Building Bravery In A Fearful Dog

The Fearful Dog: Encourage Bravery Don't Nurture Fear

You have a direct influence on the behavior of a fearful dog, and how they recover.  It takes a little tough love, a little controlled pressure, and patience.We know this to be true of dogs trying to survive on their own:

  • Given access to food and water, the dog will not starve himself.

    • Dogs can go for several days without water. They can go for a couple of weeks without food! I had a dog that went for several days without evening peeing -- even though she went outside on schedule everyday. She was too fearful to do it on leash and with me around. Once she learned she had no other options, she started to learn to trust based on experience.

  • A dog will work out how to get food and water and shelter -- it make take a few attempts but when no humans are involved and dog is own it's own, he will become brave enough to enter into a building, knock over something that makes a clatter, or work his way across a stream or pond, etc if it means access to food, shelter or safety.

  • Dogs will problem solve and develop confidence -- which is why it's essential to guide them to develop confidence in the behaviors we want to see.

  • High Value Food rewards significantly influence behavior mod when used to reward good behaviors. Use freely for the right behavior and to motivate to try new behaviors.

Sometimes our fears are irrational.  Sometimes fears are based on the unknown or something someone told us.   And sometimes they are based on a past experiences.

I have an irrational fear of snakes.   I don't even want to see one.  You can tell me it's not dangerous all you want.   But I still am afraid.   I'll turn my head even when they are on TV.   Why?  I have no idea really.  I have always been afraid of them.   So the other day when out walking through a nature trail you can imagine my distress when we came across a snake laying across the path.   Had someone else not told me it was a snake, I would have though it was a fallen limb.   It was about 6 feet long and maybe 4 or 5 inches in diameter.   Which is HUGE in my opinion.

I had a choice.  Turn around an make may way back the way we came or go forward, passing the snake.  Turning around meant a much longer walk and a delay in getting to resources -- namely my car with A/C, lunch, and a shower.   Or I could take a brave step forward, passing the snake and be on our way.

My skin crawled with cold chills.   I'm sure without measuring it, my heart rate sped up, my blood pressure increased, my knees shook.   All involuntary responses -- even though my brain understood it should be OK, there was a benefit to taking the shorter route, and my friend was encouraging me and trying to talk me through it.   None of that mattered in that moment.   I needed to take the step forward all by myself.

Such is how it goes with dogs.  When they are afraid, you have to understand it's not voluntary and no amount of you encouraging them changes their level of anxiety.  The only thing that begins to modify their response is to take a brave step forward on their own, letting the brain do the work and process what happens (or doesn't happen).


Shelter life is a prison for dogs.  It's stressful, scary, and confusing.  Some are on death row and will never make it out.   Some are afraid and withdrawn in the cage.   Others shut down.  Others bark and cry, confused as to why they are there and not living the life they once new -- even if that life was not one of a happy home.   It's hell for every dog in there.   And they respond in different ways.  Given that they are masters of reading energy, they KNOW this place is not good.

Whether its abuse, trauma, lack of early developmental support, or simply being completely overwhelmed by the shelter or loss of the only way of life they have ever known, and now having to interact with strangers or dogs they have never experienced -- it can be too much for some dogs.  It can mess up an otherwise perfectly happy and healthy dog, so imagine what it can do to one that is already off-balance.

Fear shows up in a number of ways.   Retreat and hide and just pray we'll all leave them alone.   Bark and growl in the hopes we'll leave them alone.  Pressed far enough, a bite may occur in the hopes you will just leave them alone.   These dogs don't want to bite -- but sometimes they know no other way to communicate if you're missing all the other signs to please just give them some space.

So leave them alone!  Seriously.   Give them some space for the first few days.  Let them breathe and settle down.

When you have saved a dog from the shelter or brought home a dog that becomes very shy or fearful, seriously, leave the dog alone for a few days.  What they need from you is access to food, water and a potty break.   He does not need to be smothered with affection right way.

There's plenty of time for nurturing.  But you only get once chance to make a first impression.  You you can't undo a bite.   And it takes even longer to establish a good relationship once it has gone south.

So what do you do with a dog that is fearful.    Become patient and nurture bravery.

By now you know, I'm a firm believe in a slow introduction into the home, other dogs and humans.   Slower than you think is necessary.   Much slower.

So put the dog in the crate when you get them home, and leave them alone until time to go potty.   Pretend the dog is in boarding at a really nice doggie hotel for some r&r.     (Note depending on the level of fear or anxiety -- I might even pull the car into the garage and close the door before I let the dog out to be sure he's not going to slip his leash or bolt past me).

  • Give him a cocktail: Rescue Remedy™ or Fresh Start from Blackwing Farms that can be added to food or water. Chamomile Tea in their water.

  • Make his room smell divine: put some lavender on his collar and bedding.

  • Let him take a nap: he will take in a ton of information about your home just by observation and his sense of smell.

  • Schedule a nice leisurely walk: get yourself a Mendota-style leash so that you don't have to even worry with clips and collars and just loop him up for a walk. No training needs to take place, just go mill around the yard and let him do his potty business. He doesn't even need off leash time at this point because he may jump the fence or hide in the shrub.

    • The first night Sara was here it took hours to catch her after she came out of the car. (We pulled the car into the fenced yard and opened the hatch. From then on she was tethered to me on a 10 ft line every time she came out of the crate. It took about 2 weeks for her to actually approach me on her own, even though she was tethered to me.

