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 Distract the Dog Method

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1 Vote
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.
Recommend training method?

The What NOT to Do Method

Effective
1 Vote
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.
Recommend training method?

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.
Recommend training method?

Success Stories and Training Questions

Training Questions and Answers

Question
Cash
Labrador Retriever
9 Years
1 found helpful
Question
1 found helpful
Cash
Labrador Retriever
9 Years

We’ve had Cash since he was 6 weeks old. He has recently developed a fear in assuming is shiny floors. He gets to the doorway and stops. The flooring goes from carpet to vinyl wood, he also has problems with tile floor and once he gets up the nerve to walk across it he runs which causes him to not have good traction. His nails are not long. He also turns himself around in doorways and walks backwards. The other day we were getting out of the car and he was to scared to get out. This is something he does regularly. We take him with us just about each time we leave except for work and date night.

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
460 Dog owners recommended

Hello Nikki, I suggest having Cash's sight checked. If he is having issues seeing that can make him afraid of walking on reflective surfaces. While you are at the vet's also have them check his balance and his joints to make sure the issue is not his balance and stability. If he feels like he might fall that can make him fearful of jumping and walking on unstable surfaces, like slippery floors. If those things are fine, then probably something happened to cause the fear. It could have been something small, like a slip or something he wrongly associated with the floors. Gather several small door mats and place those in a line on the vinyl floor, spaced about one-and-a-half to two feet apart. Create a line of treats along the vinyl floor and mats to encourage him to walk back and forth between the small rugs. You can use his own dog food for this if he is food motivated, and you can cut back on his normal meal by that amount to prevent him from becoming overweight. As he becomes more confident walking across the mats and floor, then add about half-a-foot to a foot more between the mats. As he becomes more comfortable, then space the mats further and further apart, until you can remove the mats entirely. As you practice this, continue to replace the line of treats across the floor two to three times a day so that he will keep walking across it. He is likely scared to jump out of the car because it hurts when he lands. Since he is nine years old he probably needs help getting out of the car now. Hi jumps probably cannot handle the impact of the fall. Either support him while he jumps or install a dog ramp in your car. If he is overweight, then loosing weight will probably help also, but speak with your veterinarian about how to safely do that. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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Max
German Shepherd
7 Years
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Question
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Max
German Shepherd
7 Years

Max is a rescue, the first 5 years of his life he experienced severe and repetitive abuse. He is terrified of most people, but extremely terrified of men.

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
460 Dog owners recommended

Hello Paula, First, work on obedience such as heeling, Place, Down-Stay, Watch Me, and other calming, structured, focused exercises. Fearful dogs tend to benefit from structure and feeling like they can follow and trust you. Obedience training that is calm and includes a lot of structure and boundaries in your home can help with calmness. Next, she needs to experience being around very calm men who will ignore her, then toss treats to her from a distance whenever she is calm. At first, she will probably need to be very far away from these men to relax enough. As she improves, you can decrease the distance between them. Going on walks with men can also help, but you should be the one to hold the leash and walk her in the heel position, while the man walks parallel to you across the street. Reward her for calmness around the man and keep your attitude fun, confident and up-beat - don't pitty her or pet her while she is nervous or that can make it worse. Instead act up beat and confident. She will be looking to your attitude for cues on how to feel. As she gradually relaxes around the volunteer man, have him decrease the distance between them (expect this to take several walks); do this until he can walk with you, and you can eventually hand her off to him while she is calm and let him walk her alone. When she is used to one man, have a different man practice the same exercises with her also. You will need to many different men do this overtime. If she likes to fetch, you can have men play with her. You be the one to take the ball from her and give it to the man at first, so that she does not have to get closer than she is comfortable with. As she improves and begins to like the man, she should get more confident to approach closer. All men practicing with her should be calm and gentle. Expect training to take several months. This type of fear often takes a lot of time to improve. Celebrate small victories as signs that she is improving. You can also work with a trainer who is part of a larger training group and have the male trainers help with these and other counter-conditioning exercises. If she is fear-aggressive, I suggest working with a trainer to do these things and take the appropriate safety measure to keep the men helping safe - like back ties while tossing treats and a soft basket muzzle during walks - you can gradually get her used to wearing a soft silicone basket muzzle ahead of time using her meal kibble so that the muzzle is not scary later. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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Lilly
Border Collie
8 Years
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Question
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Lilly
Border Collie
8 Years

