Fearfulness in a dog is an upsetting thing for loving pet owners. The tail tucked, cowering, paw lifted, trembling Dane is a sorrowful sight. Some dogs are born with a low fear threshold, and some are taught to fear by abusive people. Either way, no dog should have to live in terror.
There are all sorts of ways to “train” a dog, but timidity doesn’t respond to training–it doesn’t reach down deep enough. Training only modifies behavior, not emotion. Your dog’s emotion is modified by the combination of your emotion and new, positive experiences.
You can find all kinds of trainers, books, and tips on a google search. Professional behavioral specialists in your area are a valuable resource to help you, if you commit to the time and effort of stabilizing a fearful dog’s emotions.
Cesar Milan specializes in dog “psychology”, and rehabilitates both aggressive and fearful dogs. You can find him at: www.cesarmillaninc.com and on the National Geographic Channel, Friday nights. Also an excellent book to help you recognize and understand what your dog is feeling is “Calming Signals”, by Turid Rugaas.
On the “My Dane Jumps On People” page, I explained how I rehabilitated an aggressive Dane, and an excitable puppy. This page, and the approach, is completely different. It requires a very calm, patient, and secure person to help a timid dog become comfortable in the world. Calm, but not passive. The very worst thing you can do is “soothe” a frightened dog, and completely isolate him for the rest of his life. This only traps the poor creature in a prison of fear.
This is how I worked with my beloved Shabah, a rescued pup who was moderately timid. He was one of my first rescues, and one of the sickest. He would growl at men and children, run away from things that frightened him, and I did what most people do: I petted and stroked him, talked lovingly to him, and avoided what upset him. This went on from age 8 wks to 17 months. One day he chased and cornered a friend from church who had come to see us. That was it–time to change.
So I did as the vet suggested, and took him to puppy class. He was surrounded by puppies from 12 weeks old to 6 months old. All 36″ and 185 lbs of him simply towered over everyone else. He was there primarily to learn to relax, but it terrified him. So I, the obsessive planner and researcher, made a list of all the things that frightened him, ranking them from a mild startle to absolute panic.
Since we had long before built a relationship where he trusted me, we could go directly into the slow and positive pace of what’s called “reconditioning”, or “desensitizing”. One caveat: Be absolutely sure your dog both trusts and respects you before you start such work. I read on one fearful dog training site that “you don’t have to the ‘pack leader’ and teach your dog who’s boss…”. Rubbish. A frightened dog without a pack leader will only get worse, just as Shabah did.
Don’t confuse being a pack leader with being a bully; yelling, hitting, or otherwise acting like an ass. Part of being a pack leader is that the dog knows you will protect him from harm, as well as provide his daily needs and structure. If you are afraid of how your dog will react and so avoid the situation, they will pick up on that fear and it will reinforce their own. If the dog feels that you can’t or won’t protect him, he will feel compelled to protect himself, and fear will become fear aggression. Just like Shabah did. I’ve said it before, but it is worth saying again:
A CALM LEADER CREATES A CALM DOG. Use as many calming signals as you need to reassure your dog and encourage him to be calm, rather than “soothing” him the human way. (calming signals page). Reward him with gentle touches and affection when he is calm.
I began with making more noise as I went about my day. I deliberately clanged pot lids while cooking, and turned the radio off and on when he didn’t expect it. I stomped instead of climbed the stairs…these were things that only startled him a little, and after about 3 weeks of my calmly going on without acknowledging his startle, Shabah ceased to jolt at household noises.
When I could drop an object a few feet from him, and he only looked at it and relaxed again, he would be rewarded. Then we moved up the list to outside noises like cars going by on the highway 1/4 mile away, and large trucks blowing air horns. When he would notice the sound, but not show fear, I would reward him with affection and a treat or two. Up the list, one thing at a time is how we conquered each thing of fright.
I was careful with what I exposed him to: he couldn’t afford an experience that was too intense, or we’d be starting over. So we took our time, in his time. I learned to recognize the signs of stress BEFORE it became a full on freak out.
Until he was emotionally able to meet a stranger, I put him in another room of the house until they left. When I thought he could, I asked a gentle friend to come over. They were not to look at him, talk to him, reach out to pet him, or act at all like he was there.
Once or twice a week someone would come over and ignore him. One fine and thrilling day, Shabah walked right up to Wade, and sat on the couch next to him! By the end of the month, he would greet him at the door and walk beside him anywhere he went.
The story is a long one, and each new experience without fear was a victory. Shabah took about 3 years, mostly I think, because I allowed his timidity to become so deeply ingrained. Each dog will be different. Each dog will have his own chronology and time-line. This page is to provide some simple principles you can tailor to fit your sitiuation. So here are the basic steps you can use to create a customized rehab program for your dog:
establish trust, respect, and gentle authority with your dog. Let your dog have faith in you.
list every single trigger, and arrange in order from intense to mild.
start at the bottom and master each step before moving up the list.
remain calm–don’t anticipate or hesitate. Let your dog feel your faith in him.
reward when the dog calmly responds to stimuli.
maintain what you’ve accomplished–regular exposure will keep the new found confidence.