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How to make friends with a fearful dog

So, you recently met (or maybe even adopted!) a dog who seems fearful of you or other people. Maybe they bark and back away when approached, maybe they silently slink away if you even glance at them, or maybe they just freeze and become unable to function in your presence.


I won’t sugar coat it: being the guardian of a profoundly fearful dog is difficult. Many of these dogs struggle socially, don’t tolerate change well, and it can take months or years to see real improvement. Some of these dogs very much need behavior medication to even begin to function normally; their behavior is a symptom of a chemical imbalance in the brain that not even the greatest or most patient trainer can “fix”. If you'd like to know if behavior medication is an option for your fearful dog, please speak with your veterinarian or find a veterinary behaviorist who can help you at https://www.dacvb.org/search/custom.asp?id=4709.

Two small dogs sit next to each othe

I'm a trainer, so I cannot and will not diagnose disorders like anxiety and cannot recommend medications, however I can say that the vast, VAST majority of fearful dogs I have worked with have benefitted GREATLY from behavior medication. Please do not think that behavior medication has to be seen as a "last resort" for dogs, in fact sometimes it's most effective to get the appropriate medication on board early so that you can make headway with behavior modification and training.


With all that said, it's also important to realize that behavior medication alone isn't likely to be enough! You also need to know how to approach and work with your fearful dog, and that's what the rest of this post about!


I want to preface the following advice with a few disclaimers: first of all, if the dog in question has a history of dangerous behavior like snapping or biting, get a credentialed, knowledgeable behavior expert on board NOW. It's almost always a bad idea to try and DIY behavior modifcation no matter the issue, and when a dog is at risk of injuring someone it's even more important to have an expert you can consult with directly.


Second: it should be understood that when you are working with a fearful dog, you are looking to perform BEHAVIOR MODIFICATION, not just training. If you hire a trainer for your fearful dog and their recommendations consist of lots of obedience training, that trainer is not qualified to work on behavior cases. True behavior modication is much more layered and nuanced than "obedience" training, and while adding in some obedience training to increase enrichment and build your relastionship may be an appropriate recommendation down the line, it's never the cure all that some trainers want to think it will be.


With all of that out of the way, here are some things to keep in mind when you're trying to win over a fearful dog:



1.Play hard to get.

Interestingly, there is one specific type of person that has successfully won over fearful dog’s hearts time and time again in my experience. Those people? Cat people. Seriously, I have found that fearful dogs often respond best to cat people and that is specifically because cat people know how to play hard to get. Most cat people know that when you first meet a cat you let them come to you; let them investigate you, check you out a bit, and if they stick around that’s when you can offer your hand to see if they’ like to engage or not. Whereas lots of dog people just expectantly reach towards dogs as they approach, regardless of their body language or what the dog is actually saying!



An orange cat sleeps on his back
Many fearful dogs would prefer to be treated like a cat!

I am not being hyperbolic when I say this: most fearful dogs would really prefer it if you pretend they didn’t exist. The more that we stare and reach and try to force an interaction, the less likely a fearful dog is going to buy into interacting with us. Playing hard to get is a key component of winning over fearful dogs!


2. If the dog isn’t a bite risk, use food generously and liberally in every interaction you have with the dog


This step comes with a BIG caveat. If the dog you are interacting with has a history of aggressive behavior and especially if they have a history of biting, using food comes with the risk of luring a dog in closer than they were ready for, which can cause a dog to escalate and bite. Many fearful dogs who are food motivated will push themselves closer to what they are afraid of in order to get the food, but then when they eat the food the person is still standing there. When this happens the person is too close to the dog, and they may feel overwhelmed enough that they feel pushed to bite. So, if the dog you are working with has a history of aggressive behavior, be very cautious in your use of food!


However if the dog has not been shown to be a bite risk and has not presented with aggressive behavior in this context then this may be an appropriate step! The most important thing to realize when you are using food with fearful dogs is that if you try to use food to lure the dog in closer to you you WILL set yourself back. Food needs to be given freely to the dog whenever they are in your presence so that they learn you are a reliable predictor of the food, and the food needs to be given regardless of how close the dog is or if they’re taking it from your hands. I'm going to state this one more time: if you try to make the dog getting the food contingent on them sitting or even just taking the treat from your hand, you will set yourself back.


Because using food in this specific context is SO sensitive to proper training mechanics and learning theory, I highly recommend you hire a credentialed and experienced behavior trainer or consultant to make sure you are using food properly; the improper use of food with fearful dogs can potentially really set you back and cause trust issues, so even if the dog hasn't behaved aggressively it's something you want expert eyes on!


3. Put the ball in the court of the dog when it comes to interacting

This one goes hand in hand with the first point. If you are playing hard to get, you are waiting for the dog to seem interested and make the first move. However, one specific thing that can confuse people is that a dog approaching and getting closer to you is NOT the same as a dog who is seeking out touch! Often times we assume that a dog coming up to us is looking to get pet, but sometimes they’re really just looking to get more information about us. So I always coach people who are interacting with fearful dogs to wait until the dog makes a really obvious move that tells you they’d like to be touched. For some dogs that’s leaning into the person, for some dogs it’s nudging their hand with their head, for other dogs it’s pawing at the person. And when you do first pet a fearful dog, it’s almost always a better idea to pet under the chin/chest, NEVER reach over the dog’s head, and to only pet for a second or two with one hand and then wait to see if the dog wants more or if they’re done in that moment!


If you're not sure if the dog would like to be touched in that moment, you're almost always better off erring on the side of caution and giving the dog more time to get to know you before touching them!


4. Avoid direct eye contact and talking too much

Most of what humans do in an effort to soothe dogs is, unfortunately, very confrontational. When a dog is worried, most people have the knee jerk reaction to reach for, talk to, and stare at the dog, offering reassurances (the same thing we might do with an upset person!). But direct eye contact in dog language can be seen as threatening; dogs that stare at each other can often find themselves getting into arguments. And reaching towards a fearful dog is often VERY scary. If you want to make friends with a fearful dog, being concious of how much social pressure you are putting on them is very important!


5. Make choices so that you won’t have to lean over or towards the dog

When you are first starting to build your relationship with a fearful dog it’s critically important that you don’t do anything to scare them, even accidentally. Many fearful dogs (again, especially if you are using food) will come in closer to gather information about you, which is all well and good, but if you have to get up to go somewhere else while the dog is near, that lean towards them as you get up can come across as VERY scary. So, if you need to get up and move around either have the dog's person call the dog over and away from you, or if it's your own dog you're trying not to scare or the dog's person isn't there, you can try tossing some food away from you to get the dog to move away and put a wider amount of space between the dog and yourself.


6. Give it time

This last piece goes without saying, but I think we sometimes grossly underestimate how much time it can actually take for dogs to work through their fears. Fear is a survival mechanism; wild dogs who don't have a healthy amount of fear do not survive to pass on their genes, which means that fear and apprehension are actually evolutionarily selected for! This also means that fear is VERY difficult to extinguish completely. When you are working with a fearful dog you have to be prepared to play the long game, and to celebrate the tiny victories! Do not take any improvement in the dog's fearful behavior for granted, and over time, with lots of patience and lots of hot dogs, your fearful dog's behavior will hopefully start to improve!



A beagle sleeping on a couch
Regis used to be worried about a lot of things, but with time and careful behavior modification he has improved more than I ever thought possible!


Have a fearful dog and not sure where to get help? We offer in home private training and behavior consulting in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, Illinois, we offer remote online training, and we have colleagues all over the country that we can refer you to! Just contact us through our contact form below if you're seeking help!

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