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Cornell Richard P. Riney Canine Health Center

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Fearful dogs

From fearful to fearless

Help your dog approach the world with confidence

Living in fear is stressful for the dog and for the owner who loves and protects them. No one wants to see our dogs in distress. Thankfully, we can help our dogs become more confident and comfortable with everyday situations.

Structure and routine

“It is important to create a safe, structured environment for fearful dogs,” says Dr. Pamela J. Perry '89, D.V.M., behavior resident at Cornell's Animal Behavior Clinic.

“Provide consistency and predictability so that the dog always knows what to expect. An easy way to do this is to implement leadership training (aka, the ‘Learn to Earn’ program or ‘Nothing in Life is Free’), which simply requires that the dog sit before getting anything from their owner (e.g., treats, walks, outings, petting, meals, etc.).This is not training per se, but rather a way of interacting with the dog that lets them know that they can always expect a pleasant outcome (i.e., it creates consistency and predictability),” advises Perry.

Stick with structure

Having a steady routine at home also helps eliminate surprises that may cause stress for your dog. Feed them around the same time every day and set aside time for play and training. Be calm about leaving the house to go to work and come up with a standard greeting for when you get home.

Give your dog a safe space

Many dogs like to have a safe space where they know they can rest without being disturbed. A crate is an excellent option, especially because you can close the door to prevent children or other pets from bothering the dog. A blanket cover makes wire crates more den-like.

Set up the dog’s crate in a quiet spot, with comfortable bedding and maybe a few toys that your dog likes. Teach them to go into the crate on command, and reward for a job well done. Then if something scary is happening, like new neighbors coming over for lunch, you can send them to their crate so they are in a familiar spot where they know that they are secure and that you will come back in a little while.

Reward-based training

Perry says, “Punishment should not be used [with a fearful dog] because it may exacerbate the fear and lead to other behavior issues. Rather, the owner should use positive reinforcement.” Reward your dog when they do something right or respond to a situation correctly, and ignore them if they react with fear.

“Other ways to build confidence include practicing reward-based obedience (so that the dog learns that complying with commands results in a pleasurable outcome), participating in agility training, teaching the dog to ‘target,’ going for walks in ‘safe’ environments and playing with the dog,” says Perry.

Teach your dog a variety of skills, from household manners to silly tricks that are just for fun. Enforcing good household manners, such as walking nicely on a leash, waiting at doors and lying down during meals gives you easy, praise-worthy things and gives your dog some control over the mood of the house. In other words, if they follow the rules, everyone is happy, so they don’t have to worry.

Tricks can be handy during a stressful situation to redirect your dog from the source of fear. For example, if someone is working on the outside of the house and your dog is afraid and barking, ask them to perform a favorite trick. Depending on arousal level, they may not do the whole trick at first, but if your dog at least engages with you and tries, then provide praise and reward, and then ask again. This encourages your dog to focus on you, gives you a chance to provide praise for good behavior and eliminates the temptation to just yell 'be quiet' (which may work, but will make your dog more afraid).

Minimize stressful situations

Perry cautions, “Owners should never force a dog to confront fears head-on. For example, if a dog is afraid of unfamiliar people, he should not be forced to interact with visitors or be taken to crowded areas. If the dog can approach someone voluntarily (and be rewarded for doing so), he will be less fearful.”

Identify fear triggers

Know what things your dog is most afraid of and try to avoid those situations, or modify them so that your dog can feel more secure. If they are afraid of other dogs, stay away from dog parks and any neighborhood houses with dogs that run loose or charge their fences. If they are afraid of the vacuum, put them in another room before starting to clean. If they are afraid of people leaning over them for pets, ask guests to sit down before they attempt to interact with your dog (and preferably that they wait for your dog to come to them on their own).

Gradual challenges

“As the dog becomes more confident, the owner can gradually increase his exposure to situations or items that may cause him to become fearful, but only at a level that does not trigger the fear response,” says Perry. “This exposure should be paired with a high-value reward (e.g., a favorite treat) so that the dog associates the frightening stimulus with something desirable. An important point is to always set the dog up for success so that each experience has a positive outcome.”

Find a placid pal

For that dog who is afraid of other dogs, find a friend with a very calm, non-reactive dog. Place the other dog in a crate or on a leash in a yard or large room and allow your dog to move about freely. Ask your dog to perform tricks or obedience behaviors far away from the other dog and reward for a job well done. If your dog approaches the other dog, praise and reward.

When your dog is relaxed around the confined dog, try letting the other dog loose and do the same thing. Then you can go through the same process with other friendly, calm dogs — always making sure that the other dog is under control and won’t do anything to frighten your dog.

Take a class

Training classes can be another excellent opportunity for dogs who are worried about other dogs, as all the dogs should be on-leash and working in their own space. Start by working your dog in an isolated corner, and as your dog gets more confident throughout the course, you can slowly start working closer to the other teams.

You can do the same thing for dogs afraid of the vacuum, but start with the vacuum unplugged. Once they are comfortable approaching it when it is off, train and reward them while someone else runs the vacuum in another room (the sound should be audible but faint). Gradually move closer to the room with the running vacuum.

For the dog afraid of someone strange leaning over them, start by letting them approach new people seated on the ground or in a chair while the people ignore the dog. Then have one person extend an arm. When the dog is comfortable with that, have the person stand with arms down, and gradually build up from there.

This article has been reprinted with permission from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine’s DogWatch newsletter, published by Belvoir Media Group. When you become a member of the Riney Canine Health Center, you will receive a free subscription to DogWatch.