“I’m Scared” – Working With Fearful Dogs

I have encountered many shy and fearful dogs during my time working in shelters. After learning more about canine body language and how dogs communicate, I have picked up on some dos and don’ts for working with shy, fearful and timid dogs. This knowledge proved very useful this past week when I dog-sat through Dog Latin Dog Training’s Staycation program for a nine month old Havanese puppy named Lucy who is quite fearful of new people.


It is important to recognize when a dog is displaying fearful body language. The canine signs of fear can often overlap with those of general stress or discomfort, including: tail tucked, ears back/flattened, lip licking, whale eye, panting, yawning, darting and moving frantically, growling, avoiding eye contact or only making it very briefly, staying low to the ground, trembling, hiding and more. Dr. Sophia Yin created this fabulous illustration on fearful body language:


It is also important to remember that fear can be a driving force behind aggression, and if you notice a dog acting fearful or nervous, do not push the dog because escalated stress can send it over the edge and is often when bites occur. It is also very important that we do not punish the warning signs associated with bites (i.e. signs of fear) – especially, and I beg this of you, not the growl. That is like getting rid of your smoke detector! We want our dogs to tell us when they are uncomfortable. Then we can address the root of the problem, not just suppress the symptoms to be left with an uncomfortable dog who will now bite “out of nowhere.”

Fearful dogs are not always a product of abuse. Most likely, they’re a product of poor socialization. There is a key socialization period in a dog’s life up until twelve to sixteen weeks old, and often if the dog isn’t introduced in a positive way (!!) to enough novel stimuli during that time, they can be fearful of new experiences later in life. In extreme cases like puppy mills or hoarding situation (like Poor Otis) when dogs see nothing more than basically just a box for their first few months (or longer) of life, dogs can have almost crippling fear of new objects, places and/or people. It’s really quite sad. Some dogs can also just have a genetic predisposition to being more shy or timid.

Rehabilitating and working with a fearful dog can be quite a feat. To us as humans, the fears might seem irrational: Really, you don’t like walking through doorways or down stairs? Really, you think your shiny food bowl is something to worry about? Really, you’re scared of my friend’s dad who’s trying to be nice to you? But just because we can’t wrap our heads around it doesn’t mean we can wish away their fearful behavior. This is where some of that stuff you learned in psychology class as a kid (and that many dog trainers use every day) comes in: classical counter conditioning and desensitization.  Basically counter conditioning means you create positive associations with something your dog previously thought was scary. Desensitizing is just what it sounds like: getting your dog used to frightening things (using counter conditioning) at an intensity that does not scare them, and then slowly working up from there.

Of course it is often more complex than this, but that’s the basic idea of some concepts to remember when working with fearful dogs. Another imperative rule I’ve learned is that a relationship needs to be built on the dog’s own terms. You can use food to win them over, but toss it to them instead of asking them to take it from your hand. This alleviates pressure on the dog and prevents a forced relationship turning bad, like Love & a Six-Foot Leash writes about on their own blog. Having a dog come up to you on their own terms, asking for attention and human contact, will build a much deeper, stronger trust.

This is what I did with Lucy when I stayed with her last week. She spent most of the first three days in her crate just staring at me (she actually didn’t have a problem with eye contact like many fearful dogs do). I went about my business, completely ignoring her – except every once in a while when I walked past her crate I would drop a treat. I was careful not to go into her crate as to not invade her secure hiding spot, but I dropped it just outside where she still felt comfortable snatching it. When she got a bit more brave and would come out to investigate, I would toss her a treat and when she went up to eat it, I would walk away from her – further reinforcing the notion that I bring yummy things but will not pressure you into getting close to me.


By the end of the week, Lucy would follow me around, but I still could not touch her. I am confident that had I spent a few additional days with her, she would have warmed up to me the same way she has her owner. I am still happy with her progress with me, and that I even got a bit of a tail wag upon my return home to her from work. I can only imagine what worries were going through her mind, so I was happy to show her that I would not force her to do anything if she was unsure about it. She seemed to very much appreciate that.


While much of this post is learned from reading books, attending workshops and seminars, and reflecting on my own personal experiences, I encourage you to head to the experts for more information. Patricia McConnell has a fabulous book called The Cautious Canine – How to Help Dogs Conquer Their Fear. In the MD/DC/VA area, Your Dog’s Friend offers exceptional classes for fearful dogs, including Confidence Building, Fearful Dog Class and TTouch Methods to Calm Your Dog. Also, one of the best web resources I have found is a site called Fearfuldogs.com – it covers more topics that I can even think of on the subject. The ASPCA also has quite the collection of great articles about fearful dogs. Whole Dog Journal outlines some exercises you can do with your fearful dog to build his confidence. There is a lot out there to help these poor little guys be a bit happier in our human world!

7 thoughts on ““I’m Scared” – Working With Fearful Dogs

  1. Andrea Joy

    Wonderful post…thank you so much for writing it! I think you hit the nail on the head when you said “To us as humans, the fears might seem irrational.” When we first adopted our Beau he was afraid of things that, to us, just seemed so silly – our front porch stairs, tall men, metal bowls, sticks or anything that resembled one, grates on the ground – but we just learned we had to accept that and be on his own time. That’s the hardest part for humans, I think: allowing the dog to dictate when things happen. So few people can do what you did with Lucy – IGNORE THEM until they decide they’re ready to be friends with you. But, I’d like to think our friends and family have learned a lot about shy dogs from learning to relate to Beau. “Problem” is, he’s not really a shy dog anymore!!!

  2. faithtrustfosterpups

    Nicole Wilde’s “Help for Your Fearful Dog: A Step-by-Step Guide to Helping Your Dog Conquer His Fears” is another GREAT fearful dog resource that we picked up at the guidance of our trainer from All About Dogs. There is lots of breakdown on general causes of fear, how to help dogs with it, and also goes into chapters on more specific fears and all the possible complementary training tools out there for dog stress reduction.

    You’re so right about how harmful it can be to push a dog who has fear issues – our Balton is a poster child to how aggression manifests itself in the face of unresponsiveness to less overt “this makes me uncomfortable” signals, and once you get to that point it’s incredibly difficult to undo and to rebuild the warning signals. I have been known to want to throw him a party in instances when he has decided to growl at a stranger instead of going straight to lunging at them!

    I recently saw this great training flow chart from Austin Dog trainer Steve DeBono (http://www.debonodogtraining.com/) and the part I loved the most speaks well to your point of how it seems irrational – “Even if your dog’s emotion seems over the top or irrational to you, the emotion is very real to the dog. Rather than getting frustrated or angry, help your dog learn to cope in ways that are respectful to the emotions they are showing. Dogs are incapable of seeing the world from your eyes. Do your best to see it from theirs.” There was a Suzanne Clothier video I watched several months back that relayed a similar message and it made an impact for sure. Listening to what he is telling me in each moment has made a big difference for him, and for our relationship overall.

    It’s still a long road ahead, but seeing his brave moments, and seeing them more regularly, makes all our hard work so worth it. Thank you for writing this – the scaredy dogs hold a very special place in my heart!

  3. Pingback: Understanding the Fearful Dog | Homeward Bound Blog

  4. Pingback: Three’s Company: I Need Your Help! | Peace, Love, & Fostering

  5. Pingback: 3 Ways To Have Safe Interactions Between Kids And Dogs - Intentional Family Life

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s