Helping a Fearful Dog Gain Confidence

Fearful Chihuahua

If you have a fearful dog, you know how complicated it can make things.  Learn some basic training tips that will help.

After adopting a couple of rescue dogs in a row – dogs who needed extra attention and training to fix issues that were a result of their previous unfortunate experiences, I decided I wanted a puppy I could train from the beginning – I imagined having the “perfect” dog companion.  Well trained, loyal, obedient, confident, able to go anywhere, and, of course, gorgeous.

I researched breeders, picked an excellent one with dogs who excelled in agility, Nosework, therapy dogs, etc.  I did my homework!

So I brought home my new puppy – I had waited almost a year on a waiting list to get this special dog from this special breeder.  I had such high hopes!  I named her Molly.

From the first day at home it was clear.  Molly is a chicken butt.  Lots of things scare her.  At first the list of her fears was endless.  Every walk provided reasons for bolting fear – a yard ornament, a kid on a bike, a motorcycle, or even me, scraping my feet on the pavement.  My “perfect” dog hated going on walks!

So I did lots of reading on fearful dogs.  I set aside my high hopes of having a dog who could go anywhere and be my constant companion.  I stopped forcing her to do things that scared her.

We started small.  I would drive her to a park near our home where we could walk and almost never encounter another person or especially another dog.  We walked on wooded trails alone.  She got exercise and relaxed and started enjoying walks.  When she saw something “scary” – this could be anything – a weird-shaped tree, a park bench in the distance, a deer – I would give her a treat – often several treats in a row until we were past the “scary” thing.  If we heard a dog barking – no matter how far in the distance – Molly gets a treat for every bark.

Oh yes.  She was afraid of the car too.  We started out just getting in and out of the car.  I gave her treats and taught her a command to jump in and out.  Then we proceeded to shutting the doors and starting the motor.  Wait for a second or two and then shut off the motor and go back in the house.  Then we would take short drives.  Down the driveway and back up.  Around the block.  And finally to a park a 5 minute drive from our house.  It took about 4 months to get her calm and confident in the car with daily practice – usually two sessions a day.

In the house, I would play recordings of “scary” things.  Barking dogs.  Cars.  Thunderstorms. Sirens.  I started at a low volume and would give her treats during the recording and ramp up the volume slowly over time.  Lots of treats.

We worked through her fears, one at a time, starting with very low intensity (a person in the distance, a visit to a busier park but not getting out of the car) giving treats every time she “pointed out” something scary to me.  Sometimes we’d just sit on the front lawn and watch cars go by (treats) watch our neighbors come and go (treats) other dogs walk by (treats).  It took months, actually, more than a year before she started enjoying regular walks and didn’t bark or bolt every time she saw another person, a dog, a spinning yard pinwheel, a snowman, etc.

At two years old, Molly is still a fearful dog.  She doesn’t like strangers touching her.  She is VERY WARY of children in her vicinity.  She still bolts at things I don’t anticipate.  But I have learned to pay attention to her body language and look up ahead and around us so I can help prepare her for something that might be a problem.  I always carry treats wherever we go.  Now, she can go almost anywhere with me, lay at my feet in an outdoor restaurant, stop by the farmers’ market.  She has stayed in a hotel.  She excels at K9 Nosework.

It is possible to help a shy, fearful dog have a full, interesting life.  My advice:  Ready EVERYTHING you can about it – there are quite a few good books with great suggestions and training tips – and have LOTS of patience.  It takes time but the feeling you get when a small success is attained is like no other.  You have achieved something together.  The ultimate teamwork.


1 Response

  1. I ve seen shy dogs with mild fears become more confident in a few short weeks. But I ve also seen dogs take up to two years before they were comfortable. Whatever amount of time it takes, the time and investment will be worth it both for you and especially for your dog! Helping a shy dog build confidence and overcome fears is not only one of the greatest gifts you can give your dog, it is a very rewarding experience for the human side of the team, too!

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