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

Effective
0 Votes
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.
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
112 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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Question
Dolce
Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
18 Weeks
0 found helpful
Question
0 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
112 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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