The Bad News About Fearful Dogs

drawing 3 children 2 covering eyes 1 covering mouthI am contacted regularly by people who have found themselves living with a fearful dog and looking for help. They are to a person, kind, compassionate, caring folks looking for answers. And I have them. But I routinely have to tell people things they do not want to hear.

When I mention that veterinarians and vet behaviorists can prescribe medications to help dogs who are anxious, something I do early in the conversation, some people are clearly upset. They paid me for information to help their dogs and I’m suggesting they consider putting the dog on drugs and they do not want to put their dog on drugs (few of us do and I am not saying they should, only making them aware of the option). Others will be relieved to find out there is something they can do tomorrow that could relieve their dog’s anxiety, the chronic startling or hyper vigilance, or the frozen immobility. They will be disappointed when I point out that though medications can be exactly what the doctor ordered for our dogs, there will still be training involved, and medications may need to be changed or dosages adjusted. There will be more effort required to get their dog to a happier place.

What worries me the most is that I know there are trainers who will tell people exactly what they want to hear. They will tell owners that they can fix their dog. What many owners don’t understand is that the way these trainers get rapid behavior change is because they are willing to do things to the dog that the dog doesn’t like. They will use pain, force or intimidation to get the dog to behave differently, and there’s nothing like pain, force, or threats of it, to get an animal to change its behavior. Sometimes it’s easy to identify that a trainer is scaring a dog. Trainers do not lack excuses for why this is required.

There are other trainers who will also use things that a dog doesn’t like or want to have happen to change their behavior but they either are sneakier in their explanations regarding how they are getting the dog to behave differently, more subtle in their use of coercion, or they don’t understand it themselves. They will label what they do with terms like; balanced, natural, functional, intuitive. They will talk about packs or how dogs get other dogs to change their behavior. They’ll call what they do adjusting, pushing or correcting.

That is the bad news about fearful dogs. The good news is that what I, and other trainers who understand how fear impacts behavior and how we can humanely and efficiently change it, have to say is exactly what owners need to hear.

-Keep your dog feeling safe. Do this however you need to. Talk to a vet or vet behaviorist about how you could best relieve your dog’s suffering.

-Make whatever you want the dog to feel good about become a reliable predictor of food or play.

-Find a trainer who knows how to train using lots of rewards to help your dog learn new skills that will help them feel more comfortable in the world they have to live in.

Look for educational seminars in your area about fearful dogs.


36 comments so far

  1. Jim Crosby on

    Love this Debbie. Works right along with my piece this week. Jim

  2. Lynn on

    My vet would not prescribe medication. His experience was that the meds took the fearful ‘edge’ off the dog just enough for them to be fear aggressive. I’ve about reached the end with my fearful dog. He’s old, has cataracts, he’s a little stiff in the joints and the fears just keep adding up. Now I can’t open the fridge without him skittering away because ONCE something fell out onto the floor. I feel sad, guilty, impatient, angry at whoever made this dog this way, I’ve done this for six years and am not sure how much more I, or my poor dog, can take.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Among the reasons we use medications is to lower inhibition in dogs. A dog who is too afraid to start experimenting with behavior can’t be reinforced for doing something and so we can’t use positive reinforcement to train them. When a dog who wasn’t biting because they were too inhibited to bite, starts to bite when they are on meds it is likely because they are still being put into situations in which they are afraid and med use is suppose to be done in conjunction with behavior modification. I would suggest that you speak with a vet behaviorist. You can, through consult with one on the phone. You will then need to find a local vet who will write prescriptions for the dog, if your current vet still insists, despite the advice of VB (should that end up being the case) not to do it. You would also need to have a behavior modification plan in place. They all should include that the dog is not routinely exposed to objects or events that scare them, especially early on when they are adjusting to the meds.

    • Nancy on

      Maybe you did it by not understanding your dog. Just a thought. People are always looking for ‘someone’ else to blame for their dogs behaviors but are rarely willing to admit that it may be their own anxieties, fears, behaviors that cause a dog to become the way they are.

      • fearfuldogs on

        It is the case that our behavior can impact a dog’s but blaming an owner’s own fears, insecurities and anxieties does not explain why so many confident people have dogs who struggle with fear or those with anxiety can have dogs who behave without any fearfulness.

      • example58943 on

        That seemed unnecessarily harsh, especially when you don’t even know a person or their dog or their situation.

