Some Free Tips to Help a Fearful Dog

By: David Codr

Published Date: February 14, 2024

help a fearful dog

For these Omaha dog behavior training sessions we worked with Sammy, a fearful 8 month-old Min Pin puppy; sharing tips to help a fearful dog.

Sammy is enrolled in our puppy classes, but before she started classes, a stranger picked her up off her guardians lap and yelled at her for barking, Sammy become terrified of new people after that scary encounter; barking and snapping to make strangers go away.

Sadly, one negative experience like this to a young puppy can have long lasting consequences. Its a prime example of how important it is to prevent a young pup from having a bad encounter with new people, dogs, places, etc. I wish Sammy had started our puppy classes when she was younger. Not socializing puppies early, under 5 months, is the cause of so many dog behavior problems it should be law that young puppies need to be enrolled in a positive puppy class.

After having over 10,000 puppies come through our program, I have seen first hand the profound difference early positive socialization makes. Very few of our puppy class pups need to see us for behavior problems as adults. If you have a young puppy, dont wait. Many people think their puppies openness to new people is permanent. It can be if you fill it with positive experiences, but if you dont or skip puppy class, a barking, snappy or insecure adult dog is not at all uncommon.

Since the yelling incident, Sammy barks like crazy when people she doesnt know get too close. While we were able to offer manny tips in puppy classes, Sammy’s fear response was so profound her amazing guardian asked us to help her one on one in her home.

Tips to Help a Fearful Dog

For the first visit, we focused on what to do when Sammy has a fearful outburst. Its a very common mistake to say no or correct a dog who is barking. But since all behavior is trying to achieve something, disagreeing with a bark, growl, nip or lunge will usually only make matters worse. When Sammy has an outburst, its not an intentional thing it emotional; she is freaking out. I dont know about you, but if im scared and tell people yet the scary thing gets closer or someone tells me to shut up, it doesnt help me feel better. In fact, it makes me feel like I need to communicate louder. Same thing with dogs.

I showed the guardian how to start helping Sammy have a positive association with the thing she is scared of. There are too many aspects of these tips to detail here, but some include moving Sammy or the scary thing away when she reacts. Another is to provide her with positive reinforcement (pets or treats) when she engages with the scary thing without barking, lunging or nipping. This may seem counterintuitive, but when the dog does what you want, no mater what that is (sitting, laying down or not barking or not biting), you should recognize and reward them.

We also went over how to read Sammy’s body language. Most dogs will communicate they are uncomfortable before they react with barking, lunging or nipping. While this is related to the cut off signals lesson we cover in puppy class, I went into more detail of overall dog body language and some of the things to watch for; wide unblinking eyes, staring, ears pulled back, stiff body, leaning away, licking lips and breathing heavily.

By reading her dog and moving the scary thing away or moving Sammy away, the guardian can solve the problem (the scary thing is getting too close) before Sammy needs to. This is called management or maintenance and is a very effective and sadly under utilized dog behavior tip for scared dogs. But the more the human solves the problem before the dog acts out, the less the dog practices being scared or freaking out.

Later in the session, I showed the guardian how to use a secret licking trick to provide more of a positive association while simultaneously keeping Sammy occupied and not barking. There are also endorphins released with this secret way to help fearful dogs. So pairing the licking trick with the scary thing at a distance can help the dog start to build up a positive emotional response. Over time, this can change the scary thing into something the dog likes (best case) or is indifferent to.

I also shared a trick to stop a dog from barking at the window. This is a common problem for fearful dogs. Each time the dog sees something outside the window and barks at it, and sees it go away, it rewards the dog and makes the barking more likely to occur again. So each time a dog barks at a window and sees the thing go away, they get better at the behavior. So my trick to stop barking at the window will not only help stopping the barking behavior it can help Sammy stop practicing being so upset at things outside her home.

For the second session, I showed the guardian how to practice something called the Engage Disengage game. Its a counter conditioning exercise that I use a ton when Im hired to help fix a fearful dog. If you have a dog who react to things that it doesnt like or is fearful of, you should definitely check out the free positive dog training video below.

The engage game worked brilliantly. Sammy grumbled a few times practicing for the first time, but all in all she did pretty good. In fact it worked so well Sammy quickly lost interest in the scary thing and was turning away without barking and being rewarded handsomely each time she did.

I made sure to let the guardian know that even if Sammy does well at the exercise, its important to go at the dog’s pace and practice in short successful sessions. You want to run through the entire exercise without the scared dog barking or having any outburst. Our goal is to stack repeated all positive (no reaction) experiences on top of each other until not reacting becomes the habit. This is one of the most basic tips for helping a fearful dog with this exercise. I was really proud of how well Sammy and her mom did.

For our third session, we practiced the engage disengage game and this time the scary thing was able to get considerably closer than the previous week. This was great to see because Sammy’s guardian hadn’t had the opportunity to practice as often as she had wanted. I made sure to point out more frequent practice generates better and faster results. So Im hoping she can practice at least once a week, but more than that would be better.

After the engage disengage game, we talked a bit inside and Sammy started to get anxious. Often dogs have a period of time they can handle things but we humans often go too long and after the dog reaches its limit, it starts reacting again. So having shorter visits that gradually get longer can be a helpful tip for helping a fearful dog.

To finish up the session, we went for a group walk. On the walk, Sammy’s mom did a great job of stopping to let her sniff. Sniffing is comforting, interesting, relaxing and energy burning for the dog. It also provides a nice distraction and practice at not looking for something scary. So letting a scared dog sniff on walks is something everyone should do.

Each driveway, we stopped and I asked Sammy to sit. When she did I marked and rewarded her. This is good practice for Sammy teaching her that listening to strangers is nothing to be scared about. In fact, its a great way to earn a treat. This is a wonderful way to help a dog stop being scared of strangers.

Id like to see the guardian invite friends Sammy doesnt know over to help with her fearful behavior.

Step one is for the friend to practice the engage disengage game by walking back and forth in front of the house for a couple of minutes. In a perfect world, the friend would then go home.

Step two would be for the friend to practice the engage disengage game again, then walk past Sammy’s line of sight and wait for Sammy and her guardian to come out on a walk and catch up with them. This will allow them to go on a walk where the friend asks Sammy to sit at each driveway the way I did. After the first walk, it would be great for the friend to not come into the house for this second interaction.

Step three would be a repeat of step two, engage disengage, walk with sits on driveways, then finishing the walk by coming inside for a short (3-5 minute visit). During the visit, Sammy’s guardian should use the licking trick, holding the spoon so Sammy is looking at the guest should should be seated and avoid big movements or loud talking. Before the spoon trick is complete, the guardian should call Sammy away into another room so the guest can leave without Sammy seeing.

Step four would be to repeat step 3, but stay after the licking is complete. At this point it becomes a case by case basis. The guest should have some treats and toss one on the floor every so often (a few times a minute) with every 3-5 treat tossed behind Sammy to increase space.

If the guardian can find a few friends to help with these steps, she should be able to help Sammy practice meeting new people without reacting negatively to them. Its a process and will take time and repetitions. But if she does, she should be able to make progress similar to what we did in puppy class.

Sammy made quite a bit of progress regarding her reactivity in these 3 in-home Omaha dog training sessions. She did show some guarding behavior during play time that we may need to work on in follow up sessions, but considering how scared and reactive this little dog was when we started, everyone involved was impressed with her progress. If her guardian can arrange for some friends to come by and practice this steps outlines above, im very optimistic that Sammys’c confidence and social development will continue to grow.

If you have a fearful dog, or need help with other puppy behaviors, check out some more info on our in-home training sessions here.

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This post was written by: David Codr