Using Dog Psychology to Help a Fearful Dog Come Out of His Shell

By: David Codr

Published Date: March 17, 2015

Winston (Australian Cattle Dog)

Winston is a nine-month-old Australian Shepherd who was recently rescued out of a bad situation. In addition to not knowing any commands, Winston is extremely skittish; he snaps his head around any time he hears a loud sound or anyone moves, he does not come or look comfortable when near any strangers (especially men), is wary of walking through doors and shuts down when returning from a walk.

When I first met Winston he was sitting on the couch next to his owners but practicing some avoidance. He made some direct eye contact, but would move to avoidance any time anyone tried to engage with him.

Its pretty common for people who rescue dogs out of a bad situation to avoid adding in any rules, boundaries or limits as they feel bad for what happened to the dog and want to try to make up for it. While this is a mobile intent, its usually detrimental to a dog in that situation. The owner walks around on eggshells which creates an unsettling energy which does not help the dog. Additionally dog in these sort of situations never know what is or is not allowed which prevents the dog from growing and gaining confidence.

I sat down and discussed the situation with his owners for a bit taking care to not try to look or engage with the dog. Another common mistake people make is trying to “prove” that they are a good person by showering the dog with love and affection. But when a dog is in an unbalanced state of mind, this attention and affection is interpreted by the dog as “Im getting attention because I’m scarred” which often reinforces the unwanted behavior. A much better tactic is to get the dog LITERALLY moving in a forward direction which allows the dog to process things and offers a bit of a distraction.

I wanted to get Winston moving forward and the best way to do this is on a walk. Not only does this help distract the dog, it gives me the ability to see if the presence of its owner is impacting the dog’s behavior. Because Winston was in a heightened sense of anxiety, I took a few steps to help him feel relaxed.

I started off by getting out of my chair slowly, using a methodical or deliberate movement. Once i was standing up, I turned so that the dog was on my right side. A head on greeting can be interpreted as a challenge to dogs, where sideways is less confrontational. I took a number of deliberate steps towards Winston all the while keeping him on my right. Once I got a few feet away, I could see Winston tense up a bit and hold his breath. I turned so I was facing completely away from him then took a step backwards towards the couch. I paused a moment then sat down in a slow and deliberate movement. His owner let me know that Winston gave me a deep sniff laid his head down. I turned to the side a bit so I could see Winston and then attached the leash to his collar before standing back up.

Winston didn’t want to follow me so I gave him a few short tugs on the leash to get him going. When you are dealing with a fearful dog who shuts down or doesnt want to move, it hard to resist pulling with the leash, but its infinitely better to avoid doing so. By applying short tugs, then letting the leash go slack after each one, I was able to achieve a bit of a rocking motion in the dog which led to his getting off the couch.

I grabbed a handful of high value meat treats and then headed out for a walk. Winston did exceptionally well on the walk. He stayed in an almost perfect heel position with nary a correction. I assumed that his former owner must have at least taught him to walk at a heel, but later learned it was his current owner who should get the credit.

We passed a few reactive barking dogs and Winston barely noticed. But when a person approached or we walked near a trash can, he tensed up a little bit. When it happened the third time I pulled out a high value treat and used it to distract him. Thats when I discovered he didn’t know how to sit on command. I used all of my trick to get him to move into a sitting position himself, but none of them worked. As with the leash, its tempting to push the dog down into a sit, but when we do this for the dog, we rob them of the ability to learn to do so on command.

Instead of pushing Winston into a sit, I pulled one of his rear legs towards his front paws and gave a light push backward on his chest at the same time. This moved Winston into a sitting position. As soon as his butt was on the ground, I popped a treat into his mouth and repeated the “sit” command word three or four times as he chewed. I repeated this process every driveway we passed for a block. By the time we were most of the way back to his house, Winston was almost sitting on command.

When I got back inside, I blocked Winston from getting back on the couch. Winston countered by leaving the living room and going to his owner’s bedroom. I waned to use something Winston was familiar with and because he is a herding dog, I followed him into the bedroom and once he laid down, I walked on the other side of him then walked towards the dog to move him out of the room in a reverse herding fashion.

