One of the disservices done to fearful dogs by trainers, who I will assume are well-meaning, is giving owners the impression that all dogs can be ‘cured’ of their fearfulness. Since we will never know the exact reasons why our dogs are fearful, it is worth continuing to work with them, throughout their lives if necessary. But believing that your timid dog is one day going to become a social butterfly may create more frustration than hope for many pet owners.
Don’t get me wrong, I retain a dream for my fearful dog Sunny, and that is that one day he will be able to enjoy all the wonderful people, places and things that I can share with him, and I have never stopped learning about ways to achieve this goal. However the damage done to Sunny occurred long before he came to live with me and though he has made huge strides the scars remain in the form of missing neural pathways, imbalanced hormones and neurotransmitters and superhighways of communication in his amygdala.
I have been tempted to bite at the shiny lure that a trainer’s special ability or technique will undo the damage done by the lack of early socialization and what may be a genetic predisposition to being sensitive or fearful. Some trainers even claim to be able to turn back the clock of brain development and re-socialize a dog in some kind of doggie rebirthing process. No doubt they have success with some, since for some dogs any type of consistent, predictable handling will enable them to figure out coping strategies and behaviors that are acceptable to people.
Deciding what will work for your dog means that you have to understand how animals learn new behaviors and how you change emotional responses to triggers. The magic you will see occurs when you learn how to communicate effectively with your dog and create situations that help, not hinder, learning. How much progress you will see depends on your dog, but if you are using appropriate training techniques the progress never ends.