How to Help a Rescue Dog with a Fear of Men (BTW She is looking for a Forever Home)

By: David Codr

Published Date: January 12, 2017

Carrol Echo Park Mae Day - How to Help a Rescue Dog with a Fear of Men (BTW She is looking for a Forever Home)

Carol is a four-year-old Terrier mix who was rescued through our friends at Mae-Day Rescue in Los Angeles. Mae Day’s founder scheduled a dog behavior training session with me to address Carrol’s fearfully reactive behavior around new men who visit the foster’s home or are encountered on walks.

One of the first things that I noticed, aside from Carol’s barking, was her foster mom immediately trying to reassure her by saying “it’s OK,” and “good girl.”

Although Carol’s foster parent was attempting to calm and soothe her, by repeating the same “it’s OK” mantra over and over again, the guardian was unintentionally reinforcing the exact behavior she was trying to prevent.

I have seen a number of experienced dog trainers make this same mistake so Carol’s guardian shouldn’t feel bad about it. But as a dog behaviorist in Los Angeles, I try to educate people as to why this approach is ineffective.

Dogs learn through association. So if every time Carol is anxious, nervous or upset and she hears the expression “it’s OK,” that expression eventually gets linked to the behavior the dog is exhibiting at that time. As a result, when she hears those expressions, she will start to feel nervous, anxious or upset.

A better approach is to teach the dog commands or exercises that cause them to redirect their attention and focus elsewhere. This kind of dog help pays big dividends with most dogs.

Because Carol was clearly uncomfortable with my presence, I used the foster parent’s own dog Meeko to demonstrate a focus exercise.

It took Meeko a few repetitions, but eventually, she started to respond wonderfully; looking up at my face faster and faster with each repetition.

As I alluded to in the above video, the key to this exercise is practicing it when the dog is in a calm and balanced state of mind without any distractions in the room.

At first, we want to make both of the two movements in the exercise (raising the treat up so its between the human and dog’s eyes, then moving it towards the dog’s mouth) last only one second. However once the dog understands what you are asking from them, we need to make the exercise more challenging.

We can accomplish this by delaying the delivery of the treat by extending the length of time of the second movement. Once Carol is starting to look up to the person’s face faster and more consistently, then the person can start to add one extra second to the second movement where we extend the treat towards the dog and into its mouth.

So you would raise the treat off of your leg up so its positioned halfway between you and the dog’s eyes in a one second movement, then turn and go towards the dog’s mouth while taking another second. After practicing this way a few practice sessions,  the foster guardian can move to adding an additional second to the 2nd movement, making it take three seconds before it reaches the dog’s mouth.

The foster parent will need to practice this in short, 1 to 2 minute practice sessions of 1 to 2 minutes in length, multiple times a day. Only after Carol responds consistently to five of these practice sessions in a row should she add an additional second to the next practice session. It should take a week to 10 days (depending on how often the foster mom practices) before Carol can maintain her gaze for 20 or more seconds.

Once Carol has progressed to be able to focus on the person’s face for 20 or more seconds, then we will need to up the ante by making the exercise more challenging. I detail how to do so in the following video.

Because dogs can only focus on one thing at a time, training them to look away or focus on their handler is a great way to redirected them away from things that they are reactive to.

Note it is more effective if you can initiate the focus exercise before the dog starts to react. If you are unable to do so, you should execute a U-turn and move away from whatever your dog is reacting to (walk around a building, car or any other object to block the view). In this case, out of sight equals out of mind, although it may take a moment or two for the dog to settle down if they were really worked up.

But teaching Carol to focus is not going to fix all of her issues. Because she is in a foster situation, I wanted to give the foster parent some tools that she can use to help make Carol more adoptable.

First off, I shared a set of Escalating Consequences I developed a few years ago. I use these consequences to disagree with unwanted actions or to warn the dog before it breaks a rule. Usually I only share these in person so if you are reading this, then this is your lucky day.

Now we obviously want to only use these consequences when necessary. But having a series of them, we can continue to communicate and “raise the volume” while remaining mostly silent.

On the other side of the coin is rewarding the dog or what we refer to as positive reinforcement. This is a key aspect of positive dog training. Petting or rewarding a dog when it engages in desired behaviors can be very helpful, if done in the right way.

I suggested that the foster parent start to practice my petting with a purpose method to add a bit of structure to providing the dog attention or affection. I detail how to do that in the following video.

It’s going to take the foster mom a concerted effort to train herself to stop petting the dogs when they demand it or for no reason at all. Some people object to me saying that they should not pet the dog for no reason at all, but in reality most people are going to continue to pet the dog in some capacity, at least some of the time (usually most of the time, lol).

But if we can train our dogs to perform some obedience or command before we pet or give them attention or affection, we can help them transition into a follower’s mindset. Instead of the dog telling the human what to do (pet me) by jumping up, the dog starts to ask for affection by sitting in front of the person or laying down on command. We call this, learning to Mand.

By this point in the session, Carol was much more relaxed provided I did not move around. But as you heard in the other videos, anytime I did move, she would start barking incessantly to communicate that she disagreed. This is an indicator that the dog thinks its in a position of authority which can cause the dog stress when no one listens.

Because dogs typically get over things by literally moving forward, I fitted her up with a Martingale collar and then took her out for a short walk without her foster mom or the organizer of Mae Day rescue.

Carol attempted to walk in front of me and move all around until I communicated what I wanted from her. After a few well-timed corrections and rewards, she started to walk on my right in the nice heel position with a loose leash, at least part of the time.

When we returned to the foster parent’s home, Carol stopped getting upset whenever I got up or moved around. Stopping dog barking wasn’t why I was called in, but Im sure the foster parent will welcome the silence.

Because of Carol’s reaction to my walk, I recommended that the foster parent arrange to have some male friends drop by so that she could re-create the same technique.

If the foster parent keeps Carol on her right side, and has the male guest walks on the right side of the dog, she will be able to pass the leash to the man without the dog even noticing. Once the dog looks up and sees that the man is the one holding the leash but is not attempting to pets, talk to or interact with the dog in any way other than leading it on a walk, Carol will start to feel more comfortable around new men.

Now this is going to be a gradual process that’s going to take a lot of practice and repetition. But considering how effective it was at the end of our session, I’m guessing that this approach is going to really help Carol learn to trust men and let her guard down around them.

It will probably be a good idea for any prospective new guardians to take Carol out for a walk right after meeting her. This will help ensure that the meeting takes a positive direction.

She really is a sweet dog when she trusts you and nothing would make me happier that to hear she has found a new forever home.

If you are interested in adopting Carol, please use this link to contact Mae Day Rescue to arrange an in home visit.


  • Stop using calming expressions when Carol is anxious, nervous or excited.
  • Pet Carol with a purpose and avoid petting when she demands it.
  • Avoid petting Carol when in any unbalanced state (excited, nervous, anxious, etc).
  • Keep Carol in the heel position on walks.
  • Stop short multiple times when going down steps to help Carol learn to watch her handler’s movements.
  • Arrange male guests to arrive and go for a short group walk (without Nico) to help Carol learn that visiting male guests are good things.
  • Practice the Focus exercise inside, then outside then with distractions. Try to get to 20 seconds of Focus before attempting to use it outside.
  • Set a goal of practicing the Focus exercise 3+ times a day (more is better and will accelerate her progress) in short 1 minute training sessions.
  • Look for ways to delay gratification so that Carol learns to develop more self control (waiting for permission to eat food waiting in the bowl, wait in a sit before tossing a ball, etc).
  • Add structure to meal time.
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This post was written by: David Codr