Once we were all back in the living room, I tried a few different techniques to get Winston to come and take a treat out of my hand. But no matter what I tried, he stayed away and barely looked in my direction. I knew i needed to get some movement out of the dog voluntarily before we could move on so I tossed a treat so that it fell a few feet in front of Winston. Bingo! Winston got up and took a few steps over to get the treat. I was anticipating this so I had another treat in my hand and as soon as he got the snack from the floor, I extended my hand towards him. Even though it was nay a few inches away, Winston was unable to take it.

I decided to place a treat on the floor, half way between me and the dog. I also held my hand out, practically on the floor with my palm up, a few inches away from the treat on the floor. Winston came over and took the treat from the floor, but then stopped moving forward. I inched my hand towards him and as soon as he gave me a single step forward, I let him have the treat. That single step ended up opening up the floodgates.

At first I was only able to get Winston to take one addition step after getting the treat on the floor. But we stayed with it and within a few moments I had the dog walking all the way over to me to get the treat. I made sure to not move my hand or elicit any excited sounds or movements. Its natural to get excited when you start making progress, but its very important to stay level, calm and consistent when working with a fearful dog.

Once I had practiced the recall multiple times, I had everyone get down onto the floor. This removes any hierarchy that comes from sitting higher than the dog, making the humans more approachable. I handed out some high value treats and then walked his owner and his girlfriend through a basic recall exercise. At first his owner had to use the treat on the floor halfway between the dog and himself, but after a few minutes, Winston was walking over without a treat on the floor and taking the treat from his hand as it was on his knee or lap.

Next we headed outside to practice in the back yard. I had gotten a feeling of Deja Vu when I arrived for the session, but couldnt put my finger on it. But once out back, I realized that this was the former home of a dear friend of mine from high school. My friend Jamie’s father is a famous boxer named Bruce “the Mouse” Strauss and the Strausses are some of the nicest most genuine people you will ever meet. You can watch a video of the Mouse’s hilarious appearance on David Letterman here.

I had Winston’s owner and his girlfriend sit down on the back porch in a small circle and we repeated the recall exercise we conducted in the living room. At first Winston was distracted by all the stimulation in the yard, but a few minutes later we had the same success we did inside. We were even able to go one step farther and get Winston to sit down after he walked over!

Next we moved to the upper level of the porch as Winston’s owner had informed me that the dog refused to go into the home through the door. I had his owner walk inside with his girlfriend and leave the door open. About 30 seconds after we went inside, the dog followed on his own with no coaxing. His owner was astonished saying he had never done that before so we repeated the process.

Over the years, I have found that often, one fear a dog has can be more powerful than another. In this case I bet that Winston’s fear of being left alone was greater than his fear of the doorway. While his owner was impressed, he asked what he should do if he wanted the dog to go in without going inside first so we all went back outside to practice that scenario.

Once outside I gave Winston a command and motioned that I wanted him to go inside. As I expected, Winston walked as far away from the door as the porch would allow. I walked over to where Winston stood and once I passed the dog, I turned and started moving towards the dog. Winston attempted to go around me once but I stepped to the side to block him from doing so. Then I methodically moved towards him reverse herding him until he went through the door on his own.

His owner just started at the door, almost in disbelief so we repeated the process but this time his owner did the work. Winston went into the house even easier than before so we practiced a few more times until there was no hesitation at all.

By the end of the session. Winston was walking up to and near his owner, something he absolutely refused to do before the session. He was also able to get the dog to take a treat from his hands, get the dog to recall on command, sit and even lay down; all things the dog refused to do for his owner before the session.

It will take some time, practice and a lot of patience, but because of the strides Winston made in our two hour session, Im confident that his owner will continue to earn the dog’s trust and respect in the coming months. I suggested teaching Winston several commands and tricks as well as working on the techniques and exercises I showed them in the session. As Winston masters these skills, his self esteem and confidence will increase until the fearful hesitant dog I worked with today is only a memory.

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This post was written by: David Codr