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Cautious Canines

There are so many misconceptions about treating fearfulness in dogs that before discussing what to do, it’s important to know what not to do. Ascribing to any of the following myths is detrimental to progress when working with a fearful dog.

Dogs will grow out of it. Expecting a dog to “just get over it” is wishful thinking.

He must have been abused. The behavior that most commonly elicits concerns of abuse in a dog’s past is that the dog is only scared of men. While it’s possible that a man has harmed the dog, fearful dogs are often more reactive to men than to woman or to children, and this is particularly true of dogs whose socialization experiences were inadequate. It’s likely that men— with their larger size, deeper voices, broader shoulders and stronger jaws— appear more imposing to dogs.

He must have had a traumatic experience. It’s natural to assume that a dog who is scared of children has been teased by them, or that the only reason a dog would react badly to a broom is because of a terrifying experience with one. Yes, bad experiences sometimes lead to fear, but often, dogs are afraid of things that are new or unpredictable. So, the dog may fear children because they scream and move around in crazy ways, or he may fear brooms because he’s not used to them.

He should be punished. Punishment will make the dog more fearful, and must not be used as a way to change any fear-based behavior. When bad things happen to a dog in the presence of what scares him, it makes the fear and the problem behavior worse, not better.

A drug can fix this. In some cases, and always under the supervision of a veterinarian, pharmacological intervention may be appropriate, in conjunction with behavior modification and other techniques for helping fearful dogs. However, there is no magic pill that instantly cures fearfulness in dogs.

He’s just being stubborn. When a dog refuses to get in a car or crate, resists allowing the vet to examine him, or won’t go down the steps to the basement, many people perceive his behavior as obstinate. But with fearful dogs, stubbornness is not the problem, any more than a kid standing on the high dive and refusing to jump is being mulish.

He’s trying to dominate. Status is a fact of life for many social species, but when dogs are afraid, their social standing is not the issue. Trying to fit all behavior problems under the heading of dominance does far more harm than good. Happily, more and more people recognize this perspective as outdated and counterproductive.

Petting or consoling him will reinforce the fear. Pia Silvani’s comment on this common misconception is simple and to the point: “With all due respect, this does not make a bit of sense.” It is okay to reassure your dog that everything is fine in a calm and confident manner. To ignore him when he is clearly distressed is about as logical as refusing to hug your child when she wakes up from a nightmare. They are not going to become more fearful when they are reassured, but failing to do anything risks teaching them that you are not available when they need you most. Wilde tells her clients, “Be affectionate with your dog, but if you are overly worried, your dog will be, too. It’s fine to reassure your dog casually with an upbeat tone, but don’t coddle them with nervous energy.” McConnell devoted an entire Bark column to explaining why it’s not only okay, but actually helpful to soothe dogs who are afraid. (“I’m Okay, You’re Okay,”).

You just have to live with it, or get rid of the dog. Thankfully, this is not true, but resolving a dog’s fear-based problem does take effort. As Jacobs puts it, “It’s not easy and it never happens as quickly as you’d like it to. It’s going to require more work, time and energy than you anticipated.” Many dogs recover completely, and still others improve greatly, though they may always remain on the cautious side; some situations may always be overwhelming and should be avoided.

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