How to Train Your Dog to Stop Being Fearful

Hard
1-12 Months
Behavior

Introduction

Your rescue dog has a bizarre habit. Whenever he sees an umbrella, he starts to cower. The closer you draw to a person holding an umbrella, the more the dog's body language changes. He holds his head low to the ground, his tail clamps between his back legs, and he starts to shake. 

Once, when you walked past a woman with an umbrella, and she reached down to stroke the dog, you saw his lip curl in a snarl. This alarmed you greatly, and so now whenever you see someone carrying an umbrella you tighten the leash, haul the dog towards you, and drag him away. 

Indeed, things seem to be getting worse rather than better, and taking him for walks in the rain is impossible. A friend suggested putting an umbrella in the dog's bed so that he learns there's nothing to worry about, but this doesn't feel right to you. But this still leaves the question of how to handle his growing fear. 

Defining Tasks

Teaching a dog to stop being fearful can only be done by building his self-confidence. This means changing how his mind responds in certain situations and turning negative associations into positive ones. To do this requires great patience and a series of controlled exposures to the feared event or object, but at sufficient distance that the dog doesn't feel anxious. You then reward his brave behavior, and gradually step a little closer, but stopping before the dog's fear is aroused. 

In addition, it's important to avoid actions that will make matters worse. This means never forcing the dog to face up to his fears, but counterintuitively it also means never soothing or petting the dog in a fearful situation. 

Getting Started

Socialization is a vital part of a puppy growing up into a well-adjusted and confident adult dog. Young puppies under the age of 18 weeks of age are most open to accepting novel situations, but once this time has passed they become more closed minded. Know that adult dogs can be tough to retrain, but with knowledge, patience, and understanding you can bring things under control. 

You will need: 

  •  Training treats
  • A treat pouch to wear on your belt
  • A collar and leash
  • A soft muzzle for potential fear biters
  • A stooge item or person with which to make the dog familiar
  • Plenty of time, patience, and understanding

The Desensitize the Dog Method

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Step
1
Understand the idea
A fearful dog jumps to conclusions when they see something (say an umbrella) that they are frightened of. He immediately assumes the umbrella is dangerous and becomes fearful. Desensitization is a slow process whereby the dog is taught to make new assumptions about the umbrella and link it to good things happening rather than bad.
Step
2
Find the dog's 'safe distance' from the object
Let's work with the idea the dog is frightened of umbrellas. However, there is a distance at which the umbrella is sufficiently far away that the dog sees it but without reacting fearfully. The first step is to work out where this is. If it's across a room, say 15 feet away, then have the dog sit, praise him, and give him a treat for seeing the umbrella but being so brave.
Step
3
Take a step closer
With the dog's attention on you (perhaps with the aid of a treat), take a step closer to the umbrella. Just one step, nothing too adventurous. If the dog is still ignoring the umbrella and remaining calm, fuss and reward him. This is his new 'safe' distance from the feared object.
Step
4
Move closer still
Judge how your dog is coping. If he's just fine, then take another step closer. Keep rewarding him for being brave. Be vigilant for the dog's body language and as soon as he starts to show signs of distress or discomfort (such as cowering, lip licking, yawning, tail tucking, or lowering the head), then distract the dog and walk away from the umbrella. Start your next session at the previous safe distance and slowly step closer.
Step
5
Scatter treats around the feared object
It's also helpful to make the object more inviting, by scattering tasty treats around it. Once the dog plucks up the courage to step close enough to see and smell the treats, the object takes on a new interest over and above it being scary. Take things slowly and in gradual steps. Most fearful behavior is deeply ingrained and so it will take a considerable amount of time to unlearn these old associations.
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The Distract the Dog Method

