Helping a Pair of Anxious Dogs Get Over Their Fear of New People

By: David Codr

Published Date: May 8, 2018

Emry and Piper - Helping a Pair of Anxious Dogs Get Over Their Fear of New People

For this Omaha dog training session we were called in to help two scared dogs; 1 year-old Yorkie Piper is so fearful of new people she hides under the couch where her roomie, 2 year-old Morkie Emry barks to get people to leave.

I used a few dog behaviorist tricks when I first arrived to help Emry feel more comfortable with my presence. I could immediately tell her had cortisol in his blood by how twitchy he was. Cortisol is the stress hormone and puts dogs in a heightened sense of alert. Just like someone waiting in line at a haunted house knowing there are spooky things about, dogs in this stressed out state are going to be more jittery and reactive.

Discussing the situation with their guardians, it became clear a lack of early socialization was responsible for the dogs nervous nature. This is a classic example of why its so important for EVERY DOG to go to puppy school and practice meeting new people and experiences up until 9 months of age. But being rescue dogs (from our friends at Little White Dog Rescue), some of these issues started before the dogs made it into their forever homes.

I spent the first part of the session working on Emry’s fear of myself by tossing treats onto the floor in a strategic fashion. Each treat was placed slightly further away from the dog and closer to me. This allowed me to help Emry practice approaching me, getting a positive benefit (a treat) then feel empowered to move away. All the while I did not look at, talk to or they to pet him. When you are working with a scared dog, ignoring them and giving them space is usually a very smart approach.

As time when on, Emry grew more confident, approached quicker, didn’t move so far away and eventually took treats from my hand. Once this started happening, his little buddy Piper started to peek her head out from under the couch. I repeated the process with her, but her fear was more deep seated.

Eventually I had the guardians put each dog on my lap, but only after spending over an hour building up a positive association. As we worked with the dogs, I shared a number of dog behavior secrets as well as a common mistake many people make with fearful dogs, petting them to try to reassure them.

Anything your dog is doing when you pet it is what you are amplifying and reinforcing. This includes unbalanced states of mind. By petting the dogs in a fearful state, the humans were inadvertently reinforcing the exact state of mind they were trying to eliminate.

After going over ways to pet the dogs so the humans don’t reinforce the wrong things, I showed them how to train the dogs to offer desired behaviors instead. We transitioned from there into how rules and limits can help the dogs feel less responsible for the humans and help the guardians start acting as leaders, in the dog’s eyes. Combined, all of these small things should help reduce the cortisol levels in the dog’s blood which will have a huge impact on their behavior and make rehabilitating them much easier.

I ran through some additional dog behavior tips that should help both dogs with their anxiety around new people. You can get some of these tips by watching the positive dog training video below.

Its going to be a culmination of a number of new interactions, structure, positive reinforcement at the right times and practice to help these dogs stop acting nervously around new people.

Another great activity for insecure dogs is to take them for a walk. The change in environment has a profound impact with new stimulus to distract them as well as the literal movement forward. Moving ahead helps dogs get over things.

The problem is Piper does not like to walk and she has learned to escape her harness. A really bad combination for a fearful dog. To prevent her from slipping out again, I showed her guardians the benefit of a Martingale collar and showed them how to add the special twist of the leash to reduce pulling.

Once she was all leashed up, I took the guardian outside with her for some dog walk training. I showed her how to lead the dog, how to help Piper stay on one side, how to encourage her to continue on.

When we finished the short walk, I tethered Piper to a post in the lawn out front and grabbed a seat with her guardian. I wanted Piper to practice being calm outside so she could start building up positive experiences to help her get over her fear of the walk.

It took about ten minutes, but eventually Piper sat, then laid down next to her guardian. Her breathing slowed down to a normal rate and finally she laid her little head down completely calm and balanced.

Id like the guardian to take Piper out for at least one short walk a day (more is better), but to avoid times when there is a lot of activity, at first. We want these walks to be as easy as possible at first. Once the dog’s self esteem in built up, then practicing amongst gradually increasing levels of distraction will be the next steps.

Id also like to see the guardian practice sitting on the lawn out front for 15-30 minutes a day every day for 1-2 weeks. Again with calmer surroundings. This practice should have a profound impact on eliminating Piper’s fear of being outside.

Once this is the case, the guardian can look for ways to help the dog practice meeting and being with new people like visits to retirement homes or meeting friend of the guardians who can go slow and let the dog warm up to them on her own speed.

I ended up spending an extra 2 hours at this session as these dogs were so fearful of new people. But by the end of the session, they were laying down calmly on my lap. Its hard to see fearful dogs, but very rewarding to help them get over their fears.

To help the guardians remember all the tips I covered in this at home dog training session, we shot a roadmap to success video.


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This post was written by: David Codr