Dogs, much like people, come from all walks of life, and many dogs struggle with issues of fear and anxiety. Adopted dogs whose history is unknown, dogs who were undersocialized as puppies, and abused dogs are all likely to be fearful, and more and more people are living with fearful dogs. The bad news is that fear is the most common cause of aggression in dogs, so even if your fearful dog seems sweet, the fear can quickly become a problem. The good news, however, is that training is everything with dogs and it is possible to retrain even the most skittish of dogs. If you’re interested in socializing and retraining your fearful dog, here’s how to do it:
Reward-Based Training: A Primer
Reward-based training has been shown, in study after study, to be the single fastest and most effective form of dog training. Rather than focusing on some imagined dominance hierarchy or punishing a dog for behavior the dog likely doesn’t understand, reward-based training cuts to the heart of common dog behavioral issues and reconditions your dog to behave in the ways you want him to. Reward-based training operates on a single principle: reward your dog for behavior you want to see, and reward immediately after you see the behavior. This approach is particularly effective with fearful dogs, who may be terrified by more aversive or confrontational methods. With fear-based dogs, you’ll need to add another principle to reward-based training: reward not only good behavior, but also reward the dog when something scary is happening. For example, if you have a visitor to your house who frightens the dog, give the dog a wonderful treat as soon as the visitor walks in the door.
Socialization is the key to ending fear. Simply put, socialization is the process of gradually exposing your dog to more and more things till your dog becomes comfortable with them. It is very important with fearful dogs to start slow, and to not subject your dog to any situation in which the fear becomes overwhelming. If your dog is afraid of people, have visitors to your house give your dogs delicious treats for a few moments, and then give your dog a hiding place. If your dog has to spend hours with visitors, the socialization is likely to backfire, because your dog will be feeling more and more fearful. Instead, you’ll want to start with very small amounts of time with people and gradually increase the time. Once your dog has become comfortable with visitors in the home, you can then progress to allowing visitors to look at, talk to, and touch your dog, starting very slowly and gradually building with each. Remember to continually reward your dog and encourage the visitors to provide your dog treats so that your dog learns that good things come from visitors.
Give Your Dog a Safe Place
Providing your dog with a place that is his own can work wonders for fear. Give your dog a crate in a quiet area of your house. This will become your dog’s hiding place and give him a place to go if visitors or fear becomes overwhelming. It also ensures that, if your dog is feeling afraid, he won’t bite. Dogs who have a safe place are less likely to bite than dogs who feel like there’s no escape.
Don’t Force It
Rehabilitating the fearful dog is a long process that requires patience. If you rush the process, you’re likely to do more harm than good. Don’t allow people your dog is afraid of to touch your dog before your dog is ready, and try to avoid having visitors who won’t leave your dog alone. If your dog shows signs of being overwhelmed (shaking, growling, trying to run away), it means it’s time to slow down the pace.
Rehabilitation of very fearful dogs can be a challenging process, and it’s an excellent idea to have some help. Consider contacting a dog trainer. You can find qualified trainers here. There are also some amazing books that can give you step by step instructions on how to rehabilitate your dog. Particularly helpful is the Cautious Canine, by Patricia McConnell. Good training books and an excellent dog trainer can help you build a careful plan for rehabilitating your dog and helping her to feel secure in the world again.
The Cautious Canine-Patricia McConnell