Training fearful dogs is difficult. A fearful dog is so tough to work with. The dog may be to afraid to eat or respond to commands. The fearful and anxious thoughts spin up in his head, making it really hard for that dog to think about anything other than fleeing from the “threat.” It might be something like a new vehicle parked in the driveway, or the noise and movement the mailbox makes when you open it. It could even be a flag flapping nearby or noises from traffic passing by.
There’s no one single approach that is guaranteed to work for training every fearful dog, but there are many options to try so you can find what works best with your dog.
Strategies for Training Fearful Dogs
— Feeding around scary objects
If your dog will eat, feed his daily meals around the scary object. With this protocol, we are making a positive association which will start to override the scary association. For example, your dog is scared to walk close to or past a big truck near your home. Bring his food, put it out for him as close as you can get to the truck. Allow him to eat, and praise when he’s done. Each time, move closer and closer to the truck.
— Use distance to build up tolerance and confidence
Generally you will be able to tell when your dog becomes fearful or anxious. Their ears go back, tail tucks, they might drop behind you and walk slower…. As you approach a scary object, and you see your dog start to exhibit these signs, turn and walk away from the scary object. Your should see your dog relax and likely pick up the pace. Then, loop back to the scary object, this time taking a few steps closer before turning away. Do this several times, then walk fairly far from the scary object, have your dog sit or down, and relax for a few minutes. Repeat this exercise until you are able to walk completely past the scary object. Once you can walk comfortable past scary things, then you can work on having your dog sit or downstay near the scary object. These exercises will help increase your dog’s confidence in himself and his faith in you as the leader.
— Advocate for your dog
What does this mean? When your dog needs your help because he’s afraid of something – being approached by strangers, a car driving nearby, other dogs yapping at him – advocating for your dog means taking steps to protect your dog from these things that scare him. For example, a stranger approaches and wants to pet your dog. You put your dog behind you (so you are between him and stranger) and tell the approaching person that he or she cannot pet your dog. Or, there is a lot of traffic as you walk down the sidewalk, and your dog is on the side of the traffic. Put your dog on the other side, so you are between him and the traffic, and then move further over on the sidewalk to create a little more distance between you and the traffic. Once dogs realize that you will advocate for them, they start to relax and feel comfort in the security that you provide.
— Provide structure and non-negotiable rules for your dog
Providing rules and structure to a fearful dog gives him security and comfort. Generally, dogs don’t want to be the one in charge, and so when you step up to take over leadership, they can just relax, knowing that you’ve got things under control. However, you have to be sure to be consistent and fair in your leadership for your dog to keep up that faith in you! Sometimes this doesn’t seem a big deal, but it’s one of the most important parts of training fearful dogs.
— Expose your dog to more and more new experiences a little at a time
As your dog gains confidence, you can expose him to more and more new things to keep increasing that confidence and build that trust in you. The more he can experience – and then realize he is ok, nothing bad happened and you protected him – will help him grow his confidence and be able to tackle new situations with more and more ease.
— No petting or reassurances while dog is afraid
This is so hard! When training fearful dogs, we all want to reassure them that things are okay! We do this with children and even other adults and it works, but unfortunately with dogs it doesn’t have the same type of effect. To dogs, affection, pets, etc., are all rewards that make a dog say, what do I need to do to get more of this stuff? So you can basically train the dog to do more anxious, fearful behavior by rewarding existing anxious, fearful behavior.
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