Jump to section
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Distract the Dog Method
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The What NOT to Do Method
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By Pippa Elliott
Published: 11/13/2017, edited: 01/08/2021