Like us, dogs can get scared for many different reasons. While we can voice our fears, our dogs can not. So we need to find a way to recognize when they are fearful. We will give you some signs to look for in your dog so you can tell when they are afraid. We will then go over what you can do to help a fearful dog gain confidence again.
One of the unfortunate things I see when it comes to training dogs is how people misunderstand fearful dogs. Fear in dogs can often be mistaken for aggression or even shyness. This can lead to an owner making things worse when they want nothing but the best for their dog.
Those who have dogs that show a lot of fear want the same things we all do. They want their dog to be able to play and explore, living the happy and free life that they see other dogs enjoying.
These owners want nothing but the best for their dog, but what they don’t realize is that they may be actually contributing to their dog’s fearfulness.
“Could I Be Making My Dog Fearful?”
Are you sending your dog mixed messages? If you give your dog too much control you are giving your dog the message that they are the pack leader, that they are the one in charge. Some dogs are unable to handle the pressure of being in charge and making decisions.
Imagine you are 6 years old and walking through a dark, spooky forest with your younger sister. Now, think how you would feel if suddenly out of nowhere, you and your sister heard a loud sound, or even a shadowy figure coming your way.
How would you feel? Afraid, of course! But if one of your parents were with you, then the whole game changes. You’re okay, you’re safe… because you’ve got someone responsible in charge that’s right there by your side.
This is just how your poor pup feels when you make them the leader of the pack. They can become terrified and confused. They want nothing more than to keep you and the home safe and sound.
You’re putting all the pressures of the world on your dog’s shoulders and some dogs are not able to handle it.
Whatever you have or have not done in the past, you can change it. Whatever is causing your dog’s fearful behavior, you can help your dog through it.
Fearful Dog Behavior
There are certain signs that can indicate you may have a fearful dog on your hands. Your dog’s body language will often help tell you they are in a situation where they are scared of something. Fearful dog body language usually comes in one of 3 forms, flight, fight, or freeze.
Flight signs are some form of escape. Look to see if your dog is running and hiding to avoid certain situations. Your dog may run fast when they are scared of something or someone. They may look for another room to hide in, under a bed or behind furniture. Wherever they will not be seen.
Fight signs include aggressive behaviors like barking, snarling, growling, biting, and snapping.
Freeze signs may be a tucked tail, flat ears, yawning, trembling, flinching, cowering, shrinking to the floor, or urinating on the spot. Your dog could also be panting, pacing, whimpering, or whining.
Loss of appetite can also be a sign your dog is afraid of something in their environment. Fear can turn them off their food.
Lack of attention to you is another sign your dog is fearful. If they look like they are on alert, scanning the environment and not paying attention to you, this may mean they are scared of something.
How to Help a Fearful Dog
Once you recognize the signs of a fearful dog you can determine what your dog is fearful of. Watch for any signs of fearful behavior and look for what is triggering it. It may be another dog, a person or unfamiliar people, a particular environment, or loud noises like thunder or fireworks. Once you know the trigger you can prepare to help your scared dog through their fear.
Do not try to comfort your dog when they are showing signs of fear. Affection is a reward to dogs. A dog will continue to repeat behavior that it is rewarded for. It thinks that is what you want it to do. Protect them if necessary but don’t reward their fearful behavior.
Remain calm and relaxed. Your dog will pick up on your behavior and want to mimic it. If you are ignoring what is scaring your dog, he will soon learn that it is nothing to worry about. If you show fear, your dog will follow your lead.
Do not force your dog to face their fears. If they are afraid of other dogs or people, do your best to avoid putting them in situations where they will come across lots of dogs or people. However, you can try desensitising them to certain fears gradually. Use positive reinforcement like praise and treats to show your dog what good behavior is. Let your dog set the pace and watch for those signs of fear. Stop if your dog is too scared.
Training alone will not help your dog conquer their fear. Teaching your dog basic commands is important, and helps to build their confidence, but it is not a step towards removing their fear.
To help your dog, you have to become your dog’s pack leader.
How to Train a Fearful Dog
I have found again and again that the best way to learn is through watching a video rather than reading, but here a few things to remember:
- Fearful dogs can change, but they will cave if you push them too fast
- There can be no question that YOU are the pack leader
- Have new people ignore your dog when they first meet
- Once your dog seems calm, have the new person call them over to greet them
- If they resist, your dog is still too fearful and should be left alone
- Seek expert advice or try the video course we mention below for some advice on training your fearful dog
Establishing yourself as your dog’s pack leader is a foundation that must be laid before you will have any success training a fearful dog.
One of my favorite resources for training dogs is Dan The Online Dog Trainer. He has an excellent dog training video course that shows you exactly how to establish yourself as the pack leader, and how to give back some confidence to your fearful dog.
Like with any kind of dog training, working with fearful dogs takes time and patience. Arm yourself with whatever information you need and put in the time with your pup. You will be rewarded with a happy, calm, and loving dog.
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