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Step
1
Understand the idea
By giving the dog something else to think about, this helps distract him from the situation he is fearful about. A good example is the dog who is fearful in the waiting room at the vet clinic. This is the ideal situation in which to distract the dog with some basic obedience exercises such as 'sit', 'down', and 'stay'. This has the dog focusing on you, rather than anything that's about to happen with the vet, plus it sends out a powerful message that you are in control - which in a scary situation is comforting for the dog.
Step
2
Carry a distraction with you
If you know your dog is fearful of large hairy dogs, then it's helpful to plan what you'll do when you meet one on a walk. Instead of pulling your dog away (which reinforces the idea there's something to be concerned about), keep a squeaky toy in your pocket and use it as a distraction. Pull the toy out and squeak it vigorously. Once you have the dog's attention, praise him, and in a bright happy voice have him walk to heel as you walk in a different direction to the perceived threat. This avoids reinforcing the fear and dodges the sticky situation.
Step
3
Teach the 'look' command
Train the dog to look at you and you can stop him looking at the object he's fearful over and keep his attention while it passes. Teaching 'look' is simple. Hold a tasty treat near the dog's nose to get his attention. Stand tall and travel the treat from the dog's nose to a place between your eyes. As the dog's gaze follows the treat say "look" in a firm but happy voice. Practice this at home, and then out on walks. The idea is to have the dog look at your eyes on cue, in order to receive a treat. With enough training, the dog will 'look' on command, regardless of whether you are holding a treat or not.
Step
4
Work on basic obedience
Spend 5 - 10 minutes, twice a day working on basic commands such as 'sit', stay', and 'down'. This gets the dog in the habit of paying attention to you, and can be used in situations where the dog might otherwise focus on something he fears. This gives you long enough to distract the dog and walk away from the situation. By building up the number of times the dog encounters a fearful situation but it is dealt with calmly, he will gradually become more confident.
Step
5
Work on more advanced commands
Teaching a rock solid recall is a great way for keeping control. Fearful dogs are prone to bolting and running out of control, whereas when you work on a solid recall, you can bring the dog back to your side and out of danger.
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The What NOT to Do Method

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Step
1
Never force a dog to face his fears
An out-dated technique called 'flooding' should be avoided at all costs. This is when a dog is forced to directly face the feared object or situation, in order to prove to him that it's safe. Superficially this may appear to work, but only because the dog is frozen with fear. In reality, the dog is mentally traumatized and his fear is heightened rather than alleviated.
Step
2
Never shout at or punish a fearful dog
A dog that behaves badly in a situation he's frightened of is likely trying to escape and in a distressed frame of mind. If you shout, smack, or punish him, this only adds to his anxiety and makes the situation worse. Instead, try to distract him, or keep him restrained on a leash while you withdraw from the situation.
Step
3
Do NOT reassure a fearful dog
It is a natural human reaction to empathize with the dog's fear and soothe him with soft words and stroke him. Unfortunately, this rewards the dog for feeling fearful, and in effect trains him to be anxious. Indeed, in the dog's mind your 'praise' verifies that he is right to be afraid, which again makes things worse. Instead, it is best to act normally, so the dog picks up from your body language that there's nothing to be fearful of.
Step
4
Do NOT tense up in anticipation
When you know your dog is fearful of large hairy hounds and you see one approaching across the park, a natural reaction is to tighten the leash and pull your dog towards you. However, this is counterproductive as your anxiety transmits itself down the lead and the dog believes once again he is right to be afraid. Instead, step out briskly in a wide arc around the hairy dog, avoiding a head-on confrontation.
Step
5
Do NOT risk a fearful dog biting
Many aggressive dogs are actually fearful, and they attack as their only means of avoiding a fearful situation. While retraining your dog, don't take any risks. If necessary, for your safety and that of the general public, muzzle the dog when in public places.
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Written by Pippa Elliott

Published: 11/13/2017, edited: 01/08/2021

Success Stories and Training Questions

Training Questions and Answers

Question
Poki
Prague Ratter
8 Years
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Poki
Prague Ratter
8 Years

Poki gets tensed up and starts barking vigorously when she sees another dog when walking on the street. I just moved to the city center, so we encounter a lot of dogs on the streets

