We cannot simply tell our canine companions to not be afraid of something. Rather, we must communicate it to them through our actions and our energy. With time, positive reinforcement training, and a calm and patient demeanor, you can help your cautious companion overcome even her greatest fear.
Before anything else, it is important to consult your veterinarian to rule out any potential medical issues that may be contributing to your dog’s fearful behavior.
Fearful Body Language:
It’s important to remember that dogs cannot talk, instead they primarily communicate through their body language. You also need to determine her threshold – the point at which she begins to exhibit fear (e.g. distance from the trigger, volume, quantity, etc.). It is important to never exceed your dog’s threshold throughout the training process.
Fearful Canine Body Language:
Frantically looking around
Attempting to flee
Rolling onto the back
Licking of the lips
Finding your dog’s trigger(s):
It’s crucial to always be aware of your dog's behavior and to take note of the things she is afraid of, aka her “triggers”. Along with noting what her triggers are, observe the amount of the scary thing she can handle before behaving in a fearful manner. This is called her threshold. It is important to never exceed your dog’s threshold throughout the training process.
Managing your dog’s trigger(s):
Once you have determined her triggers and threshold, create a plan to limit her exposure to these things. When you’re training her, it’s important that you don’t scare her more.
In most cases, it’s almost impossible to completely avoid every trigger. Make sure to have a “Plan B” in case you aren’t able to avoid a trigger, such as taking a U-turn on a walk or crossing the street. Be sure to always have treats on you to reward your dog for moving away from the scary thing!
Reintroducing triggers through positive reinforcement:
Introduce your dog to the things that scare her slowly, gradually, and in a controlled environment. To prevent your dog from being more afraid, it’s incredibly important not to rush this process and never to force your dog into a situation where she is scared. Remaining calm throughout this process is also key. Use calming gestures such as stroking her head and talking to her in a soft tone of voice to help ease your dog’s anxiety and fear.
Start off by introducing the scary thing to your dog at a distance and rewarding her with lots of treats and praise when she does not show signs of fear. This will teach her to associate yummy treats with the scary object. If at any point she does start showing signs of fear, take a break and calm her down by softly petting her. Start again from the last point when you succeeded and go even slower.
For example, if your dog is afraid of strollers, feed your dog a treat every time she sees a stroller, even if it’s from a distance. Soon enough, your dog will start associating the stroller with treats and be less fearful of them.
For a more detailed explanation of this plan, see our article Desensitization and Counterconditioning for Fear.
Building your dog’s confidence through training is a great way to help her through her fear and also enhance your bond. If training classes can get a bit overwhelming for your dog, here are a few fun activities to help build her confidence.
TOUCH (HAND TARGETING)
- Put a treat in between your middle and index fingers
- Put your hand, palm side facing the dog, about six (6) inches from your dog’s nose
- Wait for your dog to inspect (sniff, lick, touch etc.) your hand then say, “Yes” or “Good” and give a treat from your other hand
- After several repetitions, remove the treat from your fingers and see if your dog will touch your hand with his/her nose
* If not, go back to putting a treat between your fingers and try again without the treat later
- Gradually increase the distance and height of your hand from your dog’s nose and switch between your right and left hands
NEW & COOL
- Find six (6) objects that your dog has not seen up close before
- Place the six (6) objects in a circle on the floor (make sure your dog does not see you placing the objects)
- With your dog on the leash enter the room where the objects are
- Unclip the leash and allow your dog to explore
- As soon as your dog investigates an object, no matter what he/she is doing, say, “Yes” or “Good” and give your dog a treat
- Gradually replace an old object with a new object, one at a time
HIDE & SEEK
- Find six (6) boxes
- Place a few very smelly treats (like cheese, chicken, steak) inside each box
- Place the six (6) boxes on the floor
- With your dog on the leash enter the room where the boxes are
- Unclip the leash and allow your dog to follow his/her nose to treats inside the boxes
- Begin this exercise with easy to access boxes (i.e. low to the ground, no lids, etc.)
- Gradually make it more difficult for your dog to access the treat in the box (i.e. add lids, turn box upside down, etc.)
- Gradually expand the area in which the boxes are (i.e. move them farther apart, then place in different room, etc.)
Your dog’s fear will not be resolved overnight. It’s important to remember to remain calm and patient throughout this process.
If you would like information from an Anti-Cruelty Society Behavior Specialist regarding this behavior topic, please call 312-645-8253 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.