Helping a Fearful Dog Feel Safe

If you have a fearful dog, you probably read all sorts of conflicting advice about what to do about that. Everybody’s got an opinion, and unfortunately some of them include very poor methods.

Even if we rule out the methods that are obviously based on aversive practices, like prong collars or shock systems, we are not out of the woods. A lot of the suggestions made regarding fearful dogs, while well-meaning, are not helpful in the long run and can easily cause our attempts to help the dog backfire.

My favorite way to assess methods is using the three principles that Debbie Jacobs of has distilled from the best information available about fear, behavior change, and how dogs learn. They are:

  1. Help the dog be safe and feel safe.
  2. Use desensitization and counterconditioning to change the dog’s emotional response to triggers.
  3. Use positive reinforcement to teach the dog behaviors.

The Hardest Step

Even though #2 and #3 on this list above require mechanical skills and familiarity with concepts that are new to most people, I believe that #1 is the hardest. There is this powerful mythology out there about how to deal with fearful dogs. Sadly, many of the more kindly seeming methods can still end up keeping the dog in a state of fear.

Even the gentlest sounding practice, for instance, feeding the dog all her meals out of your hand, can comprise flooding if the dog is afraid of you. For many dogs without fear of humans, hand-feeding can promote your bond and teach them that great stuff comes from you. But those beneficial effects are not likely with a fearful dog, who gets put into a terrible conflict if she is afraid of you but must come to you to eat.

But the cool thing is that you can use Step #1 to assess almost any suggestion that someone throws at you. Recently I read where someone had asked, “But what does ‘Keeping the dog feeling safe’ look like? What does one actually do?” I thought that was a great question. It’s one thing to believe in it, but it’s another to try to implement it.

So here is my take on what generally fits into “Keeping the dog feel safe”and what does not.

What “Keeping the Dog Feeling Safe” Can Consist Of

It might be any of the following things.

Zoey claimed her own safe place
Zoey claimed her own safe place
  • Creating a hiding place for the dog if they are scared of you or any member of your family
  • Looking away from the dog if eye contact scares her
  • Setting up indoor gates and “airlocks” to prevent the dog from accidental contact with family members, visitors, or other animals
  • Setting up an indoor potty area if the dog is afraid of the outdoors or leashes or doorways or traffic noises or…..
  • Blocking windows or using window film
  • Playing white noise or non-dramatic music to mask scary sounds (only if the dog isn’t scared of the music itself)
  • Disabling your doorbell
  • Simply not having people over
  • Ignoring the dog
  • Comforting the dog (assuming you are not scary to her) when she is afraid
  • Protecting your dog from the advances of scary strangers (or even friends)
  • Being directive with veterinary staff about the dog’s needs
  • Exercising the dog in the yard instead of taking her for walks (if she’s not afraid in the yard)
  • Driving her to remote areas for walks (assuming she’s not scared of leashes, you, or riding in the car)

If some of these things seem really hard, well, they are. Having a fearful dog is much more work and takes more emotional stamina than is widely known.

Please check out the other half of this post: a photo gallery of some of the “safe places” that thoughtful owners have created for their fearful or sensitive dogs.

What “Keeping the Dog Feeling Safe” Doesn’t Consist Of

Will "hand feeding" this petrified dog at this moment build a bond with him?
Will “hand feeding” petrified Sunny at this moment build a bond with him?

What it doesn’t look like is any of these myriad things people suggest to try to get dogs to accept proximity to whatever it is they are afraid of, no matter how well-meaning.

  • Hand feeding the dog her meals
  • Having strangers give the dog treats
  • Having strangers pet her
  • Having anybody pet her if she doesn’t like it
  • Cuddling or hugging her if she draws away
  • Gazing at her
  • Taking the dog for walks when they scare her
  • Luring the dog with food (except as an emergency measure)
  • Taking the dog to dog parks
  • Taking the dog to a “regular” obedience class
  • Locking her out of her hiding place
  • Trying to get her to sit with you on the couch
  • Tethering her to you
  • “Herding” her with body pressure (except as an emergency measure)
  • Playing recordings of sounds she’s scared of over and over with the goal of habituating her
  • Keeping her in a public area of the house since she might as well get exposed to everybody as soon as possible
  • Forcing her to stay in a crate to “get used to it”
  • Dragging her up to the thing that scares her
  • “Showing” her that whatever she’s scared of isn’t really scary

 That’s Just Step #1

Don’t be dismayed. Yes, the “do’s” are a lot of work. The “don’t’s” are hard to avoid. But the  better you do at helping the dog feel safe, as extreme as some of those measures seem, the faster she may be able to progress.

