Training Tips: Fearful Dogs Part III

This is the 3rd part of a series on fearful dogs, which I started after seeing a bunch of different fearful dogs with clueless humans.  These are real-life examples with detailed suggestions on better ways to handle the anxious dog involved.  Don’t miss Part I & Part II. (Note: These are fearful with a strong flight instinct rather than a fight instinct.  I don’t feel qualified to write about such a complex issue as severely reactive dogs, but I recommend: 

  • Feisty Fido: Help For the Leash Reactive Dog, 2nd Edition by Patricia McConnell & Karen London
  • Scaredy Dog!: Understanding and Rehabilitating Your Reactive Dog, Revised Edition by Ali Brown
  •  Behavior Adjustment Training: BAT For Fear, Frustration, and Aggression In Dogs by Grisha Stewart

As many of you know, our dog Saffron is a fearful dog.  I had to learn a lot about fearful dogs so I could help her become a well-adjusted, happy dog.  I have a particular soft spot for anxious dogs.   Sometimes their people know how to help them.  Lots of times they don’t.  Sometimes they don’t even know their dog is afraid.

In this 3rd case, the fearful dog I encountered was a physically mature, but young, Golden Retriever being walked by a man and a woman.  Our timing was such that we both approached a residential intersection at the same time, with them at one corner and me & Saffron at the other corner facing them.

Right away I saw the dog was anxious and submissive.  Why did I think that?  Because she balked at stepping off the curb, turned her head to the side facing away from her person so she wasn’t facing them, the street, or us across the street.  She also crouched some and licked her lips.  She did not want to cross the street and I wasn’t sure if it was the street or if it was me & Saffron.

While I was judging if it was a good idea to cross towards this fearful dog, her person was trying to pull her into the street saying “Come on.”  She wouldn’t budge and continued giving stressed & submissive signals.  I decided it might help the other dog if Saffron & I crossed and she got to meet Saffron on their corner instead of in the street.  I knew Saffron was very gentle and friendly with fearful, submissive dogs.  But, before we could get to the other side, her person had hauled her into the street.  As she cautiously, but bravely walked past us, I automatically gave her a heartfelt “Good girl!” even though she wasn’t my dog.  Her people probably though I was a loon.  Too bad!

This case wasn’t as serious as the two previous posts’ examples, but it could have been handled better.  So what went wrong?

  1. I’m pretty sure this dog was afraid of both the street and by Saffron, so she was being asked to do too much by having to deal with both at the same time.
  2. Her people shouldn’t have pulled her into the street by her collar.
  3. And, finally, when she did what they wanted her to do, they failed to praise her.  Poop!

What would I recommend instead that would have been better for their dog and ultimately for them too?

1. Get her a tight t-shirt or a Thundershirt to help calm her.

2. Use a no-pull harness like the Halti Dog Harness, Freedom Harness, Easy Walk Harness, or Walk Your Dog With Love Harness.  Your dog will never be pulled by her neck and she won’t slip loose if she panics.

3. Avoid asking her to do something that is so stressful she balks.  Instead, continue around the block or cross to a different corner.  Or ask me to cross first and let their dog meet mine.  When you have a fearful dog, it’s up to you to be their advocate.  Ask if other dogs are friendly before you let them meet your fearful dog.

4. Work on her fear of crossing streets.

  • Start small on a quiet street with no traffic.
  • Use what you need to to get her to cross the street.  Lure her with treats.  If she likes playfulness, put on your imaginary clown shoes.  As you approach the corner, start happy talking & being silly and continue it as you get her to cross the street.  Have one of her people stand on the opposite corner so the dog (& her other person) can cross over towards someone the dog loves.
  • Repeat this in short training sessions over several days and gradually remove the lures of food, play, or the other familiar person.
  • Then try a more challenging street—wider, busier, or maybe just unfamiliar.  You may need to reintroduce the lures.  Continue until she can cross any street.

5. Work on her fear of meeting other dogs.

  • Find a laid back dog who likes other dogs and has good manners for your dog to meet.
  • Try to have them meet on neutral territory—not your house.  Pick a place where your dog will feel the least stress.  Some dogs prefer meeting outside where they don’t feel trapped.  Another dog might feel too exposed outside and would do better inside.
  •  Go slowly.
  • Monitor the introduction.  If your dog starts getting overwhelmed, give her some space by leading (or calling, if off-leash) the other dog away.
  • Stop the introduction before your dog gets too stressed.
  • Continue by having them meet every few days.  If you know another good dog for your fearful dog to meet, repeat the process with that dog.
  • Check out this excellent video on introducing an anxious dog to another dog.

In the meantime, you’ll undoubtedly be encountering dogs on your walks.  Before your dogs get close enough to meet, ask the other person if their dog is friendly and if it’s okay for them to meet.  If it’s okay, let them meet briefly and then walk on.  If they hit it off, you can let them linger, but you want to move on before your dog gets stressed.

6. PRAISE HER!! (See my post on Praising the Good for more information.)  As she starts crossing the street, praise her.  When she gets to the other side have a praise party—“Woohoo!  Good girl!  You’re so brave!”  Anytime your dog interacts with another dog, praise her.

7. Stay calm and don’t broadcast your own anxiety to your dog.  Don’t pull her away from what scares her, such as another dog.  Don’t hold your breath or stiffen up.  Try to relax.  This was hard when I was with Saffron.  I so wanted her interactions with dogs and people to go well, I had to work at not broadcasting my concern.

7. Know that it’s okay to calmly reassure your dog.  It won’t reinforce her fears.

Introducing An Anxious Dog To Another Dog

Here’s a good video with very helpful commentary showing a low stress way to introduce an anxious dog to another dog.  This was one long session with careful monitoring.  Be sure to watch your dog and don’t push her to where she’s overwhelmed.  Multiple shorter sessions might work better with some dogs.

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!

Life With A Fearful Dog

icesleddogIt’s so encouraging to read about the happy outcome of one completely unsocialized dog named Ice who was rejected from a sled dog breeding operation and turned over to a shelter in Colorado.

Ice has come a long way from being terrified of doorways and ringing phones.   His story shows that with some real effort, even terribly fearful dogs can be rehabilitated.  What a fortunate boy that shelter workers and his adopted family committed themselves to helping him become a real dog.