Working with a fearful dog can be one of the most challenging things a dog lover will go through. You just want to tell them that everything is okay and that they will understand and instantly get over their fears. Of course, that’s not how dogs work. It can be a long process to gain trust in a fearful dog.
There are many reasons why a dog can become fearful. Anything from being born in a puppy mill and not socialized properly to past abuse by a human to genetics making them more anxious. No matter the reason, following these instructions will help create a bond between you and the fearful dog.
Human Body Language
Making sure that you have the right body language is super important. Creating a foundation in your body language will help encourage the dog to approach and trust you as a new person. Let’s start from the head down.
Head and Shoulders
For the head and shoulders, you should be remaining in a relaxed state. Do not move your head quickly. Every movement you make should be slow and fluid. Avoid doing obscure movements like cracking your neck or stretching. Make sure your head is bare, no hats! Also, do not lift your arms above your shoulders. This is especially important if you believe the dog was abused. They may confuse the movement with one that results in them being hit.
Do not make eye contact! This can be very threatening to a fearful dog. Eye contact can be translated as a challenge to dogs so if they are fearful, they will regress rather than start to trust. If you are trying to see the dog’s body language, look at their butt or back. It also helps fearful dogs adjust if you blink a lot. Dogs use eyes and mouths to communicate and blinking is a calming signal. Blink extra when you notice the dog is looking towards your face. Never wear sunglasses when working with a fearful dog. Eventually, you will teach the dog eye contact is a good thing. That is described below.
When it comes to the mouth there are two things to take into account, the noise coming out of it and the motions it is making. When speaking around the fearful dog, maintain a low tone soft speech. Never shout or yell. Do not talk to the dog and try to coax them to focus on you. Just talk to yourself. So that the dog gets used to you making noise but not directed at them, yet. Avoid making weird noises like clicking, whistling, smacking gum, etc.
Second, dogs communicate to one another through their eyes and mouths. They use their mouths by licking their lips. This tells the other dogs they mean no harm. Don’t be afraid to do this if you can see the dog looking towards your face.
These limbs need to be as still as possible when working with a fearful dog. They should be relaxed and loose. Never ever stiff. Arms should either be down on your sides or folded across your chest. Preferably by your sides. When walking around, make sure your arms swing in very fluid and small movements. The fearful dog will need to get used to this motion but try to make it smaller movements to begin. Avoid talking with your hands, lifting arms above shoulders, moving arms too quickly.
Never ever ever reach your hand out to a fearful dog. If the dog is not ready to sniff or approach you, this can end in a dog bite. If they approach to sniff, stand still but not stiff and let them sniff whatever they want to sniff.
Positioning is everything when it comes down to working with a fearful dog. Never face the dog head on. That is scary and challenging to a fearful dog. Keep your body positioned so the side of your body is facing the dog. Even putting your back to the dog is a better option than facing them.
Biggest thing to avoid, with legs, is fast movements. Walk smoothly and relax around the area the dog is in. The fearful dog will need to get used to walking so walk normally but make it a fluid motion. Avoid running, jumping, kicking, or any quick movements. Another thing to avoid is walking up behind the fearful dog. If you need to approach, approach from the side.
Ways To Gain Trust
Relaxing Crate Time
Some fearful dogs will use their crate as their safe space. Make sure you keep it that way for them! Place it in a quiet part of your house away from all the main traffic. Quieter, the better. If the dog is having trouble getting up the courage to leave the crate, place a playpen around the crate so they can exit when they want, but not leave a confined area. The fearful dog may leave the crate to use the bathroom then go back in. Don’t be upset, you can work on potty training at a later date.
While they are in their crate, you can, VERY softly, play desensitizing sounds for them to get adjusted to home life. Cars, dogs barking, knocking, thunder, etc. There are lots of options on YouTube. If you notice the dog becoming more fearful in regards to the noises, stop immediately.
Never pull the dog out of the crate, make sure they exit on their own. If you force them out they will start to distrust you and it teaches them if they stay in the crate, they do not need to go through that scary motion. Also, if they walk themselves out of the crate and you calmly verbally praise them for doing so, that builds confidence and they gain trust with you!
