Teaching a Fearful Dog that the Family’s Father is a Good Guy

By: David Codr

Published Date: August 12, 2015


Mojo is a one and a half year old Border Terrier mix who is afraid of new people and the father of his new family, barks at  people passing by house, has nipped the family’s kids and only follows the commands of the family’s mother.

Ive worked with a few dogs who were fearful of men and it always makes me happy when I can help a family who has a member that the dog doesn’t like or trust as I know Im making a real difference in the family and dog’s life.

I came into the home with soft body language, moved slower than normal and avoided direct eye contact with the dog. He was barking up a storm letting me know he didn’t approve of my presence as soon as I came into the home. His body was tight and tensed up, he moved in quick darting movements and looked extremely uncomfortable. I could see that he was a quick twitch dog which calls for slow and deliberate movement shy the humans. I tossed a highly scented meat treat on the floor near the dog and waited in place without moving to see if he would go get it.

When a dog is in a extremely fearful state, they won’t take a treat. Fortunately Mojo did eat the treat so I knew this wasn’t a severe case. Still, it takes the right approach; talking too loudly, moving too fast or communicating anything too aggressive through body language and movement can have a really negative impact on a nervous dog.

When I sat down to discuss the situation with the guardians, I kept my body positioned in a way that was non confrontational to the dog and continued to avoid eye contact. I tossed another treat on the floor near the dog, then after he got it, dropped one a few feet away from my feet.

Mojo was cautious, but he did come over and collect all the treats. Each time he did, I noticed a small and subtle change in his body language. After a few minutes I was able to get the dog to come over and take a treat from my hand. The family’s mother said she hadn’t seen him do that with any man before.

I discussed some do’s and dont’s with the father, an extraordinarily patient man who had been putting up with a barking dog for way too long. Poor guy. Fortunately he was all in on changing this problem which makes all the difference. I explained that by avoiding confrontational body language, speech and movements, he can help the dog learn to relax around him.

These changes had a pretty quick impact. My calm, nonchalant interaction with the dog combined with the positive reinforcers had helped Mojo settle down and relax even more. Within a few moments, the dog was going over to the dad on his own, without being called.

I had the dad completely ignore the dog at first. While this seems counter intuitive, letting the dog approach you without trying to interact back helps the dog gain more trust and confidence that you mean it no harm. If you try to reach out or engage when the dog comes over, you can cause the dog to revert to a flight mode.

One of my goals for the session was to get the dog to take a treat from the dad’s hand. To make this happen, I utilized a simple recall exercise. At first I had the kids and mom participating while the dad was there, just not involved. After a few repetitions, I showed the dad how to position the treat and move his hand in a way that was enticing to the dog.

It was great seeing the dog not only warm up to the dad, but start to become more comfortable and obedient around him. It only took a minute of the recall before the dog was trotting over and sitting pretty in front of the father each time he called the formerly fearful dog.

After discussing some additional things the dad can do to continue to expand the newly burgeoning relationship, I turned my attention to the two preteen daughters. While Mojo wasn’t an aggressive dog, he did attempt to disagree with them when they played too rough or loudly with one another. When a dog disagrees by nipping children this way when they get over excited, I find the best results come from teaching the children how to act in a way that helps the dog see them as authority figures.

I explained how the girls can use body language and movement to disagree with Mojo when he got too close, jumped up on them or was doing something they didn’t agree with. Within a few moments the girls had the techniques down and Mojo was hearing what they said, loud and clear.

By the end of the session, Mojo’s twitchy movements and lack of confidence had disappeared. He was still barking a little more than Id like, but it was substantially less than than the start of the session. He was responding when called and stopping when corrected. As the family practices the new techniques and communication methods we introduced in the session, Mojo’s confidence will continue to grow.

But the best part of the session was helping the dog get over his fear of the father. Watching him call, pet and interact with Mojo in a positive way for the first time was extremely rewarding for me. With a little practice over the next few days or week, Mojo’s fearful behavior will be gone for good.

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This post was written by: David Codr

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