How to Train Your Dog to Stop Being Fearful

How to Train Your Dog to Stop Being Fearful
Hard difficulty iconHard
Time icon1-12 Months
Behavior training category iconBehavior

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. 

arrow-up-icon

Top

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. 

arrow-up-icon

Top

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

arrow-up-icon

Top

The Desensitize the Dog Method

Most Recommended

1 Vote

Ribbon icon

Most Recommended

1 Vote

Ribbon icon
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The Distract the Dog Method

Effective

1 Vote

Ribbon icon

Effective

1 Vote

Ribbon icon
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The What NOT to Do Method

Least Recommended

1 Vote

Ribbon icon

Least Recommended

1 Vote

Ribbon icon
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

By Pippa Elliott

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

Training Questions

Have a question?

Training Questions and Answers

Dog nametag icon

Mia

Dog breed icon

Belgian Malinois

Dog age icon

2 Years

Question icon

Question

Thumbs up icon

0 found helpful

Thumbs up icon

0 found helpful

User generated photo

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?

June 12, 2021

Mia's Owner

Expert avatar

Caitlin Crittenden - Dog Trainer

Recommendation ribbon

1133 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

June 14, 2021

Dog nametag icon

Aysi

Dog breed icon

Husky

Dog age icon

1 Year

Question icon

Question

Thumbs up icon

0 found helpful

Thumbs up icon

0 found helpful

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?

March 9, 2021

Aysi's Owner

Expert avatar

Caitlin Crittenden - Dog Trainer

Recommendation ribbon

1133 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

March 10, 2021


Wag! Specialist
Need training help?

Learn more in the Wag! app

Five starsFive starsFive starsFive starsFive stars

43k+ reviews

Install


© 2022 Wag Labs, Inc. All rights reserved.