The fearful dog
I have a soft spot for fearful dogs; they don't understand that whatever they are fearful of is really nothing to be afraid of. Just like humans, even if we could explain it to them, it is just not that easy. When Tilley came to us she was quite a fearful girl, not confident in a new environment and quite uncomfortable around men. Fearful dogs need help, they need understanding and above all else patience. There is no quick fix for a fearful dog and if you try a quick fix you risk making matters far worse.
The worse thing you can do to a fearful dog is push. The more you push them to the object of their fear the more problems build. One; they will grow to distrust you, two you will be creating more fear and three they might just break. There is a breaking point in fearful dogs; one that you never want to go near. Many fearful dogs just back off; their answer to the fight or flight scenario is flight. Removing their ability to backoff creates a fight situation.
Fear biting dogs are one of the most dangerous dogs to deal with. Once a dog discovers that biting helps to remove the object of their fear they will use it more often. Unfortunately many fear biting dogs have been pushed into biting because their guardian didn't properly understand how to deal with canine fear. When a dog backs off cringing, it is very important to understand that this is how the dog is feeling. It is our job to create a more confident and well adjusted feeling by slowly exposing the dog to their fear, SLOWLY.
When a new scary person would come into our home; Tilley would hit the back wall and lurk around, head slung low growling so quietly it was barely audible. Not what a guardian wants to see their dog doing but this was the communication that I needed to know how she felt, really, really uncomfortable. So off to work we went. Out everyday, walking into the town, going to peoples homes to visit and taking an obedience class. The obedience class really helped because it was so structured; during a long stay she was right beside other dogs but not interacting so this enabled her to see that it wasn't all that bad.
Another very important factor when dealing with fearful dogs is trust; you must let your dog know that you are the one to go to in need. Fear is a scary emotion and often dogs will simply bolt; they become so fearful that they zone out which is extremely dangerous. There is a difference between trust and coddling; you want your dog to come to you when fearful but not come to you so that you can make the scary thing go away. Your dog must learn to deal. Yes they can hide behind you but don't touch them.
Your behavior is even more important than your dogs behavior in a scarey situation. As I have said dozens of times before; our dogs are watching us. How you behave in a situation will fuel your dogs behavior. If you wrap your arms around them and hug them in close during a fearful situation; you are infact telling them that you agree, this is very scarey. You may need to concur your own fears before tackling your dogs fears. Often when you know the outcome of a situation you may slip into the over protecting mode quickly letting your dog see an issue as scarey when it fact it may not be. Ya gotta chill.
Chill out and do your best acting job. If you are uptight about a situation, there is no way you are going to convince your dog otherwise. So get a grip and control your own emotions, take a deep breath, lower your shoulders and chill. Do not change your pace if you are on a walk, do not scold your dog for acting fearful, DO watch your dogs behavior for the slightest sign of relaxing and praise it. It does not matter if the fear is homebased or out walking, the situation can change quickly and you need to be prepared for that.
What if you are out walking along nicely and all of a sudden a dog comes around the corner? Many dogs have a startle fear; which is a toughie to deal with. If you have been startled as well as your dog then you should immediately go into your chill routine being very conscious of your pace and your body posture. If the situation is in your home, make sure people know that your dog is fearful and what to do and not to do.
Helping a fearful dog is a process achieved by babysteps, some smaller than others. But it is imperative that you never go beyond a comfort zone. And even more important; NEVER, EVER SCOLD OR DISCIPLINE a fearful dog for their fearful behavior. Instead reward the smallest of achievements and the bad behaviors will slowly dissipate.