      • Pattie O'Donnell on

        Many of us are rescuers who have no idea how the dog became so fearful, and had nothing to do with the dog becoming fearful

      • fearfuldogs on

        True. And I often remind those folks who have adopted a dog that if the dog was going to be like a dog who wasn’t fearful, they likely would have seen it already, since they are wonderful people and a dog is lucky to live with them.

      • example58943 on

        You know Nancy, your comment was just mean and unnecessary. Did you think that was going to help anything? This person is obviously already hurting. Find something constructive to do with your brain. In the meantime, just shut up.

    • tracey godfrey on

      It might just be the way he is…I have a dog whom I caught being born and has had nothing but love all his experiences that I would call scary yet he is reactive because he is afraid of other dogs..he’s a big scardy cat and new fears pop up all the time…his new one now is riding in the car which he’s been doing almost everyday for 51/2 years…silly bugger !!

      • fearfuldogs on

        Yes. Sometimes we get the extreme end of the variation possibilities.

  3. Animal Sense on

    great as always!

  4. example58943 on

    The best and most progress I made with my fearful dog was, and still is, through play. Incredibly, none of the trainers I hired would try it, no matter how many times I told them about it.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Yes, play is a great reinforcer for many dogs. And if we want to use it, the dog has to feel safe enough to play. Once they feel safe enough to play we’re ready to roll.

  5. Jeanne Clune on

    Thank you Debbie. I get the excuse, the dog will not take food. Well then you don’t have them at a safe enough distance to be under threshold do you? Ugh!!!! The concept of space is so simple in CC…baby steps…everyone is in such a hurry.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Yes. Eating food I hand or toss to you is frequently one of the first behaviors I have to teach a dog to do. And it’s trained like any other behavior. Set the dog up so they can do it, find a way to get the behavior, and then reinforce it and build it.

  6. Paula Parsons on

    I adopted a fearful dog 3 yes ago through some medication and lots of love she is a great dog she is still a little fearful of a few things but so much better than she was

    • fearfuldogs on

      Progress is often always an option. Glad your dog is doing better.

  7. Bob Ryder on

    This is as good a post as you’ve ever shared. Well done, and THANKS! Bob

  8. Arnold's Dad on

    And the good news about fearful dogs. They will make you more optimistic, less angry, able to slow down and appreciate life more, and give you the blessing of being able to celebrate all the wonderful small steps as you see them grow confident, and loving. That day when a fearful dog comes to you for a cuddle for the first time. That day when they see something scary and look into your eyes for comfort. Those days make is all worthwhile and more…

    • fearfuldogs on

      That first wag and smile is very rewarding.

  9. Lynn on

    Our vet, like the other Lynn’s vet, also recommended avoiding meds, but lately I’ve been giving our anxious dog hemp extract drops, formulated for pets, to help her relax more in the house. It’s legal, and has no psychoactive effects, so she doesn’t get high or dippy, and although it’s not magic, it does seem to take the edge off. We reinforce with chicken or other yummy treats when she comes into a room she usually avoids.

    By the way, I’d love an update on Sonny. My Tulip’s history and progress are much like his. I’m curious if he’s mellowing with age …

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for asking about Sunny. After consulting with a vet behaviorist we have switched his meds and the difference is great. He has started doing things that he never did before, hanging out on the bed while my husband pet him, stuff like that. He’s still a dog who didn’t get the exposure he needed when he was a pup, and I know hindsight is 20/20 but I wish I’d started working with a VB sooner. None of the meds he’s been on have made him loopy or dippy, they only seemed to make it easier for him to try new behaviors. This latest has been the best so far.

      • Lynn on

        Would you mind telling me what Sunny’s new medication is? Is it stronger than Fluoxetine?

      • fearfuldogs on

        Sunny has been on a variety of different medications. It’s not a question of one being “stronger” than another, but that different meds impact different systems in their brain and body. It can take some experimentation with medications and dosages in order to find what is appropriate for an individual dog. There is a list (not necessarily complete) of medications that vets might use to address chronic or acute episodes of fear and anxiety in dogs on my website. Vets have resources to find out what is available.