  • Order Room Service: Feed him his dinner in his crate. If he eats great, if not that's ok too. We'll worry about more structured feeding in a few days.

  • Get a good nights rest: Well, we hope so

  • Rinse and Repeat the Spa treatment for a couple of days.

I do this at least the first 2-3 days... maybe longer.    Right now it's about establishing a relationship with me.  I'm the provider of all resources.  I provide food, water, potty breaks and a safe place to rest and observe.  I am in control of life at this point.   Yes, it sounds tough.   Tough love is needed to get the dog to consider me his leader and to need me.

Then what?

There are no hard and fast rules.   It's important to remember that there never really are hard rules in dog training -- even though some basic premises will achieve the biggest results.   This is really more about figuring out the best way forward to create trust and success case by case  -- but here are a few things to keep in mind.

Assuming the dog has some fear of humans and/or environments:

  • Don't manhandle them. It's not really the time to pick up small dogs and carry them around or snuggle with them on the couch . Now is not the time to force/shove them in crates. Bribe them with food! Nothing wrong with a little enticement being tossed to the back of the every single time. Feed them with their food bowl at the back of the crate and wait for them to go in. Each time the go over the threshold, use the word "crate" and praise.

    • This is often a trigger for growling and snapping -- or even biting.

  • Get yourself a slip lead. Avoid having to put on a collar or clip a leash that you have to fuss with getting attached to go potty. Every foster home, transporter and new adopter needs a goo quality slip lead.

    • This is often a trigger for growling and snapping -- or even biting.

  • Where the dog eats can help address environmental fears. If the dog is reluctant to come "OUT" Of the crate -- you may have to start feeding them just outside the crate. Start just outside the door to start and progressively moving it further into the room. Many dogs are afraid to eat around another dog or person. Build up the challenge of staying in the room with them, or moving by them while they eat. etc.

    • Initially, I let Vika eat alone in her crate. Then she was required to eat outside her crate, then in the kitchen alone, and now the only way she eats is with me and/or other dogs nearby. If she wants to eat, she has to trust our presence. Vika still leaves her bowl every single time I or one of the other dogs passes her by when she eats. It's been almost 6 months. She comes back to finish, but she's not yet brave enough to not give up her bowl.

  • If the dog is reluctant to pass you in doorways -- give them plenty of space early on. Open the door and walk away letting them come in or out as they build confidence to do so. Leave the room if you have too. You may need to have some extra time in the schedule to avoid getting frustrated. Tethering also works really well for a few days for dogs that are really reluctant to come inside.

    • Vika often made multiple attempts to come through the door. She would back up, run back outside, and then finally dart through the door. As time progressed, I required her to come past me on the porch to get outside, and eventually standing in the doorway myself. She sometimes still makes a loop before coming in.

    • Each time she "comes" in the house, I applied the command and praise even though to help her associate the words with the motion and experience.

  • Create a plan for socialization with strangers. Only after YOU have a relationship with the dog should you attempt to introduce them to other people. They will probably not want to greet strangers. That's OK. Don't force it. Sit quietly with someone nearby. The first few times, the dog may hide behind you. The goal is to let them approach people. When you notice them smelling, looking up, inching forward -- reward! People can offer some chicken yumminess even if the dog doesn't take it from them. Keep going to where strangers are, even if it's just a few minutes at time. Keep other people very calm and without quick movements.

    • Forced petting or forced approaches are often triggers for growling and snapping -- or even biting. Give them space, there is nothing on the planet that says they have to warm up to strangers immediately.

  • Don't be their shield. If they are hiding behind your legs, keep stepping aside to expose them. Over and over if necessary. If you have taught them to sit -- require them to sit, even if just or a moment or two.

  • Don't stay too long in a stressful environment. A few minutes is enough. Overwhelming the dog will have adverse affects. Teach them by early departures that you handle the situations and they will get relief!

    • Petco, or Dog Parks with a fearful dog is not a great idea until they learn to trust you and you can walk them on a leash with some success. When you do go, choose non-busy times and very short trips. The first few times you might not even make in the front door -- that's OK.

    • I once had a client that it took several trips before they could even walk down the parking lot. The dog was fearful getting out of the car -- so we circled the car, got back in and drove away. Multiple times, multiple days.... and eventually we built enough confidence to walk down the parking lot..... then in time we could go shopping. But it took patience and support.

  • I recommend not coddling the dog. That is don’t try to coax them, don’t sweet talk them, don’t pet them. I’m not saying being hard on them or use energy that is to demanding or too soft, just be present and let them be present in the moment.

  • If they afraid to go outside -- start feeding them outside. That would become the only place the dog got any food rewards.

  • Afraid to ride in the car -- see: Riding in Cars with Dogs

There are many fear based issues.   More often than not, we humans, especially moms, want to nurture and soothe the fears away.   With dogs, it just doesn't quite work that way.  We have to let them work through the issues and solve the problem.   In many cases, it's just a matter of not given them other choices, with some safeguards and guidance in place.

Remember -- reward each brave step forward.  Even if that step is to not retreat, or to hold their head up instead of down.

You will do more to influence overcoming fear if you let the dog do the work and you create the next challenge in a very controlled way.

Dana Brigman