Living With and Loving a Fearful Dog

It's a long game, right? Maybe you thought this dog was going to be like your last one. Happy-go-lucky, go-with-the-flow, low-maintenance. Your training goals were going to be simple: pee outside and don't jump on guests. Instead, your training goals are very complex and emotional, and center around helping him navigate and feel comfortable in a world that doesn't seem built for him.

A few weeks after we adopted Bruce, my brother Brian visited us from out of town. My tall, bearded, ball-cap-wearing brother. To my shock and dismay, and to my brother's alarm, Bruce charged him from across the yard. The scene is still clear in my memory, as only frightening events are. Bruce threw his entire 75 pounds into an intimidation strategy designed to make Brian stop right there, and I'm not kidding around. Lunging, barking aggressively, air-snapping close to Brian's hands, and muzzle-butting him.

Wondering how to tell if your dog's afraid of something, by the way? To start with, a fear-based behavior is intended to increase the distance between the dog and the Scary Thing. Sometimes the message is, "I'll go away", and sometimes it's, "You go away", as in Bruce's case. Read more about how dogs show their discomfort and visit iSpeakDog, the best online decoder of behavior and body language.

That was just the beginning. As we soon discovered, Bruce wasn't just afraid of my brother. He was afraid of all unfamiliar people. But large bearded men in hats occupied a special place in his 9th circle of hell.

If you're like me, it's painful to realize that your dog lives in fear. Maybe your dog is afraid of other dogs. Or maybe it's people - all of them, or just a subset like children, bicyclists, or people in uniforms. You're equal parts heartbroken and embarrassed by your dog's behavior, and confused by the conflicting messages you get about how to "fix" an aggressive dog.

Debbie Jacobs, who runs the amazingly helpful Facebook group for owners of fearful dogs, beautifully articulates three overarching principles to guide your work. 


1. Keep the dog and others safe.

This is job one. Not only is it humane, it is central to your training goals. Moreover, any dog who continues to be exposed to Scary Things can become desperate enough to bite. People get hurt and traumatized, and it's a rap sheet that many dogs don't survive. Don't take chances: if you do nothing else, keep the dog feeling safe.

2. Give him something else to do.

An alternative behavior. Coping skills, as it were. For instance, a dog who's watching his owner closely can't lunge at passersby. A dog who's running happily to his crate for a bully stick can't growl and bark at your buddies who just arrived to watch the big game. 

3. Help him to become less afraid of the Scary Thing.

Fear-based behaviors go away when the fear resolves. Very simply.


© Can Stock Photo / 4774344sean

© Can Stock Photo / 4774344sean

Guiding principle #1: In Bruce's case, keeping him safe meant keeping him away from unfamiliar people, especially men. Even drivers idling in cars next to us and pedestrians made him spooky-bark, so we put a covered crate in the back of our car so he couldn't see out. We put a hiatus on unfamiliar people coming to visit. We switched to a woman vet and introduced him to her slowly. He started an anti-anxiety medication.

Despite our best efforts, however, there are flaws in every safety system. For example, maybe you can take walks in abandoned fields or visit the dog park in the wee hours, but can't avoid encountering dogs on your way to the car. 

One of our remaining issues was the UPS driver. He appeared unpredictably and often. He was tall, wore a hat, moved quickly, and came all the way up to the front door. Bruce would lose it. Full-on scary barking, volume on high, intimidation factor of 10.

On to guiding principle #2. Bruce needed a coping skill. Something to get us through while I worked the long-game.

Wondering why I didn't use techniques like shock or prong collars, alpha rolls, or even scolding with Bruce? The use of punishment to treat behavior problems carries "potential adverse effects which include... increased fear-related and aggressive behaviors, and injury to animals and people." Bottom line, I already had a fearful and aggressive dog on my hands. No sense inviting more problems when there are effective alternatives.

I chose a rocket recall. I figured if he's running to me he can't bark at the window and I'm helping him gain distance from the Scary Thing. We trained slowly and systematically before going live with the UPS driver. It worked like a charm.

Fast forward to today. If someone pulls up to our house, Bruce runs to me without even being called. (As a bonus, our other two dogs show up, too. One of the side effects of training with rewards: everybody wants in.) 

His strong recall has carried us through many a tight spot while we've worked on guiding principle #3: the longer-term project of helping him be comfortable around strangers. It's a work in progress, but he has learned that when unfamiliar people appear anywhere, I produce Amazing Piles of Fabulousness.

We were recently hanging out by a river and a group of kayakers floated by, talking and laughing. Bruce ran up to me with an expression I recognize. "Mom, look! People I don't know! You got snacks?" Yes, sweetheart, I do.

Bruce still requires very careful introductions to men. He's never going to be that guy who loves going to the Art Crawl. (I'm not sure how many dogs really do, but that's another conversation.)

But if you have a fearful dog, you'll agree that this is what success looks like. It's a system that works. Bruce rarely feels afraid, he's more and more comfortable with strangers, and we have a backup plan for when something scary pops up. 

If you have a fearful dog, surround yourself with the right people and the right information. Connect up with a skilled force-free trainer who can help you nail down the mechanics of these training protocols. Join Debbie Jacob's Fearful Dogs Facebook group for sage advice and peer support.

Making a fearful dog's life better is a long game. So above all else, keep an eye on your morale. If it starts to drop, visit DINOS (Dogs In Need of Space) for articles, videos, and an online class for owners like us who are living with challenging dogs. And reach out for support from the friends and family who understand what you're working toward.