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Living Harmoniously with a Fearful Dog

Author: Alison Spanner | Date: October 16, 2013

Do you live with an adult dog that is fearful of (or shy around) new places, people or things?

I adopted a fearful dog a few years ago.  He used to be scared of just about everything, including a lot of household items.  I remember him being particularly afraid of the coffee grinder and hearing the noise of coffee beans hitting the grinder would send him running from the room as fast as physically possible.  This morning he stood RIGHT NEXT TO ME while I ground the coffee.

What changed? What did I do? Actually, pretty much nothing.  I just kept my morning routine.  After our morning walk, I make coffee and then I feed him.  365 days a year. For years, I allowed him to run from the room time and again.  And then he wasn’t running but walking and then he was standing outside the kitchen and then he was standing inside the kitchen.

Over time, he learned being fearful was just a waste of energy.

When I first got Huck, I was sad that he was scared by so much.  I tried to sweet talk him into staying in the kitchen while I ground coffee.  I used to take the broom and sweep around him even though the sight of it made him shut down. Naturally, I just wanted him to be happy and thought he could just “get over it” but I realized I was trying to push him into confidence on my terms and not his.

We often have the desire to expose our fearful adult dogs to everything we possibly can under the guise of “socialization”.  We harp in early puppy classes how important it is to expose your pup to hundreds of persons, places and things and it tends to be very easy because puppies are naturally curious and outgoing creatures.

However, exposure isn’t the name of the game with dogs over six months old.

The widow of socialization has closed.  Instead, I believe with fearful dogs, sometimes less is much more.

Keep their world small but rich.  If they show fear on a busy street, spend a few months walking on quietest street you can find.  If you two get bored, do a little training (sit, down, touch or watch me) while outside.  If your dog is comfortable enough to work with you—that isn’t a fearful dog!  Watch their confidence grow as they learn to exist in the world.

If they are fearful when they go into a new location, keep them closer to home for a while and their routine predictable.  If you do go out, keep visits to new locations very short.  And remember to remain calm no matter how they react. Don’t scold the fearful behavior but don’t indulge it either.  With time and steady, slow exposure to the feared thing the fearful response will fade.

Now if your dog is fearful of children, dogs or people, I would reach out to a trainer to address the fear more actively.  But with any thing your dog fears, forcing them to confront the fear on your terms and not theirs is only damaging to your dog’s mental state and your relationship.

How do you live harmoniously with your fearful dog?


    1. Having lived with Salukis for about 20 year…they give new meaning to the term ‘high strung’. You see this fearfulness in Afghan Hounds, too. A routine of exposure to new stuff, and acting normal, coupled with positive re-enforcement. & not rewarding neurosis…

      • Alison Spanner says:

        Great observations, Robyn. I agree it is important to not reward the neurosis. Sometimes you just have to accept it and not indulge it.

Our dog learned a ton over the 6 week period.

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