How to Help Fearful Dogs

Are there a lot of fearful dogs out there or am I just noticing them more? Since Sunny landed in our living room, and settled into the corner, my “shy dog radar” seems to have been fine tuned.

At the pet shop recently a young woman was browsing the dog treat section, her black and white dog, a young adult, was doing the same. When I turned to speak to the woman, making small talk about “kids in candy stores” her dog took one look at me, ducked his head and stepped back, his eyes locked on my face. I’d seen that look enough to know that I should not return the stare and immediately turned my head. The dog resumed his sniffing of the various dried, animal body parts available to him.

“A bit shy isn’t he?”, I remarked.

“Oh he scares himself,” his owner replied, “Someone looks at him and he looks back and gets scared and starts barking.”

I tried to follow her line of reasoning (he scares himself?), but knew better than to spend too much energy on the task. The list of explanations that owners make regarding why their fearful dog behaves the way it does, and why the owner responds the way s/he does, is long, and might be funny, except that dogs are suffering.

While researchers and scientists may not agree on how animals experience emotion or which emotions those might be, it is accepted that dogs feel fear. Not only is fear biologically advantageous (do something or die), dogs that are afraid behave in ways that look a lot like the ways humans behave when we’re afraid.  We startle, we cringe, we turn away, we run, we scream, we shake- you get the picture.

When I was seven years old I jumped off of a high diving board for the first time. My family was on holiday and the hotel we were staying at had a pool. I watched other kids climb up the ladder, walk out to the edge of the board, leap off into space and plunge into the water below. My father asked me if I wanted to try it. Together we climbed up the ladder and as soon as I got to the top I turned and headed back down, weaving past the line of kids following us up for their turn. My father did not force me to continue.

Back in the pool I watched the other children jumping off and again my father encouraged me to give it a try. This time he said he’d stay in the pool and get to me after I splashed down. For some reason this made me feel more inclined to try it, so again I climbed the ladder, got to the top, walked out to the end of the board and lept off, keeping my eyes on my father in the water below. I wasn’t in the water for more than a few seconds before I felt his hands on me, giving me support while I caught my breath from the excitement of it all. From that day on I have been a fan of jumping off high diving boards, rope swings, boats, ledges you name it, so long as I’m going to land in deep water.

I don’t share this story just to fill you in on my personal recreation habits or my childhood, but because it is full of lessons on how to work with a fearful dog. Two important components of this scenario which are applicable to the work we do with our scared dogs are these-

1. I had a trusting relationship with my father.
2. I had the skills needed to succeed at the task.

The person encouraging me to do something that scared me was my father. I trusted him. Believe me if a stranger had offered to take my hand and lead me up that ladder I would have been wide-eyed in terror, I might have even reacted the same way if it was my older brother. My father said I’d be alright and I believed him. He was not in the habit of putting me in dangerous situations and I trusted his ability to protect me from anything, in the way that only little girls can (and probably should) feel about their fathers. He had taught me how to swim and for years I had been jumping off the docks and piers a few feet above the surface of a lake where we spent our summers. I had the skills and experience to climb that ladder and launch myself into the deep end of a pool, I just hadn’t done it before.

Stand a 6 month old baby on their feet and let go of them and they don’t start walking, they fall down. Their brains have not developed the intricate and remarkable circuitry to control their movement and their bodies don’t have the physical strength. Someday though they’ll be able to, unless they never get the chance to practice (or have a physical or mental disability). Many dogs, especially puppy mill and pet shop dogs don’t get the chance to practice the skills necessary in order for them to be able to handle the social interactions, the delicate balance of acting and reacting, that a pet owner expects of them.

Some of them, with gentle guidance and coaching, in the hands of someone they trust, will be able to catch up and learn to enjoy being around the things that once made them uncomfortable (or flat out horrified them) but others will not, not ever. The damage was done, there’s no making up or repairing some brain development. All may not be lost, but for the average pet owner a dog like this is never going to be the dog of their dreams (unless they’ve dreamt of having a dog that prefers to live in the closet).

We humans tend to be an impatient bunch and rather than proceed slowly with our dogs, keep trying to make them stand up when all that happens is that they topple over, again and again. Some dogs will begin to actively resist our efforts, growling or snapping, others will give up. Though they may comply with what they are being forced to do, they are not enjoying it. And they are establishing negative associations with the experience, and the human forcing them into it.

It is possible to change how a dog feels and behaves around the things that scare them. And even a dog that isn’t exactly the dog of someone’s dreams can have a good life and provide their owner with companionship and joy. But making this happen usually means changing how we think about our scared dogs. It means questioning the things we’ve been told about dogs and how they learn new skills. It means that we stop tossing them off the high board and into the deep end and expect them to thank us for it.