Do not underestimate how scared your dog might be. Consider any new dog in your home, especially a fearful one, at risk of fleeing. It can take weeks or months of work with a dog to ensure that they will not take advantage of an opportunity to escape from a home or yard, and not return.
There are products available which can track dogs via a GPS unit on their collar. They are becoming more reasonably priced, considering how much time and energy goes into locating a lost dog. One day I hope it becomes cost effective enough that all fearful dogs are wearing one when they are placed in new environments.
Most important is that you work on building a positive, trusting relationship with your dog. This might mean that you spend the first days, weeks or even months showing your dog that you are safe, fun and his best friend. It does not mean showing your dog who is the ‘boss’ or leader of the pack. Since you control all the resources that your dog needs or wants, you are already the big kahuna. You don’t need to prove it by doing anything that scares or bullies your dog.
This article on social buffering explains why social relationships are important for many animals. Imagine your main source of support and comfort being someone who hurts, scares or intimidates you. It’s not likely going to help you develop confidence in your abilities.
It always makes sense to speak with a vet. Disease, injury, thyroid imbalance, poor vision or a hearing impairment, can cause a dog to behave in a fearful manner. There have been reports of some tick borne diseases causing behavioral changes in dogs. It may be worth considering if any are contributing to your dog’s behavior. Your dog might also be genetically predisposed to being cautious. Regardless of the reasons your dog is the way it is, it might never be like other dogs that aren’t fearful, but you may be able to help it learn to be comfortable in the world. Finding a trainer or behaviorist with experience working with fearful dogs is also helpful. A trainer who suggests that you do anything that scares your dog, or recommends the use of punishment to get your dog to behave a certain way should be avoided.
Regardless of what your dog is afraid of, or why s/he is afraid, resist any advice or temptation to force your dog to face its fears (this is called flooding). One day that may be appropriate but until you know that your dog is ready, you risk making the problem worse. Respect your dog’s fears, they’re not silly, unfounded or senseless. Your dog is not being a coward. Your goal is to help your dog learn to enjoy the things that it currently fears. It will not happen overnight and you should not expect that your dog will suddenly come around (it might, but it’s best to be prepared for the more likely scenario that it doesn’t).
If you have developed a good relationship with your dog you will become its source of confidence and courage. When your dog trusts you, you can begin to ask it to deal with uncomfortable situations, and s/he is more likely to be willing and able to comply. Learn about how your dog’s body language conveys its feelings and you’ll be even better at giving your dog the kinds of experiences it needs.
If your dog is afraid of people, be prepared to protect your dog from well-meaning friends and strangers. Initially the best approach to take with a fearful dog is to put as little pressure as possible on it. This means avoiding direct eye contact, not talking to the dog if it shows discomfort or fear when spoken to and handling the dog as little and as gently as possible. It doesn’t matter what your intentions are, your dog will still be afraid. Your goal is to help the dog to be in the presence of people, however peripherally, and not feel fear. Ask people to ignore your dog until it is ready to have strangers interact with it.
If your dog has a specific fear; other dogs, children, thunder, car rides, etc. you will be creating situations or moderating situations so that your dog learns that these things are not only ok, but can also be wonderful (other dogs play, children give treats and car rides take them to the park). You do not want to rush your dog into confrontations with its fears, but at the same time you do not want to isolate your dog so that it never gets to practice being comfortable with the things it fears. Read about triggers and thresholds to learn more about how to do this. It is important to remember that you do not want to put a dog in a situation in which it has the opportunity to practice inappropriate behaviors.
Every dog is unique and each will be in a different place on the spectrum of uncomfortable to horrified in regard to its triggers (the things it fears). As you work with your dog you want to notice it moving down the spectrum (becoming less reactive in regard to it fears as opposed to more). For some dogs it may only take a few sessions for it to learn that something isn’t as bad as they thought it was. For other dogs, it can take months to years to change their behavior. You might want to talk to a vet regarding medications that can help your dog through this process. There are also a number of over the counter supplements that some people have had success with.
There are exercises and games you can use to train your dog. Basic obedience training is important to help you and your dog establish a common language.
Working with these dogs is not easy. Prepare to be frustrated and mystified by your dog’s behavior. The more you learn the more sense their behavior will make, but if you’re like many owners of fearful dogs, you’ve ended up with more than you bargained for when you got your dog. If you’ve decided that you’re in it for the long haul you might want to meet with a trainer or behaviorist to be sure you’re on the right track. If you decide that you are not in the position to work with your dog, be up front and honest with anyone you pass the dog along to.
For easier reading and more information about living and working with a fearful dog you can purchase a copy of A Guide To Living With & Training A Fearful Dog. For an even more complete understanding of how to help fearful dogs consider this online course.