Hello,
Our dog usually is really happy and enthusiastic when we give her some kind of activity (training, games, cuddling, ..). She fears loud noises (e.g. fireworks).
A few months ago we were going for a walk with her when there was a really loud noise. She got scared and run home, without looking back at us and without obeying our commands. Since that incident she does not want to go for a walk near our house anymore. From time to time it is possible to lure her with treats, but sometimes she doesn't want to walk a single step. No matter which treats we are using and how patient we are. She starts shivering and after a few minutes she lays down, not even looking at us anymore.
The strange thing is that about 100-200 meters away from our house she starts to walk normally. Then she's totally happy and enjoys going for a walk.

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
460 Dog owners recommended

Hello Sabina, Your dog probably associates the scary incident with that certain distance from your house - she might remember it as that location and then feels safe once she gets past that point. I suggest taking her to the location that is just far enough away from your house that she starts to relax again and working on getting her used to spending time in the area between that far location and your house. You are basically going to go backwards - starting further away and getting closer to your home as she improves. This might be easier than starting at your front porch and moving her toward an area, that in her mind, gets scarier and scarier the further she goes. What is her favorite thing in the world? Think through what types of things get her so excited that she tends to forget about other things around her. This might be a soccer ball, another dog, certain people, a game of fetch, certain foods, games, running, tricks and obedience practice, water, ect...Make a list of her favorite things in the world and get creative with how to bring those things into that scary area for training practice. Spend time in the area that she is nervous in, starting at the distance that she starts to relax at again. Do her favorite activity there and keep the pace fast enough and high enough energy that she is more likely to forget about her fears while focusing on the fun - basically she has no time to worry because she is busy having fun and thinking about other things. Act confident and happy yourself - don't act sorry for her or that will worry her even more. When she can relax at the current distance, spend time slightly closer to the scary area next time. Gauge her reaction when deciding how close to get. She should notice where you are and seem slightly stressed but still be responsive to what she loves and not panicked or shutting down. Ease her into the area gradually. Only get closer when she can completely relax at the current distance. The end goal is to spend enough time in the scary area while she is in a good state of mind and having fun and focusing on something else for her to re-learn what to expect out of that area. With enough time and positive experiences, she should start to believe that that area is safe again. You need to do this slowly enough that she is able to enjoy herself with your help for the training to work though. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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Isabelle
Blackmouth Cur and Border Collie mx
5 Months
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Isabelle
Blackmouth Cur and Border Collie mx
5 Months

We got Isabelle from a city rescue center a few days ago, and we’re trying to get her well adjusted to her new home. She’s amazing with us, as long as we’re with her. She gets extremely anxious when we leave her home alone. We only left her for a few hours and she was shaking and went the the bathroom all over our apartment, even though we took her out multiple times before she left. She HATES getting her leash on to leave the house, and when she knows she’s done something wrong she tucks her tail between her legs and her whole body shakes. We’ve been trying to socialize her by taking her out to PetSmart (which she loves), walking her frequently, and taking her on car rides and snack runs. She LOVES people, but she stops in her tracks every time she sees another dog. We want to take her to some training courses to get her socialized a little more, but we’re afraid it’s too soon because of how she’s been acting. We honestly don’t know what to do! We don’t know what will help her.