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
946 Dog owners recommended

Hello Sam, There are a few reasons for a dog barking at other dogs on a walk. Pup may be nervous and fearful, in which case the underlying lack of confidence and fearful association with other dogs also needs to be addressed. This is generally done using counter conditioning. Check out the video I have linked below for how to do that. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JY7JrteQBOQ Another reason for the barking is pup becoming overly aroused, which is generally addressed with structured obedience to help pup learn self-control and to condition a calmer response, and respect building for you. Check out the following resources for commands and structure to work on with pup. Thresholds: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-w28C2g68M Heel article - The turns method: https://wagwalking.com/training/train-a-poodle-to-heel Heel Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OTiKVc4ZZWo Reactive dog - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XY8s_MlqDNE Severely aggressive dog – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vfiDe0GNnLQ&t=259s A third reason why pup may be barking would simply be that pup find the act of barking itself fun. Barking is a self-rewarding behavior due the chemicals released in a dog's brain while they bark, that can make the dog feel a certain way and feed into even more barking. When pup is barking for the fun of barking and getting aroused, I recommend interrupting the barking, while rewarding quiet instead. First, you need a way to communicate with him so I suggest teaching the Quiet command from the Quiet method in the article I have linked below - don't expect this alone to work but it will be part of the puzzle for what I will suggest next. Regardless of which reason pup is barking, I would actually teach pup Quiet in general, simply to increase the communication between you and pup. https://wagwalking.com/training/train-a-shih-tzu-puppy-to-not-bark Next, once pup understands what Quiet means you will choose an interrupter - neither too harsh nor ineffective. A Pet Convincer is one example of an interrupter. A pet convincer is a small canister of pressurized, unscented air that you can spray a quick puff of at the dog's side to surprise them enough to help them calm back down. (Don't use citronella and avoid spraying in the face!). In situations where you know pup will bark or is already barking (catch them before they bark if you can), command "Quiet". If they obey, reward with a treat and very calm praise. If they bark anyway or continue to bark, say "Ah Ah" firmly but calmly and give a brief correction. Repeat the correction each time they bark until you get a brief pause in the barking. When they pause, praise and reward then. The combination of communication, correction, and rewarding - with the "Ah Ah" and praise to mark their good and bad behavior with the right timing, is very important. Once pup is calmer in general after the initial training, practice exposing him a lot to the things that trigger the barking normally (make a list - even if it's long). Whenever he DOESN'T bark around something that he normally would have, calmly praise and reward him to continue the desensitization process. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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Sophie
Boxer pitbull
10 Weeks
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Sophie
Boxer pitbull
10 Weeks

Sophie, always has her tail in between her legs. will not ever come out from under the bed, and if she does she comes out slowly shaking with tail tucked. even if her tail is wagging it’s still in between her legs. while we pet her, it’s still tucked too. also, when taking her outside to go potty, she has a hard time, bc she’s too busy looking around and gets jumpy when a car drives by a plane flys over us a person walks by or someone and their dog kids running by, literally everything and anything puts this puppy in fear. we do not want a fearful puppy/dog we want to fix this, our little kitten loves her but our one year old cat hisses and growls at the puppy. finally, it’s been now 2 weeks of having her. please, any advice for us? thank you, appreciate it!

Alisha Smith
Alisha S., Dog Trainer
241 Dog owners recommended

Hi there! I am going to give you some tips that will build her overall confidence. It is likely her behaviors will start to resolve themselves over the next few months. So patience is key! There are several methods you can use to improve your submissive dog´s confidence. 1. Work on obedience training. Daily obedience work, even when it is only for a short time, provides submissive dogs with a lot of confidence. Family members are proud of dogs that perform on command and dogs pick up on this feeling. If the obedience training is harsh, though, a submissive dog will just get worse. Find a positive reinforcement and reward-based training class in your area. If the trainer works with a discipline-based system, it is not appropriate for a submissive dog. 2. Socialize your dog as much as possible to make them adaptable. The sensitive socialization period for your dog ended when she was a puppy, about 15 weeks of age, but she can still be socialized as an older dog, it is just going to take a lot more work. To socialize your dog, take her out as much as possible, let her meet new people, let her meet your friends dogs (if they are friendly with other dogs), and let her run free at the dog park so that she will meet new dogs. (Some dogs will be too nervous to play at the dog park so this phase may only come later.) 3. Give your dog a job or get her involved in a canine sport. Most dogs are not able to "work", however, so in order to give them an activity to build their confidence, it is a good idea to get them involved in one of the canine sports. Flyball, agility, Frisbee, dock diving, and other activities may be available in your area. 4. Use counter-conditioning techniques to help her overcome fear. This is the best but also the hardest (for you!) of the methods available to treat a submissive dog. For each thing that your dog is afraid of, you have to train her to have a pleasant feeling. When a dog is no longer afraid of the situation, he is confident and no longer going to be submissive. If you decide to try to build her confidence through counter-conditioning, the first thing you have to identify is the trigger. What is stimulating your dog to be so submissive? If she is only afraid of one thing it is easier to train her; unfortunately, most submissive dogs are afraid of almost everything. Spend some time with your dog to become familiar with her fears. The next step is to teach him that the scary thing is actually a good thing. When she is exposed to the scary object, give her a tasty treat and let her relax around the object without any pressure. The final step in counter-conditioning your dog to face her fears is to expose her and not provide a treat or even notice that he is being exposed. If you need more help on using counter-conditioning, the animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell has a book that I have found to be useful. The techniques are great and will help your dog develop confidence but as with most behavior modification, takes patience and persistence. Please let me know if you have additional questions. Thanks for writing in!

