Good Dog Behavior: How to Help Your Fearful Dog

I received an email about a fearful dog from the owner who needed help with her fearful dog. She wrote, “How can I train or work with my dog to not fear certain people? He barks and is afraid of men. It’s pretty tough on walks at times.” 

It can be very frustrating not to be able to enjoy walking your dog if you anxiously anticipate greeting the occasional male friend or even have family or friends over – some of whom are male.  If you are like me, knowing that your dog is having as much fun as you in the company of friends and family is well, very comforting. Anything less than that – like having to crate them or gate them – tends to add stress to the situation because we are always thinking about our dogs. Are they okay?  

 

Obedience training helps your dog to focus on something else

Training your dog to perform obedience commands like come, sit, down or place is a good way to help him focus on something else other than being afraid of men passing by on walks or visiting male friends.  It does take time to practice your obedience training. Not only do you want an immediate response to commands, you need an immediate response to your commands around men who are scary to your dog. 

Our dog Sammy is fearful of new people coming over. He knows his obedience training commands and we use them to keep him focused and “on task” (go to place) when new people come over. We practiced a lot with Sammy on his commands – first without visitors – then with visitors. We kept Sammy at a comfortable distance at first on place or his doggie bed as he got more comfortable with each new visitor. 

Once Sammy’s obedience training was good to go, we gave each new visitor a doggie bag of Sammy’s high value dog treats. Since we typically train with lamb loaf, we used grilled chicken only for visitors. With our visitor approaches preplanned, it went like this: 

Our first step

  •  Visitor arrives at scheduled time and picks up zip lock bag of grilled chicken treats
  •  Visitor rings doorbell and steps back, waiting for me and Sammy to come out to the front porch.
  •  Once out on the porch, our visitor is at a comfortable distance from Sammy and turned sideways to present a less threatening situation to Sammy.
  •  I put Sammy in a sit (lots of previous practice helped here) and when I clicked, the visitor tossed Sammy a piece of grilled chicken. There were 8-10 pieces in the   bag and in no time we were done. 

Our second step

  • I brought Sammy inside and as our visitor followed, I put Sammy on his place next to my chair with my foot on the leash.
  • Our visitor then picked up treat bag #2 on the end table next to the couch and tossed Sammy a treat each time I clicked. There were 4-6 treats in this bag.
  • Once we were done with bag #2, I gave Sammy a Kong toy stuffed with big chunks of grilled chicken. 

Our third step

  • We repeated the process – doorbell ring and all 2-3 more times with our friend. 

It’s very difficult for dogs to generalize things. For example, getting used to this friend, at least for Sammy, doesn’t mean all friends are okay. So we are gradually widening Sammy’s circle of friends – one at a time.  We also are aware that Sammy, like all dogs, may not warm up to all of our friends. That’s where we know that our dog obedience training will be our good back up. 

By the way, each time a visitor comes over, Sammy is associating positive things, treats and stuffed Kongs – with visitors. As Sammy gets more comfortable with each visitor, we will begin to get him comfortable with being closer to our friend and with our friend’s movement in the house.  Although some dogs warm up more quickly, dogs like Sammy take a little longer. It’s worth it for us. We keep him sharp on his commands so that we can count on them.

In summary:

Practice what you want your dog to do; i.e., sit, down, place, etc.

Practice what you want your dog to do around visitors

Keep your dog on leash

Keep your dog at a comfortable distance allowing you to get successful sits, downs or place.

Associate positive things – food treats, stuffed Kongs – with visitors

Practice, practice, practice 

If your dog seems stressed or uncomfortable, stop the training and pick it up again later. Keep your training positive and upbeat.

 

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Jim Burwell is a “thanks for making the impossible, possible” professional dog trainer having trained 20,000+ dogs and counting and serving more than 7,000 clients.  Jim’s easy to follow, common sense, and positive methods have made him the “dog trainer of choice” for 30 years.  One of his clients says it best: There are people who are so good at, and passionate about, what they do, that in their presence, one can’t help thinking that they have found their true calling and are doing exactly what they should be doing on this earth. Jim is one of these rare people. His quiet and understated manner, his effective technique for training dogs (and their families) is something which I feel fortunate to have witnessed and in which to have been an active participant.  Jane Wagner

(c)Jim Burwell Inc.

1 reply
  1. Marcia
    Marcia says:

    Thanks so much for this article. My little dog is terrified of strangers and I hate to keep her crated while people are over. I started this morning doing the steps that you explained.

    I know you say it’s a process but I so badly want her to not be afraid we will keep at this. I’ll let you know how it goes.

    No one else had made the steps so clear. Bless you!

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