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
460 Dog owners recommended

Hello Meaghan, First, work on obedience and giving her some clear structure around your home. Anxious dogs tend to need predictable structure and clear, calm and firm leadership. Teaching her things like a structured heel, place command, sit, down, and other things can help her confidence. Just be patient with her while training. Avoid pittying her, instead act confident to help her feel braver too. Enrolling in classes and continuing to get her out places is great. There are a lot of options here, but I suggest giving her about two weeks to settle in, then finding a really good class in your area. Many classes have wait periods too so you could go ahead and look for one and sign up to start later. Preferably look for one that is held somewhere a little more spacious so that you can control her distance to the other dogs at first. A trainer who has experience with behavior issues like anxiety is also a huge plus. Even though the class will not be about that, a knowledgeable trainer can help guide you during the class. If you can find a friend or group that walks with their friendly dogs, going on group walks with others and their dogs can also be good. You can put more distance between the dogs at first and as she relaxes gradually get closer. The walks should be structured heel walks, where you encourage focus on you and calmness. Your calm, consistent leadership can help her relax more around the dogs. For the separation anxiety, I highly suggest crate training. It can seem counter intuitive to crate an anxious dog, but structure is also beneficial there for many dogs, it will keep destructive dogs safe, and there is training you can pair with the crate specifically for anxiety if she doesn't calm down on her own. Check out the article linked below for ways to gradually introduce a crate: https://wagwalking.com/training/like-a-crate It is early so she may adjust to your departures on her own once she has been crate trained, has learned to trust you more, and has experience you returning again each time that you leave, but if not check out the article linked below for more information on separation anxiety. https://www.solidk9training.com/sk9-blog/2013/02/21/separation-anxiety-im-not-seeing-it-at-my-place Crate exiting and manners: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mn5HTiryZN8 Heel command: https://wagwalking.com/training/train-a-poodle-to-heel Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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Brie
Maltese Shih Tzu
11 Years
0 found helpful
Question
0 found helpful
Brie
Maltese Shih Tzu
11 Years

Where to start? Brie was attacked by an unleashed dog when she was 6 months old. She's been scared of them ever since even though we've tried resocializing her over the years. She's always been great with people, very loving and cuddly. Three weeks ago we took her to her regular groomer. Not her favorite place and it usually takes her a day or two to recuperate but this time was different. She stayed upstairs refusing to come down over that weekend. I could coax her to go outside and she's been eating, drinking water, going to the bathroom, but her behavior did a 180. Concerned we took her to our vet first thing Monday morning. We explained that we thought something had happened at the groomers. We had checked every square inch of her and there was nothing physical so we assumed something must have scared her. After a thorough examination, our vet agreed. She was given a clean bill of health and we brought her home hoping she would come out of it. As the last three weeks have gone by, sometimes it's as if she's forgotten but most of the time she's very anxious. She has switched from always being by my side to being stuck like glue to my husband. The first few days afterward any time I tried to pet her she would tremble in fear. If my husband is not home she will sometimes hop up on the couch with me but most often I have to go looking for her. She will not come when called, has tried to bolt out of the garage door, has completely ignored her beloved stuffed frog and pants and paces. We are at a complete loss as to what to do. And we're heartbroken thinking we may have permanently lost our little love bug.

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
460 Dog owners recommended

Hello Sharon, I suggest starting some type of confidence building training with her. Something like modified agility - to suite her age, trick training through positive reinforcement, or another fun canine sport that could be modified for her age. I suggest hiring a private trainer for this so that you do not have to be in a class with other dogs. In general look for an activity that would be fun, build her confidence and encourage your relationship with her in a way that is upbeat, confident, and has leadership, and not feeling sorry for her or feeling worried for her - dogs pick up on that and it can make them feel even more insecure when you are not confident. A fun activity that's up beat helps both of you focus on learning, having fun, and not feeling worried. I am sure it goes without saying, but obviously do not return to that groomer. It does sound like something traumatizing happened, even if it was an accident or simply the environment that day. While working on the training with her, also simply give her time. Help her move through it by being upbeat, can and confident yourself but also know that she may just need time to feel safe again. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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Question
Dolce
Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
18 Weeks
1 found helpful
Question
1 found helpful
Dolce
Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
18 Weeks

Hello,

Just yesterday I was taking Dolce out for a walk and didn’t see him sneak up behind me when I stepped on his foot. He yelped pretty loudly and my immediate response was to pick him up and calm him down. I then walked a bit with him in my arms and put him back down. He was walking fine and doesn’t seem to be injured. The problem now is he shakes with fear when I take him on a walk. I have to carry him most of the way and he’ll only walk a bit. His behavior at home is completely normal. He used to love his walks and did great on a leash. What can I do to get that back? He’s also still perfecting potty training so he really does need to be able to go on a walk. I feel awful and I can’t seem to find anything online for this specific situation. Will he be like this forever?

