How Do You Help a Fearful Dog?

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help a fearful dog

It can be hard to live with a fearful dog. On one hand, we know they’re having a hard time, but on the other hand, some of their behaviors can be annoying or downright embarrassing!

So how do you help a fearful dog? In today’s “Ask a Behavior Consultant,” we’re addressing a reader that’s struggling with a dog that reacts to her fear of strangers by barking and spinning in circles!

My Sheltie is going to be 4 in July. She’s is terrified of other humans and dogs and runs in circles constantly. I don’t know how to help her fear of other humans and dogs. Can it still be fixed at her age?
– Fed up with Fear

First, let’s address the question of whether this issue can be resolved at this age.

How Late is Too Late to Help a Fearful Dog?

It’s never too late to help a dog learn new behaviors and gain confidence, but a dog’s socialization window is quite small. In a puppy’s very first months of life, they are absorbing information about all kinds of things, and especially about what is safe and what is not.

We talk a bit more about socialization and why dogs may be afraid of things in our article on how to gain a dog’s trust.

This is why having lots of positive experiences with different kinds of people, dogs, animals, and other “weird human stuff” like leashes and harnesses and cars is so important at a young age.

So, without knowing what kind of socialization this reader’s dog received, it’s impossible for me to say if this stressed-out pup’s concerns stem from experiences, or lack thereof, in early life, from experiences later in life, from genetic predisposition, or some combination of factors.

It’s also worth noting that shyness, spinning, and barking aren’t entirely unusual behaviors in Shelties – so there’s likely a genetic predisposition going on here as well.

A four-year-old dog that has no positive history of play with other dogs can’t be expected to become a social butterfly. In fact, many adult dogs become more “selective” about who they are social with as they mature.

A more realistic goal would be to have her be comfortable in the presence of other dogs, without pressure to engage or interact, With lots of work and careful management, this is achievable for most (but not all) dogs. It’s also likely that with some help and a lot of practice, she can learn to be more relaxed around new humans.

This is a really tricky behavior problem, and it sounds like the issue has been ongoing for several years. The best way to effectively help this frantic pooch is to contact a local trainer or behavior consultant that uses humane, modern training methods.

That being said, let’s talk about some of this dog’s behaviors. Fed Up With Fear notes that when her dog hears something outside the fence, she barks, but if there’s another dog inside the yard, she tucks her tail, cowers, and pees.

Why is my fearful dog barking?

Dogs do what works for them. If you keep seeing the same behavior over and over, it’s because that behavior has “worked” in some way for that dog.

Barking at a “scary thing” outside the fence likely has a high success rate from your dog’s point of view. Most of the time that this Sheltie barks at passersby, they continue on their way and do not enter her yard.

This is the exact reason that so many dogs bark at the mailman.

Imagine this: the mailman arrives, and he’s approaching the house. The dogs begin to bark! The mailman (having already put the mail in the mailbox) turns and walks away.

We humans know he left because his job is done. But to the dogs it seems that their ferocious display has been successful at warding him off once again!

Fearful dogs bark as a way to scare off the thing that’s scaring them. If the scary thing leaves, they’ll bark again next time because it worked.

So what can you do about barking?

Don’t give your dog access to the yard unless you are actively training her. This may sound crazy, but it’s impossible to teach a dog a new set of behaviors when they are rehearsing the unwanted behaviors every day.

You have to find ways to either manage the situation by blocking the sight or sound of people and dogs passing and/or begin teaching alternative behavior choices.

You can help your dog soothe her spinning behaviors by giving her puzzle toys. Avoid other people and dogs if they make your dog nervous. Trying to expose her to more people and dogs might backfire, especially outside of a training scenario.

A well-planned training scenario will help your pup learn that people and dogs are nothing to be worried about. It’s hard to guarantee that lesson with random people and dogs on the street – these strangers might do something upsetting, setting your training back several steps.

How Can I introduce My Fearful Dog to New People?

When it comes to a dog that is scared of new people, having guests over can be a big challenge. Every dog is different, so there’s no “one size fits all” solution, but there are a few things you can try to help her learn to expand her circle of trust:

1. Try intros outside the home.

For many dogs, having a “scary stranger” enter their space is really different than encountering a stranger in a more neutral space.

For some worried dogs, it can be helpful to have guests wait outside your home, bring your dog out on a leash and go for a short, nonchalant walk before entering the home together.

During an exercise like this, I would advise the newcomer to avoid eye contact with the dog.

2. Put your dog away when people come over.

Some dogs are happy to hang out in their crate or in a quiet bedroom with a delicious puzzle toy or chewie. For some dogs, this may be the solution in and of itself.

For others, this may just be step 1, and step 2 is bringing the dog back into the common area once the guests are settled in the room. As above, some dogs are just more okay with entering a space where strangers are already present versus having strangers enter their space!

Again, it helps if the strangers give the dog space and avoid crowding or staring at the dog.

3. Counterconditioning.

Counterconditioning simply means connecting something that the dog perceives as “scary” with something they love – food!

If every time a stranger appears, delicious cheese also appears, the dog will start to look at the person differently.

Now their presence is a signal that food will appear! In order to do this successfully, though, you need to work with enough distance between yourself and the strange person that your dog is able to actually take food and not react.

If your dog is barking, your Stranger is too close.

This same approach can be used on anything that triggers a fearful response, from humans to dogs to bicycles.

Just remember, the food should be coming from you, not the stranger. Asking a fearful dog to take something tasty from someone they’re afraid of can put a lot of pressure on them and create conflict.

They may choose to approach to get the snack, but then immediately regret it when they realize they’re too close, and react anyway!

You can do the same thing by feeding your dog a treat whenever you pass a strange person or dog on your walk. Don’t approach them or let them approach you – just teach your pup that people/dogs = treats!

4. Practice keeping your dog’s attention on you as guests arrive.

For dogs that are highly food motivated, it may be possible to teach them to keep their focus on you, even in the presence of worrisome strangers.

This is also a good second stop to the above suggestion – counterconditioning. If a dog has been successfully counterconditioned to the presence of a stranger, they will begin to look to you automatically when they see a newcomer because they’re ready for their cheese!

For this to work, you also need to instruct guests not to look at or attempt to interact with your dog – she just gets to stay focused on you, and not worry about them (until she’s ready).

If your dog has a big, out of control reaction, then you’re not ready for this step.

You can also practice this while you pass strangers or strange dogs on the street!

5. Get to know your dog’s body language.

Dogs are communicating with their bodies constantly. The better you can read the subtle signals of discomfort your dog may be giving, the less she’ll need to use the more obvious ones (like barking).

You might notice that your dog licks her lips, shifts her weight backwards, tenses her ears, or widens her eyes. If you can step in and support her when she’s showing these more moderate signs of fear, you’ll see a lot less barking!

Pay attention to what your dog’s triggers are so that you can anticipate what will make her uncomfortable and can better set up training sessions for success.

Dogs can also be wonderful about communicating when they are becoming more comfortable.

For example in my house, the rule with “scary strangers” is that they are not to make eye contact with or attempt to touch my fearful dog until he puts his butt on them.

Once he’s relaxed enough to solicit his favorite kind of attention (butt scratches) I know that the guest is no longer a “scary stranger” and can begin building a friendship with him.

What if training isn’t enough?

Some dogs, like some humans, just have their brains wired differently. Dogs with high levels of anxiety, that are unable to settle or relax at all, may benefit from medical intervention.

A Veterinary Behaviorist can help you decide if prescribing a medication could help with your dog’s behavioral challenges.

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