  10. Paula Dahlstedt on

    Hello Debbie,
    I have a 13 pound rat terrier. I adopted him when he was one and a half years old from my local humane society. He is going to be five years old soon. I had never had a fearful dog before, so I had no idea what was going on when he growled at me the first time. Well, from then on many other things surfaced. He is afraid of other dogs, cats, people on walks, cars that drive by, and is very upset in his crate when we go out in the car. He barks at people on walks and growls also, same for other dogs he sees. The last time I took him on a walk he was dry heaving and pulling on his leash. I have not taken him out for a walk lately since then. He seems happy in our backyard, just running around there and playing. I keep him busy inside and out and I feel it’s best for him NOT to go on a walk. I also give him an all natural calming chew daily.
    At times he still growls at me if I go to pet him or move my hand near his face. The last time this happened was two months ago. I was feeling really good that two months had passed with no growls, and then suddenly a few days ago when I went to scratch his belly, which I have done many times before and he was fine, he growled and snarled at me. I love him so much and I feel like I am doing something wrong in his progress. How should I handle when out of the blue he growls at me? He is so loving with me most of the time. Always wants to cuddle, and be on my lap always. Then out of the blue something is triggered and he snarles and growls at me. Please if anyone has any advice or comforting words, I would greatly appreciate it. Sorry this is so long but it’s nice to know there is help out there from others going through the same thing.
    Paula and my boy Luke.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Whenever we see sudden changes in our dogs we should speak to a vet about them. If a dog has always had some body handling issues that can be treated with a training plan. Whenever aggression is involved it’s best not to rely on tips and suggestions. If you were interested in setting up a time for a phone or Skype consult I’m happy to do that. Or you can look for a trainer in your area who has an understanding of fear based behavior and will not use punishments to help the dog learn new responses.

    • example58943 on

      Aww, you sound so upset. Your little one sounds a lot like mine, afraid of so many things and certainly doesn’t like a hand near near his face. Mine will actually lie on his back, on my lap, and growl if I touch him! I don’t think YOU are doing anything wrong. It’s about where HE came from. Mine was a rescue but I found out he was taken away from his litter at only 4 weeks, which means he missed a lot of very important learning and socialization. I’ve never been able to get him beyond the growling and biting, but I have learned to recognize his triggers and know when to back off. Often, the growling seems to be the only way he knows how to tell me that he doesn’t want to be touched just then. My other dog will just move away. Don’t be discouraged though. He might not ever be the perfectly social dog that we all dream of, but I’m sure that, like mine, there are so many other things about him to love.

  11. Paula on

    Thank you so much Debbie and example58943. Your responses mean a lot to me. Debbie, I will look for a trainer with an understanding of fear based behavior. I have no idea what Luke’s background was but he has many, many fears as you saw in my original post. Example58943 thank you for the kind words. As everyone knows who posts here, we love our pets so very much and will do everything we can to help them. I do know most of Luke’s triggers but once in awhile a new one pops up. I would not change any of this and often think to myself, I am happy I am the one who adopted him, because someone else might not of understood his behavior.
    Debbie, thank you so much for all that you do. It helps so many of us with our questions and concerns.
    Paula and my little boy Luke

    • example58943 on

      My Clancy was in the Mahattan ACC on the kill list because of his issues. They would only adopt him out to someone with no kids and a lot of dog experience. Well, there I was, the perfect match, one week after he had entered the shelter. Some things are just meant to be, and it sounds that way with you and Luke too. We wouldn’t have it any other way, right? By the way, my name is Kathy. Lol, disregard that whole “example” thing!

      • Paula on

        Kathy, yes I do believe some things are meant to be! Clancy is very lucky to be in such a loving environment like yours. I am also grateful for Debbie’s site and this blog.

  12. Char on

    My dog never had fear until he was in a bad car accident, i was avoiding hitting a cat on the road and my car flipped over three times went airborne and landed upside down. Thank god I had his kennel strapped into the seatbelt or he wouldn’t have survived. He is now afraid of everything even certain smells. We had to disassemble our smoke detetors because it went off once when we were making dinner and now hes terrified when he smells us cooking and he no longer comes into the kitchen. His lifesaving medication is alprazolam. He takes 0.25 mg and does fabulous on it. He is older 12 years has back problems from the accident and it helps that too. Hes usually a very picky eater but with this medication he eats now. Ive not noticed any bad side affects from it so we found our answer..

    • fearfuldogs on

      It is often the case that if we can get anxiety reducing meds onboard asap after a traumatic event the dog may recover more quickly. Good for you for looking for ways to help your dog. The accident sounds terrifying.

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