Strategies for working with the fearful dog (c) 2010-2017 Frania Shelley-
Grielen all rights reserved
I have been working with a fearful dog. 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-
I have written on the background of fear in dogs, how it develops along with basic
guidelines in approaching the overly fearful dog. Here I want to outline some specific
"hands on" strategies and approaches. 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:
- 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.
- 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.
Working with the
Copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
"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."