Dogs who were not exposed to novelty when they were young may be afraid of new people, dogs, sounds, or any changes in their environment. Dogs who were born to mothers who were anxious or stressed themselves may be fearful. Dogs may be genetically predisposed to being fearful of new people or changes in their environment. Some dogs are bred to be less easy to social to new people or dogs. Anything that scares a dog at any point in its life may cause the dog to be fearful of that thing or anything the dog learned to association with it.
If you’ve done any dog training at all, or watched TV shows dedicated to dealing with problem dogs you probably have a lot of ideas in your head about how dogs need to be trained. Despite having fostered dozens of dogs, trained my own dogs in agility and basic obedience, read books and attended workshops, seminars and conferences on dog training, it turned out what I understood about fearful dogs was just a bit more than nothing. Often the advice given to me by well-meaning but other under-informed people also indicated that they too shared my lack of knowledge.
It is ok to comfort your dog when it is afraid. You are not telling your dog it’s ok to be afraid. You are holding their hand and helping them jump off the high diving board. Your dog is afraid and doing what it has learned to do to protect itself. You are going to show your dog that it doesn’t need to worry anymore, everything will be better than alright. You are helping your dog to change its behavior by changing the way it feels.
Think about how difficult this is for humans. We have therapists to talk to, medications to help and many of us still behave in ways that are inappropriate or unhealthy. Think about the last time you tried to change your behavior, maybe you wanted to quit smoking or drinking or loose some weight or exercise more. Were you successful? Was it difficult? Did it require you to change other patterns of behavior in your life? Chances are it was difficult and you had to change more than just the behavior of lighting a match to a cigarette or putting a fork to a piece of cheesecake, if you were successful.
You are also working on giving your dog opportunities to behave in ways that help them feel more confident.
Imagine changing the behavior of an animal you can’t talk to, or at least reason with. It’s not easy and it never happens as quickly as you’d like it to. It’s going to require more work, time and energy than you anticipated. Taking a dog from a situation in which it learned its inappropriate behaviors and plopping into a good situation in which those behaviors are no longer necessary or desired, isn’t enough. The upside of this is that change does happen and if you loves dogs, you’ll be moved to tears the first time your scared dog wags its tail when you speak to it or whines with anticipation when you invite it to go out into the world.
You are your dog’s coach, trainer, therapist, playmate, advocate and refrigerator door opener. As you go along with your dog you’ll learn to anticipate situations and be proactive in managing your dog’s behavior. Your dog will learn new behaviors because you not only reward the dog for those behaviors (sitting and looking at you for a treat rather than growling at the kid on a bicycle) but because you don’t give the dog opportunities to practice the wrong behaviors (if you didn’t buy the cheesecake you couldn’t eat it).
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.