How to Help a Fearful Dog Learn to Trust Humans Again

By: David Codr

Published Date: January 27, 2017

Manny (right) is a one-year-old Beagle mix who was adopted a few weeks ago by a family in Omaha to join their other dog, a Beagle named Barney. His new family set up a dog behavior training session to help him stop being a fearful dog around new people.

I got to see Manny’s dog anxiety as soon as I arrived for the session. He was clearly worked up and unsure of himself; barking, pacing and bounding around.

Because Manny had been nipping new people, his guardian repeatedly tried to physically block him and verbally disagree with his behavior. But because Manny was in such a panic state, these verbal cues were totally ignored and will do little to stop dog nipping. Additionally, pushing or pulling a dog away from something it is reacting to can actually intensify the reaction.

I didn’t get a chance to go over a better way to handle answering the door in the session as Manny was such an insecure dog, we really had to go back to square one. But I wanted to include a video from another session that shows the technique Id like the guardians to use in the future to move the dogs away from the door before opening it.

By increasing the distance between the dogs and the door, we can lower the intensity. Additionally, taking over this job that Manny seems to think is his will go a long ways towards lowering Manny’s reactive behavior at the door which should greatly reduce and stop his nipping.

Because the home Manny lives in has an open door area, the family may find that adding a few chairs or other object to the right side of the entryway will create more of a channel that will be easier to defend.

If its too challenging to accomplish this with both dogs, the guardians may need to practice with one dog at a time. I usually suggest family members call or text when getting close to home and then play the part of a guest by knocking at the door.

This way we can practice this exercise when the humans are prepared and have better reaction time. Once the dogs understand that they are to stay behind the line, the guardians can try it with both dogs together again.

However the family should only start to practice this door exercise once Manny is no longer in such a panic state. Likely in a month or two after our session. In the mean time, having Manny on the leash before the guest arrives will stop his barking, help the guardians keep him from running around which will slow down and reduce the intensity of his reaction.

But as I mentioned, that was far too advanced an exercise for Manny during this session as he was almost petrified when I arrived. Because the family’s mother was picking up a child from school, I decided to take Manny out for a walk to get to know him a little better.

Manny’s anxiety dropped considerably as soon as we left the home. This is no knock on his family and likely a result of being outside which is far less closed in.

Because Manny responded so favorably to the walk, I recommended that his guardian start walking him on a regular basis. As I mentioned in the video, dogs get over things by moving forward; so regular, structured walks will go a long ways towards helping Manny drain unused energy and relax.

I also recommended that the guardians take Manny out for a short walk with any visitors that come to the house over the next few weeks. It would be wise of them to arrange for family friends to drop by to practice this technique.

During the walk, the guardian should have Manny positioned between themselves and the guest. Halfway down the street, they should hand the leash to the guest then allow the guest to walk around the block with Manny by themselves.

After Manny gets used to this kind of walk, then it would be great for the family to find people who can come by and take Manny for the walk from the house without escorting him halfway down the block. Since Manny will likely not come back if he gets off the leash, they should always use a non slip or Martingale collar with the special twist of the leash to prevent this from happening.

This approach should help Manny because not only is he in a much more wide open environment, he will be moving forward while a stranger is holding the leash. During these walks, the stranger should not try to talk to Manny or pet him.

We want Manny to learn that just because a new person arrives does not mean that anything bad will happen to him. Although humans perceive petting as a good thing, if a dog is in a petrified or anxious state of mind, petting them is only going to reinforce that state of mind or make it worse.

When we returned to the home, Manny was much more relaxed. I would not say he was completely calm but his body language was much softer, his pupils were no longer dilated and he laid down and let out a discernible sigh.

Anytime you help a rescue dog out of a bad situation, it’s natural to want to shower them with love to help them know that they are in a safe place. That is an important part of the rehabilitation process so the dog feels safe and loved.

However it is important to recognize that whenever we pet a dog, we are rewarding it for whatever it happens to be doing at the time and this includes their state of mind. Petting a dog that is all worked up, anxious or nervous can actually result in the dog continuing to exhibit that behavior.

I recommended that guardians start to practice my petting with a purpose philosophy. This involves asking the dog to sit or lay down before they pet him. I also would like to see them pet him by scratching under his chin. When a dog feels insecure, their head is orientated down. When they feel good, the nose is parallel to the ground or orientated upward. This small step will go a long way towards helping Manny feel better about himself and the action.

One more things about this technique, sitting is a more subordinate posture for dogs. So putting Manny into a sit before they pet him can help him start to move into more of a follower’s mindset. Because a follower is not responsible for the things that a leader is, it will be important that Manny self identify in this position in order to help reduce and eliminate his stress.

Additionally, asking the dog to sit or lay down before we pet them can help the dog start to see himself as earning his praise. This can help the dog start to build up more confidence and self-esteem, two things that Manny really needs.

I went over some simple rules and boundaries that the family can out into effect. Dogs probe to determine boundaries and limits. A lack of these can give the dog the impression it needs to take on a leadership role; something Manny is not at all equipped for.

I also recommended that the family start training Manny as learning new tricks and commands will help give them tools to redirect him while simultaneously building up his confidence through mastery of new skills.

One other recommendation was to introduce scent games and scent training. Because a dog’s nose controls over half of its brain, this will be a great way to help Manny stop focusing on things he sees and instead go back to using his nose.

ROADMAP to SUCCESS

  • Start taking Manny out for daily walks (with at least one in the AM), letting him sniff and go as he pleases unless its dangerous to do so.
  • Once Manny is more confident, his guardians should schedule a dog training session with our dog trainer Tara to develop the ability to heel.
  • Have guests take Manny out for walks as soon as they arrive as detailed in the above video.
  • After the walk, the guest should give the leash to the guardian who remains at the door. Guest should walk to living room while dropping a high value treat every few steps (3 treats dropped per visitor).
  • Once guest is sitting on the couch, guardian should lead Manny to the treats then drop the leash once on the edge of the living room.
  • Guest should then extend an arm sideways towards Manney, avoid eye contact, keep still and silent while Manny approaches to take the treat.
  • If Manny wont approach to take the treat (Give him 20 seconds or so), the guest should drop the treat on their side and stay sideways to the dog until he takes it or moves away.
  • Introduce rules and boundaries for both dogs and constantly enforce them within 3 seconds to help Manny adopt a follower’s mindset to reduce his stress.
  • Put Manny on a leash any time he starts barking and won’t stop.
  • Use passive training (pet a dog and say come when it comes on its own, sit when it sits, crash when it lays down, etc) while saying he command word and simultaneously saying the command word and treating or petting.
  • Once Manney learns to sit on command, start teaching him a new trick each week for 8+ weeks.
  • Pet Manny with a purpose and make an emphasis to pet him by scratching under his chin.
  • Practice the kennel exercises as shown in the two videos on this post.
  • Start practicing a new boundary around the front door with family members and guests so the dogs stay back on their own.
  • Teach Manny some new basic tricks and exercises to help build up his confidence.
  • Introduce Scent games and training to help him practice being a dog again.
  • Feed Manny after Barney is done eating and only feed Barney after he see the humans eat first, even if its just a snack.
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