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Jasper
Golden Retriever
1 Year
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Jasper
Golden Retriever
1 Year

I just got Jasper a month ago, and he is a very anxious dog who is afraid of the outside. He has become very stubborn on the leash and it is now impossible to take him outside of my apartment. We’ve had to get a grass patch for our patio but he is currently opting to pee inside instead. So there is a combination of issues going on right now. He is unfamiliar and fearful of outside (cars, strangers, loud noises, the sun, wind), he realizes now the leash is the primary way we get him outside so he has developed a very stubborn behavior on the leash where he refuses to move. Then the last problem is he is reluctant to use the patio grass patch because he is still too afraid of the outdoors.

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
946 Dog owners recommended

Hello Michelle, For the outside fear, I would start by simply spending time sitting with pup outside for 45 minutes to 1.5 hours at a time. Take a book, find a calm spot and simply hang out. Whenever pup displays any curiosity, calmness, or focus on you reward with a treat. Pup will probably be too nervous to eat at first but after he relaxes as things get more familiar while you do this overtime pup should become more interested in food again. When pup is relaxed enough to be a little interested in play or food again, you can practice training games, hide treats for pup to search on on leash (make sure the area is pesticide and car fluid free), and simply reward pup with a treat whenever something new to him or something that makes him unsure passes by or gets his attention, before pup has a chance to act really fearful. Most dogs will have a couple seconds where they are trying to decide if they should run or act scared, reward before pup decides to be afraid by acting excited and lavishing treats to help pup decide that the thing is fine. When pup is fine in the first calm location, take the outings to other nearby areas to slowly get pup used to lots of areas without pup having to make the constant transitions and new encounters involved with a walk. Once pup is used to your entire area, then try walking around the area, rewarding good responses and staying with you. Keep these walks very short and successful at first. As far as potty training, I would crate train pup to stop the accidents, especially if you ever need to leave the house. With pup crate trained I would either have pup in the crate or tethered to you with a leash at all times right now. You have a couple of options with the grass pad. You can either temporarily set up the grass in a room of your home that can be closed off to pup later, like a guest bathroom, walk in pantry type closet, ect...and train pup to use the bathroom there while you are getting pup used to being outside, then switch pup to going outside using the crate also. Check out the Crate training method and Tethering method from the article I have linked below. Since pup is older you can add 1.5 hours to all the times listen in that method for puppies. Crate Training method and tethering method: https://wagwalking.com/training/train-a-german-shepherd-puppy-to-poop-outside A second option is to crate pup more strictly and take them to the balcony to go potty, returning them to the crate if they don't go, rewarding with treats if they do go, and only giving freedom in your home for the first 2 hours after they go potty on the balcony, so they don't have the ability to have accidents inside to avoid going potty outside. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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Mia
Belgian Malinois
2 Years
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Mia
Belgian Malinois
2 Years

Hi,I recently adopted Mia from a abusive home. Had her checked out by the vet and they can not find anything wrong. Every time she approaches vehicles or people she doesn't know her body and hind legs start shaking. How can I resolve this as she will be used for K9?

