The 7 Habits of Successful Fearful Dogs

small black and white dog standing on cast iron pans

“Not sure why you want me to do this, but ok, whatever.”

On my book shelf is a CD by Wayne Dwyer on the power of intention. It’s an inspirational presentation. But as powerful as intentions are, given the right set of circumstances, habits will win out.

Recently I moved the app icons on my iPod around. I deleted a few and moved some off the main screen. In the process a couple of the ones I use regularly shifted their position. My finger moved to tap the icon for an app that was no longer in the lower left hand side of the screen, but to the right and up a row. I managed not to open the wrong app, and stopped my finger in time. My intention was to open an app, and my habit was to tap the lower left of the screen to do it. I still catch myself aiming for the old, now incorrect, location. Old habits are hard to break.

For up to a year after we moved from one house to another, about a mile down the road past the old house, I would on occasion discover that I was preparing to turn into the old driveway. One day I even made it up the driveway to the house before it dawned on me that I had made a mistake. It wasn’t that I was sleeping at the wheel, I’d not driven off the road into the river, so some part of my brain was doing its job. My intention had been to drive home, but an old habit kicked in.

We want to take advantage of the power of habits when we are working with our fearful dogs. If we can create behaviors that require little thought on the dog’s part, it will be easier for them to behave appropriately in scary situations. If we create those behaviors using positive reinforcement, performing those behaviors can include a positive emotional response at the same time- more bang for our buck.

Sitting and looking at me is a “trick” I’ve worked on with Sunny for years. He will plop his butt down and look at me with the slightest prompting on my part. When the pressure is on, he will do it. It’s become what we call a “default” behavior. If he’s not sure of what else to do, this is his fall-back behavior. I’ve rewarded him with food and praise, a lot, for doing it. It’s proven to be useful at the vet’s office and at the groomer’s. When we’re out and there are people around, he will do it and I can step in between him and the approaching monsters.

Consider helping your dog create the following habits:

  1. Look at you regularly for feedback
  2. Feel good when they hear their name
  3. Sit or lie down easily wherever they are
  4. Stay or wait when asked
  5. Come joyfully when called
  6. Play daily
  7. Become addicted to learning new tricks

12 comments so far

  1. Natasha on

    Excellent, succinct, and do-able! Because we can feel overwhelmed too, as you talk about in your book, and the urge to give up is strong!…, you did use drugs at the groomers for a while, right?

    • fearfuldogs on

      Definitely meds for the trip to groomer. It’s a stressful experience for him, but once it’s over, he shakes it off and moves on. Probably the best I can hope for!

  2. Lizzie on

    Gracie can and does do some of the above habits. The ones she cannot get to grips with are playing and tricks. She can problem solve up to a point providing I can keep her calm and within her comfort zone.

    I’ve had Gracie long enough now to know that her brain does not work in the same way as a normal well adjusted dog. I know this because she has, over the last four+ years lived with three other dogs all of whom were/are well adjusted.

    The latest addition to my dog family is another Lab who is three years old and again not had the best start in life. She was living with a family who cared little for her, allowed her to have a litter of pups when she was quite young, fed her a poor diet and neglected medical issues that she had including a broken canine tooth which must have been agony for her as it had snapped off midway and the pulp was exposed. I took her from them because they no longer wanted her. This was over six months ago. Needless to say she is now fit, well and thriving minus her upper right canine tooth of course.
    The reason I was looking for another Lab was because I had been told that Labs like to be around other Labs and it would help Gracie to learn how to react, play and generally become more ‘normalized’. Well I can say with some conviction that this simply isn’t the case where Gracie is concerned.
    The reason I mention my young dog, I named her Cookie BTW, is despite her rough and neglectful treatment she loves people, all other dogs and is the most playful Lab I’ve ever known. She is a superb role model for any under confident dog, but as far as Gracie is concerned she doesn’t exist.
    Cookie has on numerous occasions attempted to engage Gracie in play but she has no idea how to act around her.

    This brings me to my point, (finally you say) : Despite all my efforts with Gracie it would seem that she simply does not behave in the same way as other canines; some abnormality of birth or genetic defect maybe compounded by her puppy farm background has all played a part in how she is today.
    Stating the obvious you might say, but now here’s the thing; there are hundreds of dogs in the UK/USA kept for breeding in puppy farms, the vast majority who are rescued and adopted by families do adjust and go on to live happy lives in a domestic situation. What happened to Gracie in her former life that makes it impossible for her to move on from that?

    But don’t get me wrong, I love her to pieces, she is very affectionate towards me and seems totally at ease so long as she in her comfort zone.
    We have both worked hard to reach the point she is at today, but sadly I think it’s fair to say that a truly broken dog cannot always be mended.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Congratulations on your new dog. Give Gracie time to adjust to Cookie, you never know what can happen. You have given Gracie a good quality of life. They are all different and some like your Gracie and I suspect my Sunny could have become nasty, aggressive dogs were they to have ended up in the wrong place. We know this is the case for many dogs. There are many mill dogs who end being ok, but there are many who end up dead or stuck on a chain.

  3. Tegan on

    Thank-you for starting a conversation about habits! I am a firm believer that a lot of dog behaviour is driven mostly by habit, and ‘breaking’ (in a nice way!) habits can often cure a lot of behavioural problems.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I take a walk daily up into the woods along a trail that loops back down. My husband always asks me, “Which way did you go?” and I say the same thing, “The way I usually go.”

      Habits save energy since they require less energy than does thinking about what to do. I’m all for efficiency!

  4. Jude Gagner on

    Are you planning to put a lot of these blogs into a book? It would be a great handy resource.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      It’s funny you should ask Jude! I do in fact have a collection being edited right now. They will be compiled into a book called “Does My Dog Need Prozac?” I’d love to say it will be out in the spring.

      • Jude Gagner on

        I hope that it will be available in ebook form…

      • Debbie Jacobs on

        Most definitely!

        On Mon, Jan 21, 2013 at 9:52 PM, Fearfuldogs' Blog

  5. Sandy on

    I love your tips for helping your dog to think rather than react. Great examples about how we are so ruled by habits. Thanks for the article.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for joining the conversation Sandy and for your work in helping dogs.

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