A great bonding exercise that a person can do is to sit in the room with a fearful dog while they are in their crate. Just sitting in the room and reading a book or playing on your phone will help the dog study you. They will be able to smell you and watch your movements, but from a comfortable distance and in a safe space. If you ignore the dog they can work up their confidence to get to know you more and more.
Confident Movements On Leash
When working with a fearful dog, keep a leash on them at all times. This way if they get startled and try to bolt, you have something to grab instead of trying to scoop them up in your arms. Or if they happen to be outside, they do not get loose. Trying to trap a loose fearful dog outside is a difficult task.
Most important thing when a fearful dog is on a leash is to avoid a tense leash. Having the leash nice and loose will help keep the fearful dog calm and comfortable. Tensing up the leash can cause a fight or flight reaction, which should be avoided.
When a fearful dog is first exploring their area, hold the leash and maintain the looseness. Walk with them around the house. Let them guide you where they want to go and explore. If they chose to lay down, sit beside them while maintaining control of the leash.
After some time getting used to the surroundings, you can tie the leash to your belt. This way when you walk around the house, the dog will begin following along, learning to follow and trust your guidance. In a calm and relaxed state, fiddle with different household items. Open and close the refrigerator, sit on couches, pull out chairs from the table. This helps get the dog used to house living. If the dog is pulling backwards or freezing, they are not ready for the exercise.
Being outside with a fearful dog can lead to problems if not handled correctly. If something startles the dog and they bolt, they can be loose and need trapping or end up harmed. If you are walking a fearful dog outside, double leash them. This means one leash is attached to a secure collar, preferably a martingale collar, and a slip lead is also on around the dog. With this system, they should not be able to slip out of the collar or slip lead.
If the dog tries to back out of the collar or slip lead, stand very still and wait for them to stop pulling. Do not approach them or become aroused. Just relax and wait for them to stop. Then confidently and calmly guide them back into a secure area.
Another great way to increase a fearful dog’s confidence is to walk side-by-side with a very confident dog. These dogs should not be meeting to play, just walk. Taking a walk a day next to a dog with no fear issues will show the fearful dog how to react and what to do in scary situations.
The Way To A Dog’s Heart Is Through Their Stomach
Fearful dogs lack Serotonin in their brain; this makes them stay fearful or anxious. A way to help their brains produce more is through yummy food. The more Serotonin they have, the more relaxed they can become while they gain trust.
This is going to be the biggest trust building exercise to start! If you can, divide the dog’s food up into three meals; breakfast, lunch, dinner. For each meal (as long as there are no signs of resource guarding), you are going to hand feed the dog. Pick up small amounts at a time and allow the dog to eat the food from your hand with an extended arm. As the dog begins to trust the exercise and is interested in the food, pull the food closer and closer into your body. This may take a few meals so don’t rush it.
Earlier, it was mentioned to sit in the room with a fearful dog while they are in their crate. While in the room with the dog, leave their crate door open. Being very careful not to be too dramatic, underhand toss treats into the dog’s crate. As the dog becomes more comfortable with the surprise treats, starting throwing them outside the crate door. This way the dog has to gain trust in your and move to get the treats. Eventually, you should be throwing the treats around the room for them to go find and munch.
Gain Trust Through Eye Contact
As mentioned earlier, eye contact can be very scary for a fearful dog. The ultimate goal is for them to learn that eye contact is a positive thing. One way of doing this is by giving a treat for them making eye contact. First, place treats in your hand and allow the dog to take treats from your hand. Once they have that step down, show them the treat but close your hand and raise it so it is in line with your eyes. If they look up and make eye contact with you, say “yes” and give them the treat. Repeat continuously until they are making eye contact in a calm state to help gain trust.
It may take a long while, but eventually your fearful dog will start relying on you as their most trusted person. Once your fearful dog is mastering all the above exercises, you can start incorporating basic obedience into their lives. Remember, they have a more timid side so go slow with lots and lots of verbal praise. The best part about a fearful dog is that they want to know from their human if they are doing well. Verbal praise will last forever in a fearful dog. Doing basic obedience with your fearful dog will create a bond like no other!
As a dog trainer, I would suggest starting off with individual basic obedience lessons then, when the dog is ready, graduate into a classroom setting for obedience. Rally, Agility, and Canine Good Citizen are amazing confidence building obedience and help gain trust in their handler.