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
946 Dog owners recommended

Hello Rodrigo, First, I would consider hiring a professional trainer who specializes in behavior issues like fear and trauma, and knows how to counter condition and desensitize, and works with a team of trainers so that you have access to others who can practice being strangers around pup. Using your own car, I would start by simply feeding pup where they can see your car but still seems relaxed. As pup improves, slowly move the food closer to the car overtime, until the food can be fed beside the car while its off and pup will eat it, then feeding treats along the runner with the door open, then inside the car with it still. For at least a couple of weeks practice the Down Stay command on the middle seats' floorboard or seats (if a row seat). Gradually move to practicing with the car in the driveway but still while on - don't turn on in the garage for gas breathing reasons. When pup is completely relaxed in the car and can do a solid down-stay, recruit a second person to drive or train, so the driver can only focus on driving. Have the person training enforce Down, while the driver simply pulls out of the driveway and back in When pup can stay relaxed during that (which will require a lot of repetition before pup relaxes then too - once pup sees that the driving is boring through repetition), then drive down the block and back. Gradually increase the distance and level of excitement as pup improves, only moving onto further distances or more exciting locations once pup can stay relaxed at the current level of training. Once pup is used to your car, practice with other's cars - see if neighbors will let you feed pup in their driveway as you each pup toward their cars until pup is comfortable with eating off of those car's runners, then repeat with a new car. While on a walk, practice things like Watch Me and rewarding pup repeatedly while a car passes by and pup stays engaged with you and ignoring the car, keep the distance between pup and the car far enough away that pup can stay relaxed, then decrease that distance overtime as pup gains confidence around cars. Recruit friends and family pup doesn't know to walk past them while on leash. Watch pup's body language and have the person stay far enough away that pup stays relaxed. As the person passes pup and pup is reacting well (don't reward while aggressive or acting fearful), then have the person toss several treats gently toward pup's paws and continue walking. Have lots of different people do this in lots of different place - without approaching pup after. You want pup to begin to associate the people with something fun happening and take the pressure of petting away at first before pup is ready for that part. As pup improves, have the people gradually decrease the distance between them and pup. Once pup can handle people walking right by and dropping treats, practice the protocol from the video linked below, keeping pup's leash short enough that if pup were to lunge while practicing this, they won't be able to get to someone to bite. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KIJoEJfTS-E Finally, during all of this, practice desensitizing pup to handling and touch using their food. As often as you can, feed pup their meals one piece at a time. Gently touch pup in an area while feeding a piece of food. Touch their should - feed a piece. Touch their back - feed a piece. Touch an ear - feed a piece. Touch their collar - feed a piece. Touch their paw - feed a piece. Touch their belly - feed a piece. ect... Do it gently and start with areas pup is most comfortable and work up to the other areas as pup improves. When pup enjoys your touches, add in other people pup knows touching, like family members. When pup can handle that add in gentle strangers once pup has completed the other training and is more comfortable with strangers. Don't rush these things but do practice very often and with lots of different people. Watch pup's reaction and go at a pace where pup can stay relaxed - the goal isn't just for pup to act good but actually feel better about people - so pup staying relaxed and happy around people is what you want to reward, which will mean going at the pace or distance pup an handle. Always be aware of over-stressing pup and pup feeling the need to bite in defense. Progress at the rate pup can handle proactively often, so pup is challenged a bit to still learn, but not so stressed that pup won't take food and can't focus back on you or calm back down. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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Aysi
Husky
1 Year
0 found helpful
Question
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Aysi
Husky
1 Year

I just adopted a dog from the shelter. She used to live on the street and she is quite confident and relaxed with other dogs and people. However, she is terrified of loud moving objects such as cars, buses, trucks or even electric vehicles. I live near a big forest - grassy hill where I take my dog for a walk every day. Until today she loved these walks and she showed relaxed and confidant behaviour. After 14 days we managed to go across a busy street without much of a problem. However, today an electric gondola started to work on the mentioned hill and she is now afraid to walk up the hill. We managed only to go halfway but it seems like all the work we did went down the water. I don't know if I should go to other places now where we have to go thru more busy streets or I should just spent some days only in the garden, and slowly taking the steps up the hill with treats and rewards?

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
946 Dog owners recommended

Hello Usra, If you have other calm locations to walk I would walk there for a couple days, then go back to the garden and very gradually work up the hill with treats. Keep these sessions up beat, confident, and fun. Stopping before pup seems overly concerned, going back and forth in areas pup is comfortable, spending short amounts of time in the area pup is a little more tense in, to help pup rebuild confidence. A lot of exposure to the noises is very important, but you want those exposures to be paired with things pup is excited and happy about and far enough away at first that pup can manage a lower level of stress and choose to be there because they are enjoying the rest of the walk or training games and treats. With fear often a whole lot of exposures with shorter times and easing into more work better than fewer big exposures. Check out Kikopup's video channel on Youtube also. She has a lot of great videos on fear, reactivity, and counter conditioning (where you help a dog associate something they are fearful of with something good, so they overcome fear). Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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