Training a Dog to Help Cope with Fear

Source: Debbie Jacobs, Updated on August 30, 2016
Fear Guide:

Cause of Dog to be Afraid

Disease, injury, poor vision or a hearing impairment, can cause a dog to behave in a fearful manner. Be sure you have eliminated these as causes of your dog’s behavior. Your dog might also be genetically predisposed to being cautious. Regardless of the reasons your dog is the way it is, it may never be like other dogs that aren’t fearful, but can learn to be comfortable in the world. Finding a trainer or behaviorist with experience working with fearful dogs is also helpful. A trainer who suggests that you do anything that scares your dog, or recommends the use of punishment to get your dog to behave a certain way should be avoided.

Training Guidelines for Fearful Dogs

Most important is that you work on building a positive, trusting relationship with your dog. This might mean that you spend the first days, weeks or even months showing your dog that you are safe, fun and his best friend. It does not mean showing your dog who is the ‘boss’ or leader of the pack. Since you control all the resources that your dog needs or wants, you are already the big kahuna. You don’t need to prove it by doing anything that scares or bullies your dog.

Regardless of what your dog is afraid of, or why s/he is afraid, resist any advice or temptation to force your dog to ‘face’ its fears (this is called flooding). One day that may be appropriate but until you know that your dog is ready, you risk making the problem worse. Respect your dog’s fears, they’re not silly, unfounded or senseless. Your dog is not being a coward. Your mission (if you choose to accept it) is to help your dog learn to enjoy the things that it currently fears. It will not happen overnight and you should not expect that your dog will suddenly come around (it might, but its best to be prepared for the more likely scenario that it doesn’t).

If you have developed a good relationship with your dog you will become its source of confidence and courage. When your dog trusts you, you can begin to ask it to deal with uncomfortable situations, and s/he is more likely to be willing and able to comply. Learn about how your dog’s body language conveys its feelings and you’ll be even better at giving your dog the kinds of experiences it needs.

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