Working with the fearful dog

By Frania Shelley-Grielen. All rights reserved

What can you do to help a dog that is afraid? I work with fearful dogs and I want to help each one of them and their owners. What breed this dog is or even what sex the dog is immaterial. This particular dog could be any number of fearful dogs on the island of Manhattan. You may have walked by this dog this morning on your way to the subway at West 4th Street or passed by on your way home getting off the M116 cross-town.

I have written on working with the individual aggressive dog, aggression between dogs, and bite prevention in dogs, all of which include basic guidelines in approaching all dogs, including the overly fearful dog. Here I want to outline some specific "hands on" strategies and approaches for the fearful dog. This is no way exhaustive nor can it deal with every specific situation. Every animal is an individual and every approach should be individualized based on history and presentation:

- Work with and find the right behaviorist and/or trainer, one that is well qualified and utilizes science based, force free positive methods. And training classes, especially puppy kindergarten can be the number one mitigating factor in dealing with the fearful dog. The structured environment gives the dog much needed defined boundaries and rewards. Only work with programs that utilize positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is far more effective in insuring new and positive behaviors as opposed to aversive strategies, especially with fearful dogs.

- Read a good book on dog training from the right sources. Ian Dunbar, Patricia McConnell, Sophia Yin, Pat Miller, Paul Owens, Victoria Stillwell and Suzanne Clothier are all wonderful to choose from for starters.

- Let "ignore the bad behavior, reward the good behavior" become your mantra and apply it always. Work on actively noting the good behavior. A dog simply lying quietly can be praised for it ("Good Dog to lie Quiet!"). Your dog loves praise, especially coming from you. Capitalize on the positive moments, this way you get to build much needed confidence in your dog on a more frequent basis.

- Go slowly, more slowly than you want to or than you think you should. The dog is afraid, that trembling, urinating or barking is all that the dog has to communicate this to you. Respect it. We animal people want every animal to connect with us in instant intimacy, this is not about you it's about the dog.

- This is not the time to ask for compliance, "Calm, submissive" is the antithesis of what you want from this dog. Forcing this dog (or "flooding") to do anything will exacerbate the situation and make the dog's issue larger not to mention it is simply cruel and inhumane.

- Speak softly, and lower yourself to the dog's level. Do not approach initially and avoid eye-contact. Never tower over the dog. A downward pat towards the head will also not be welcome, try an offering your hand halfway out from your body with the palm downward and your eyes downcast.

- When you do approach (when the dog has calmed a bit) approach laterally (sideways). Direct eye contact and frontal approaches are aggressive behavior in a dog's world.

- Allow for the time the process will take. Or ask for a lot and be happy with a little. It may take several weeks or even months for your dog to accept novel situations or people and only after repeated attempts.

- Reassurance is not a dirty word. You can reassure your dog. Keep it to one or at the most two short sentences in a calm, even tone, the sky is not falling, it's OK to point that out and remember not to act as if it is. .

- Set your dog up for success. If a street-cleaner, larger dog, group of toddlers, etc., is coming towards you, put your body between them and the dog. Your physical presence as a buffer will alleviate stress in these situations.

- Figure out what amplifies the positive for your dog. High value treats may be welcome at other times but are hard to process when on the defensive. The dog I am working with responded from day one to tons of praise in a sing-song happy voice and loves to chase the tennis ball. We play a lot of ball.

This is not where I wish you luck rather assure you that patience, time and compassion are you and your dogs’ best friends

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