list of trainers, you might find one near you. There are also videos showing different ways to ‘train’ a dog who has fear based behavior challenges.

      • Marc Luce on

        We are in the greater Charlotte, NC area. Our dog is funny about the treats – he will take them out of our hand and put them on one of his beds (he has one on each floor of our house) and then eat them later. He really doesn’t have any negative behaviors, so correcting him isn’t an issue. We are most concerned that he doesn’t respond to his name and come to us. If we could get him to the point that we are reasonably confident that he won’t run away from us – even if he doesn’t come when called – we would feel a lot better about his safety. We can’t give him positive reinforcement, because the attention is perceived as a threat and he just rolls onto his back and “gives up.” In a lot of ways, we are in a far simpler position than most of the posts on your web site, so maybe all it requires is more patience on our part. We rescued him Jan 23rd, so it may be us and not him. We look forward to using this website to help Rugby (our boy) become his best self.

  12. fearfuldogs on

    Playing games like treat tossing, even if he doesn’t eat them, name game, and targeting games help with recalls. Try using something the dog only has to lick, like baby food, peanut butter, cream cheese, canned cheese spread, etc. The quality of treats matter! Experiment with different ‘real’ food treats, cheese, boiled chicken, dried liver.

    • Heather on

      Don’t lose hope Marc. If u r thinking “gosh, this all us” remind yourselves that u r the reason he’s getting a loving family trying to understand and decode the world.

      My foster boy, who came out of a puppy mill, just didn’t have enough experiences to cope socially in the “human world.” He’s been with me about 8 months now. He has many positives: managing door ways, walking on a leash, friendly with other dogs, will play with a select group of toys; however, that can change. If I forget and move too quick, he shrinks away. He will come to get a treat, but will carry it away and eat that high value item away from me. An ordinary treat, he will eat right there. at first, i dropped some various treats around my feet and sat VERY still.

      when he and I first met, I had to be very careful about my eye contact. The slightest glance could have him shut down. Not just give a submissive roll over, but he’d tune out and just collapse on the ground. we actually played peek a boo in the yard, starting at a distance and a 1 second glance in his direction. He was more comfortable outside than in. Over a few months, I glanced longer, then more directly and started to move closer. it took time and small steps.

      last night, for the first time, he crawled up on the couch near me. after a few minutes, he let me pet him-slow, low pressure. i wanted to take a victory lap around the living room!!! he even ignored my dog who thought he had stolen her seat!!! ok, now i wanted 2 victory laps. he stayed with me on the couch much longer than i imagined he would. he even stretched a bit-showing just how comfy he was. u will have these moments that remind you why.

      u r right, it is healing at his pace. i have learned how hard it is not to be in control, especially when i care so much.

  13. Patty on

    Marc, if I’m doing the math right, you’ve only had Rugby for a couple of weeks. It takes time. I read on another website that fearful dogs sometimes have been lured with food by their owners (especially in “mills”) in order to be grabbed out of a cage or otherwise mishandled. I don’t know why this never occurred to me, but it helped me to see food from Connie’s perspective. “A hand offering food might hurt me, so I can’t trust it!” When she came to us, she wouldn’t eat at all, except in the night when we were all asleep. She gradually started to eat if we left the room or moved away, always looking over her shoulder. After 3 months, she eats pretty well, but there are still days when her demons won’t let her eat at all. I tried lots of different treats at first – peanut butter, cheese, chicken, all the things my other dog would have knocked me over for. Connie couldn’t risk it. Until one night I had grilled some steaks – Bingo! Those bits of steak seemed to break the barrier, and we moved on to other treats (since I don’t always have freshly grilled steak around) and I was able to start clicker training with cheese. But she still is wary with my husband offering her treats, and she is working on that relationship. She just started to be able to be in a room with him! It’s hard sometimes to let go of the images you had of a dog, running and playing in your yard (mine wants to come in after 10 minutes), taking a long walk with you (won’t go more than half a block from the house) curling up on your bed (won’t go upstairs), but as you work together, you will love the doge you have. And if he doesn’t jump on people as they come in the door, or bark his head off at the mailman or chew up your couch, well that’s not so bad either.

  14. R Talley on

    Any tips on getting a fearful dog outdoors? He is 1 year old, timid and submissive and was with foster’s from 2 weeks old until a week ago. I have to force him outdoors to potty. He was raised outdoors and had never been inside a house until a week ago.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Off the top I’d say you have a dog who is overwhelmed and terrified being inside. A bit surprised he’s not racing to get outside and then not go in again. But if he’s way over threshold it might be hard form him to do anything. I’d suggest you join the shyk9s group, there’s a link on for the group. Lots of folks besides me will be able to give you tips to help your dog. Finding a local trainer with experience working with fearful dogs using reward based methods would be helpful. You should get your head around triggers, thresholds, counter conditioning and desensitization.

  15. michelle carello on

    I know how you feel!!!!!! Kudos for your patience. 🙂

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