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
460 Dog owners recommended

Hello Tiffany, I would suggest gently rubbing his paw a bit to make sure that it is not still causing him any issues. If he acts like it is sore, then get it checked out. Carpeting in your home would make it less sore than hard concrete, so you want to rule out any lingering pain first, and if that is an issue, you want to address that so that walks are not causing him any more pain. If his paw seems to be completely fine when you are touching it and not at all sore anymore, then take him outside for a walk and create a line of treats, or toys if he prefers toys. Practice walking down the line and letting him pick up his rewards. When he finishes that line, then create more lines as you walk by dropping treats on the ground every couple of feet. Go on walks like this often until he begins to improve. To prevent him from over eating you can also measure out his dog food and use his dry dog food as treats if he is food motivated, especially after he is a bit less nervous. You might need tastier treats at first just to get him moving. When he is doing better, then space your treats out more and more so that he has to walk further and further before getting a treat. Do not pick him up or carry him if he is not injured, or that can make the issue worse. If he will not walk forward even with the treats, then put him on a long leash, such as a thirty foot leash, and get him excited with a toy and encourage him to chase you. Run back and forth and tempt him with the toy. Make a game out of walking and let him feel like he is off leash by using a long leash. As he improves, then you can gradually shorten the leash again. Continue to make walks really fun and pleasant every time that you go outside, whether that involves a game or treats. His view of being outside right now is fearful. He believes that something painful will happen to him again probably just by being in that location. The more experiences that he has in that area that are pleasant, the more that he should realize that painful experiences are unusual and pleasant experiences are normal there. Because he has gone on walks for so long and never experienced something painful before, he will likely recover overtime if you do not carry him everywhere and you show him that walks are still pleasant. Be patient though, and do not get discouraged if he needs a lot of practice outside again to get over his nervousness. Try to act upbeat and confident while outside. He will pick up on your emotions. Be his cheerleader. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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Lelo
Staffordshire Bull Terrier
8 Years
0 found helpful
Question
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Lelo
Staffordshire Bull Terrier
8 Years

Lelo is an amazing dog. So timid loving in fact she is always walked off lead everywhere as her recall is fantastic even next to a busy road. We have recently tried to bring in a new pup and all she shows is fear. Following advice i had them separated where they can see each other and she will be fine then all of a sudden bark very aggressively at him. She wont come near him if you have him in your arms or on your knee. I have had her maybe 20cm away from the pups face with treats but as soon as she gets it she runs away again. Im fearful she is going to harm the pup if the pup tries to go near her. I have a cage for the pup which we are trying for the first time tonight so lelo they can hopefully be in the same room. My questions mainly are. At what point is it ok to allow the pup out and her down beside him? How can i allow the pup to be able to play, pee- hes still indoors yet without her freaking out? Is the cage a good idea? As obviously we cant have the walk yet. And she generally is fine with dogs out walking until they sniff her behind! Im desperate for her to accept him but incredibly fearful she will harm him

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
460 Dog owners recommended

Hello Lauren, I suggest hiring professional help to come to your home and work with her and you. The crate is a great idea. At his age he will need to take a lot of naps also, so the crate is a safe place for that and it can be great for potty training, preventing separation anxiety, preventing destructive chewing, and a number of other things - you can give him Kongs stuffed with dog food a bit of liver paste to help him adjust to the crate and stay occupied in it. You may also want to purchase an exercise pen. I would only leave him in the exercise pen when you are in the room though, since it is less durable than the crate and could be knocked over by your older dog possibly if she were persistent - look for a more sturdy one or anchor it to walls in a corner too. In the exercise pen pup can play with toys and have more room to run around. Right now they will need to be in separate rooms while loose. When its time to train pup, I suggest putting Lelo in another room or crating her in another room if she is crate trained. They should not be loose together until your older dog can remain calm at all times when you are working with the dogs together or pup is in the exercise pen playing in the same room. I would not leave them unsupervised for a very long time. Whenever pup enters the room, before Lelo reacts poorly, reward her with a treat. Whenever she acts calm or tolerant around pup reward her. She does not have to get close too soon right now. You simply want to associate the pup's appearance and actions with good things for Lelo - to help her feel better about him. Do not reward when she is displaying aggression and anxiety. Do not pet then either. instead act firm, confident, and calm. You want to encourage calmness, tolerance, and friendliness (carefully) by rewarding it with praise, pets, and treats. You don't want to reward aggression and fear with praise, pets, or food - so pay attention to what her body language is like when you reward. I highly suggest hiring a trainer to help you. You may need to get Lelo used to wearing a soft silicone basket muzzle for pups safety, but this will not fix the root issue, only temporarily provide extra safety. The fear- aggression needs to be addressed still. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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