Training Tips: Fearful Dogs Part II

About a year ago I wrote Fearful Dogs Part I.  It arose from watching a stressed dog being handled badly at the dog park.  Part II is about another incident I saw.

In this case, a woman was walking 2 dogs down our street—down the middle of our street.  Just as they came along side a parked car, a man in the car hollered out the window to someone.  One dog was very startled and became fearful.  How do I know?  The frightened dog had it’s ears pinned back, the whites of her eyes showing, a tense face, and she was desperately trying to get out of the street.  As they got to the sidewalk, the fearful dog kept looking back at the man in the car and getting underfoot, so walking was difficult.  The woman’s response was to loudly scold, “Get over it!” and to jerk the dog.  All the while, the second dog is just walking along normally.  Next, the woman stood at the corner of a busy street for a long time waiting to cross and the dog’s anxiety only increased.  The fearful dog was lifting one foot & then the other, looking away, ears back, with whites of eyes still showing.  Finally, the woman dragged her into the street to cross and they went on their unhappy way.

The problem here started before they ever left the house.

  1. The fearful dog needed someone working with her on her fears.  From the little I saw, I think she’s scared by traffic, loud noises, the woman walking her, possibly men and cars—even parked cars.
  2. Walking her in the street when she’s not ready to do that heightens her anxiety.
  3. Hurrying to keep walking after the dog was startled by the man shouting may reinforce her fear.  The dog might interpret it as “My person is hurrying from the thing that scared me.  It really must be dangerous.”  More stress.
  4. Loudly telling the dog to “Get over it!” isn’t going to help the dog’s fear.  All it tells her is that in addition to the “danger” they’re hurrying from, her person is also angry at her.  More stress.
  5. Jerking the dog by her neck doesn’t help the dog.  Now physical discomfort and another startling event has been added to the situation.  More stress.
  6. Waiting a long time at a busy street only adds to the fearful dog’s anxiety.
  7. Cap it all off with the woman dragging the dog into the street and it doesn’t look like these two have a very good relationship.

So what would work better?

  1. Some basic understanding of canine body language would be a start.  Being able to recognize when a dog is stressed makes all the difference in being able to do something about it.  I don’t think this woman was aware of how frightened her dog was. (Want to learn more about your dog?  Check out Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide, a favorite of mine.)
  2. Short, relaxed walks so there’s time to work with the dog on her fears, to accommodate her needs when her stress is too high, and to watch her reaction to things .
    • When the dog was startled by the man, the woman could have helped by slowly & calmly walking towards the car, pausing before they got too close for the dog to tolerate, praising the dog, and then calmly turning back to their walk.
    • Instead of walking down the middle of the street (which seems stupid anyway when there are sidewalks on both sides), she should stick to the sidewalk.
    • And rather than waiting a long time at a busy street, the woman needs to work up to exposing the fearful dog to traffic that frightens her so much.  I had to work with our dog Saffron on the same fear and I started by walking with traffic (so she wasn’t facing cars coming at her), walking with her on the side away from the street, and alternately walking 1 block on a busy street and then on quieter streets.  Gradually, I lengthened the time spent on busy streets until Saffron was ok with it.  And we had fun doing it!  This woman and her 2 dogs were not having fun.
  3. Sometimes the presence of a calm dog helps to reassure a fearful dog, which is great.  But, I do think this dog would benefit from some walks just one-on-one so the human isn’t distracted and can focus on what stresses the dog.

Here’s the To Do List:

  1. gradually work up to what frightens your dog, don’t flood them with it—you’ll only make them feel vulnerable
  2. pay attention to what scares your dog, how anxious they are, and what calms them
  3. don’t yell or physically punish your dog, you’ll only add to her stress
  4. don’t drag your dog—I think it’s a pretty good rule of thumb that if you have to drag your dog, her anxiety level is too high

There’s a happy ending to this story.  Weeks later I encountered a friend walking the same fearful dog.  Without thinking, I mentioned I’d seen her being walked by someone who was clueless about how scared the dog was and I found out my friend shared responsibility for the dog with the woman I had seen.  My friend asked if the woman had been harsh with the dog and when I said yes, she said she’d speak to the woman.  But, my friend did better than that—she made the woman realize the dog would be better off with my friend, so know the fearful dog has a much happier life with someone who understands her and works on her fears.  Yea!

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