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  • Writer's pictureChristine Bauhs, CPDT-KA

Tips For Dealing With A Fearful Dog

scared dog fearful dog

Owning a fearful dog can be very stressful and confusing for pet parents. It is not always clear how or why the dog became fearful, which can make treating the condition quite challenging. Fearfulness manifests in a number of ways in the canine world. Some dogs are more passive and their fear causes them to retreat, cower and avoid the things they are fearful of. Other dogs become defensive and their fear triggers what appears to be an aggressive response - barking, lunging, growling, air snapping and biting. In fact, canine aggression is more often than not the result of fearfulness, so if you have a fearful dog, it is really crucial that you address these issues head on. Here are some tips for working with a fearful dog.

1. Identify triggers. Before you begin any kind of treatment plan, you need to know exactly what is triggering a fear response in your dog. Be specific and thorough. What may seem like one individual trigger to you (i.e. the vacuum cleaner) may actually be a combination of several different triggers (the sound of the vacuum, the movement of the vacuum and the actual object itself). You will have a lot more success if you can break the trigger down into all of its elements and desensitize each one. It may seem like this would take more time, but often we can move through the steps more quickly if we get specific.

2. Go slowly. If your dog has fear issues, do not expect a quick fix. Gradual systematic desensitization is by far the most effective and humane method of working through fear with a dog. Desensitization involves exposing the dog to the trigger gradually in a way that keeps the dog under his stress/fear threshold. By keeping the dog under threshold, we ensure that the dog never gets so worked up that he is unable to focus on us and on the training. Having the experience of being calm and focused in the presence of a fear trigger goes a long way in changing the dog's state of mind and modifying behavior. The other option would be a technique known as flooding, which entails exposing the dog to the fear stimuli full-force. Using this method is playing with fire - things could take a very bad turn and cause the dog even more stress, anxiety and fear. I would not advise using this method as it is far too risky and not in the dog's best interest.

3. Provide leadership. All dogs need effective leadership, but this is particularly crucial for fearful dogs. They need to know that someone is in control so that they don't take on that responsibility themselves. A dog from a home that lacks consistent leadership can easily become a bundle of nerves. Being an effective leader does not mean dominating your dog or have anything to do with the domination/submission dynamic. It means that you set clear boundaries for how you expect the dog to behave and you are consistent with your expectations. It means you understand how to communicate clearly with your dog and you take the time to teach your dog how to behave. It also means that in prickly situations, you practice good management skills to avoid putting your dog in to a situation where he feels uneasy. It means that you teach your dog to default to you for guidance when he is unsure of what to do. Ultimately, effective leadership should make the dog's life more predictable because he knows what is expected and he can count on his owner to handle uncomfortable situations.

4. Listen to your dog. The language of dogs is really quite amazing, but it takes a keenly observant person to speak it. Though dogs do communicate vocally, the majority of their communication comes from subtle changes in body language that convey the dog's emotional state. When a dog is stressed, they will exhibit stress signals for the purpose of either relieving some of their stress, or to appease a perceived threat. Some of these signals include:

  • Lip licking

  • Yawning

  • 'Whale Eye' - the dog's head is turned away from the perceived threat but the eyes are still focused on it, making the white of the eye visible

  • Piloerection - hair standing on end

  • Facial tension - could be a furrowed brow, tense jaw, tongue curved up at the edges

  • Sweaty paws

  • Clinging to owner

  • Low tail carriage

  • Shaking

  • Inability to focus

If you notice these behaviors in your dog, it is a signal that the dog is experiencing stress. Staying in tune with your dog's body language can give you great insights in terms of where your dog's stress threshold is when you are working through a desensitization protocol. It will also allow you to be more aware of your dog's emotional state as you go through every day life.

5. Be patient. Finally, it is necessary to be patient with your dog during this process. When asking our dogs to face their fears, we must be prepared to put in the time. Getting frustrated or impatient with your dog will only impede your progress. It helps to see this process as a learning experience for both the dog and for you. Together you will teach each other to be strong and remain calm. Go into this process as a team and share in the failures and the successes. There will surely be bumps a long the way, but if you are consistent and dedicated to your training goals, you can absolutely help your dog to overcome his fears.

Christine Fasan is the head trainer and canine behaviorist at K9 Holistics. She specializes in German Shepherd Dogs and healing reactivity in dogs of all breeds. K9 Holistics offers dog training and behavior modification in St. Petersburg and throughout Pinellas County and Tampa Bay. We also offer pet care services including dog walking and pet sitting. Please contact Christine at

#nervousdog #reactivity #socialization #communication #behavior #trainingprotocols #fearfuldog #desensitization

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