Tips on How to Help Fearful Dogs

By: David Codr

Published Date: June 1, 2023

help fearful dogs

For this Pacific Palisades dog training session we worked with a fearful Pomeranian mix named Cheech, sharing tips to help fearful dogs.

Cheech was acting scared when I arrived; he barked a couple of times before scurring out into the backyard. I suggested we conduct the session outside to help him feel more comfortable.

Cheech positioned himself underneath the couch opposite me which provided him with some cover, something many fearful and anxious dogs do. I made sure to avoid giving him any direct eye contact, didnt make any big movements, did not talk to him and waited for him to show interest in me first. Giving a scared dog space and letting them approach you is a tip that helps most anxious dogs feel more comfortable.

Normally I would’ve gone through a marker word loading exercise with his guardians, but Cheech was so scared he had lost his appetite. Loosing appetite is a very normal behavior for fearful or stressed dogs.

I would like the guardians to load the marker word by walking around the house and doing the loading exercise in every room of he house until when they say the word “yes,“ Cheech looks up immediately.

An easy way to build confidence in fearful dogs is to make sure they understand what you want them to do and communicate that doing so will earn some affection, attention or a treat from you. I like to call this “celebrating,” and it is probably the easiest way to train any dog – if you celebrate volunteered behaviors consistently.

The best part about celebrating is how easy it is. All you have to do is wait for the dog to offer a desired behavior, say the dog’s marker word “yes,” and then pet or give them a treat. You’re sitting in your chair and you see your dog come over and sit down, say “yes” then pet them under the chin. I recommended the guardians reward Cheech anytime he offers any desired behavior such as; coming to them, sitting, laying down, picking up a toy, eye contact, going to his dog bed, etc.

The more that this family members reward Cheech for doing these actions, the more likely he is to do those actions again and eventually on cue.To do that, when the guardians can predict that Cheech is about to offer one of those behaviors, they can start sneaking the word in before Cheech does it, then say the marker word and pet him so that he knows he did something they want.

The 4 components to training a dog are:

1) The Cue (telling the dog to sit)
2) The action (the dog sits down)
3) You say the marker word “yes” to let the dog know it didn’t what you want.
4) Rewarding the dog (Giving a pet or treating the dog)

But when we are teaching a dog a new skill or cue, we add in the first step, last. Instead of saying “sit” before a dog knows what it means, instead we lure the dog into position, or if we are celebrating, we wait for the dog to do the action on its own then mark and reward. Only after it is easy to lure the dog into the position or when you can predict with 90% accuracy would you say the cue first.

But habits are the results of repetition. So are desired behaviors. Celebrating only works if the humans recognize and reward the dog for offering those behaviors often. This is why saying “celebrate” to a family member to remind them or spotlight when the dog does something you like can be so helpful.

Although this seems very basic, if the guardians get into a habit of Celebrating desired behaviors on the regular, they will start to see confidence building Cheech. I love seeing this happen. It’s like the dog sees the light and realizes it has some control over things. I can sit in front of people and get attention or a treat. This is one of the first steps towards rehabilitating a fearful dog. You first have to rehabilitate a dog’s spirit so they feel good about themselves when they do things that we like and reward.

How to Help Fearful Dogs

At the midway point in the session, I had one of Cheech’s guardians take him out front on a leash so that we could go for a walk together. Sometimes getting a dog up and moving around in a new environment can help them shake a fearful or anxious mindset. Halfway through the walk, I had the guardian hand me the leash as we continued to walk together. After a couple minutes I asked the guardian to start walking faster so that she walked out ahead of us. This gave me the ability to finish the walk with Cheech on my own. I wanted to develop an independent relatoinship with a stranger who listened to what he was saying to help him learn unknown people aren’t all bad.

I recommended that the guardians have visitors wait outside their home so that she can bring Cheech out to go for a short walk together when introducing him to new people. This is a wonderful way to help a fearful dog feel comfortable when meeting a person for the first few times. The other person doesn’t have to walk Cheech on their own, but just meeting outside then going for a short five or 10 minute walk before going into the backyard is going to help Cheech’s confidence. Building confidence in scared dogs is one of my favorite things to do as a Dog Behavior Expert.

I wanted to share a number of other dog behavior tips to help fearful dogs but I also wanted to make sure that they remembered them all. I decided to have them record a video of me going over a number of Dog Behaviorist secrets to help fearful or anxious dogs.

If you have a dog that is anxious or fearful of meeting new people, please take a moment to watch the free positive dog training video below. It’s full of tips to help scared dogs feel comfortable around new people.

I went over a couple of dog training techniques with Cheech’s guardians. He had a scary offleash incident so I promised to include our puppy class training video on teaching a dog to come on cue.

I’d also love to have the guardians find a few scent games that Cheech can practice at home. Scent work is a great way for dogs to burn energy, build confidence and avoid hyper focus on the wrong things. They can get started by practicing cookie in the corner, a very rudimentary scent game.

Because of the intensity of his fearful behavior, Cheech may benefit from antianxiety medication. I recommended the guardian speak to their vet about this as Cheech. If Cheech is so overwhelmed with stress it’s gonna be hard for him to find his way to balance without a little bit of additional help.

His guardians and I discussed setting up a follow up session or two in a month or so so that the medication has an opportunity to take effect.

We covered a the number of other tips in this in-home Pacific Palisades dog training session. To help the guardians remember them all we recorded a roadmap to success summary video that you can watch below.

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This post was written by: David Codr