Step #1 is powerful indeed. But it is a baseline. If you stopped there, you might end up with a dog who lived in your house with fairly low stress, but she might have very little joy in life. The point in taking steps to help the dog feel safe is so she is in a state where she can learn, little by little, using desensitization and counter conditioning, to be comfortable in her skin and happy in her life with humans. Not to mention that you get the satisfaction of knowing how much you really helped her.

I’m not going to write anything about Steps #2 and #3, because they are already beautifully delineated on the CARE for Reactive Dogs website. After we do Step #1, we can use the CARE techniques just as effectively on a dog who is frozen in a corner as we do with one who is hollering at the end of the leash. And by the way, the CARE website does also cover keeping the dog feeling safe, under the Respite and Relaxation section of PrepCARE.

And if you want to learn more about the three principles listed above, you can go straight to the source. Debbie Jacobs gives a great webinar on helping fearful dogs (new dates coming soon). Also check out her in-person seminar schedule on her blog.

Have any additions to the lists above? What does safety look like for your dog?

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© Eileen Anderson 2014                                                                                                            

12 thoughts on “Helping a Fearful Dog Feel Safe

  1. Another great post Eileen. What makes my Taffy feel safe when new people visit is to have her on leash with me. Being on leash and being given information (commands such as sit, wait, touch for treats) tends to calm her and let her know that I have things under control, she doesn’t have to “deal” with the situation. This works better for us rather than removing her from the situation. I also will use D.A.P. spray with nervous dogs. If I’m going to visit someone who has a nervous/shy dog I’ll spray my pants with it just before I enter their home.

  2. Eileen, one of the largest differences I see between you and many dog trainers I’ve known is in your statements like: “Looking away from the dog IF eye contact scares her”. So simple and logical, but at one large shelter I’ve seen trainers instruct people to approach scared dogs assuming everything is a trigger, such that they nearly trip over their own feet while walking sideways, and the dog gets scared from their awkward posture. As silly as that may sound, they were rather offended when I mentioned it. With so many trainers, it’s simply do/don’t rules without checking the dog’s reactions before using them, instead of your use of “if” and “when” there.

    With many scared dogs coming here, I have several sheltered areas around & they get to pick theirs. With four dogs beds in the living room, one is placed under a sheltering table, and is currently occupied by a rez dog who’s lived her life outside up to now. It took her a week to make it that far.

    A few comments after looking through that CARE website.

    In their Terms and Concepts right in the beginning, they say that dogs learn in two ways, by consequence and association, and they then use this to distinguigh between operant and classical conditioning. However, this is quite incorrect terminology, and many failures in applying positive reinforcement happen due to lack of association, which they say is not needed there. A better reference on these terms would be a search on Wikipedia for Learning, and see that both are association learning methods.

    Perhaps a small thing, but I see many articles with so many incorrect and varying definitions for standard terminology that it’s no wonder people are confused. And they have more of these, mixed in with much good advice.

    In general, most reactive or scared dogs will (eventually) respond to a variety of reasonable approaches, such as what they describe. But some will not and others may require a very long time. At a guess, I’d expect their approach to be reasonable for over 80% of dogs with those issues. But where their approach is not effective, people should realize there is much more available.

    As for your and their comment on simply using positive reinforcement to teach behaviors in scared dogs, it appears that Donaldson and The Academy for Dog Trainers is one of the few places that teaches the rest of that picture.

    For all that, I’ll still rate your blog as one of the best around.

    1. Thanks for noticing my qualifying remarks. I try to avoid absolute statements for a number of reasons, and in particular I try to keep in mind that my own experience is pretty narrow.

      Sounds like you have a good setup for your dogs.

      As for CARE, I think the author did a stunning job of explaining (not over-explaining) the science to lay people and creating a protocol that can be followed by pet owners who are new to all this training stuff. I’m aware of the definitions of associative and non-associative learning, but also aware that there is good precedent in the literature also for using “associative learning” as an equivalent term to Pavlovian conditioning. Since she is not discussing habituation or sensitization, I think it’s clear what her pairing of terms means and I think it is a good choice of words for the site’s intended audience. She spent an enormous amount of care (ha!) on the wording and structure of the site. Besides having excellent qualifications herself, the site was vetted by some experts.

      Thanks for the comment, and glad you like the blog pretty well.

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