Do you have a fearful pet? When you’re getting ready to walk your dog, is he panting, drooling, refusing eye contact, urinating, jumping up, growling, barking, or excessively shedding? If he even shows one of these signs, he may be demonstrating one of the 4 F’s of Fear: freeze, flight, flee, or fool around.
If you think you may have a fearful pet, don’t worry! We have some great tips to help your pet overcome his fears as well as ways for you to protect your dog as you train him to face and overcome his fears.
First, we need to recognize why your dog is fearful or shy. Many people believe that dogs are fearful due to past abuse and, while this may be true for some dogs, it’s not always the case. Most of the time, it can be due to a genetic predisposition or a lack of social interaction during early puppyhood. You may never know “the why,” but that doesn’t mean you can’t figure out “the what” and “the how” to help your dog become the brave dog you know he can be!
The first step is to recognize when your dog is the most fearful. This will help you discover what is making him so afraid. Start taking note of what is causing your dog to react in a fearful manner. If your dog has not interacted with children on a regular basis and tends to exhibit any of the 4 Fs while passing a children’s playground on a walk, it might be that he’s fearful of children. If you don’t have a lot of visitors and he gets anxious when he meets new people on a walk, it could be strangers in general that gets your dog worried. If he is an only pet and is nervous whenever you pass another dog being walked by his human, this could be an indication that your dog is nervous around other animals. When you can narrow down the “what,” you’re more likely to be able to mitigate upcoming fearful situations.
Step 1: Managing Nerves
At first, you’ll want to manage the situations that make your pet nervous by controlling the dog’s surroundings. Here are some ways to do that:
- If your dog is afraid of strangers, try using a crate or a leash to control the interactions of strangers and your pet within the safety of your home environment first.
- When going on walks, make sure to avoid crowded areas so your dog doesn’t get overwhelmed.
- Make sure to put yourself between your dog and a stranger should they approach.
- Have an action plan for when someone approaches and wants to pet your adorable doggie. A good thing to say is: “I’m sorry but he isn’t comfortable around people he doesn’t know yet.”
- Stay close to home. Start your walks by going in a circle around your home so that you can easily head to home base should your pet start to get fearful. Widen your circles as your dog’s stress levels go down. Make sure to give yourself extra time with no expectations as your dog may not get very far in the beginning.
Step 2: Training for Confidence
Training is a great way to build your dog’s confidence. Even training your dog to sit and stay sets boundaries to look to you for direction when they’re in uncharted territory. These three exercises are designed to help boost your pet’s confidence:
- Ask nicely! Dogs crave structure which lowers their overall stress levels. When you train your dog to sit before you do anything positive for him, it will teach him to look to you for guidance before receiving anything positive. When he’s looking for pets, treats, to be fed, or to play, ask him to sit first before going forth and performing the positive action. This sets a foundation for him to look to you for all things, even in the scary and fearful times.
- Reward… big! Make rewards and treats a big deal for your shy pet! Whenever your dog does something good or brave, like doesn’t bark when you see another dog or a stranger, make sure to mark the behaviour with a sound, like a clicker or by using a word such as “good!” Even if he performs these things without being asked, rewarding him in a stressful situation will help him use these behaviours as a coping mechanism, which can help him reduce stress levels on his own.
- Pick a base behaviour. A base behaviour is something that he does when he doesn’t know what else to do. A great behaviour to teach him is “look” or “watch me” which means “look me in the eyes.” This is a great trick to teach your dog because it will help your dog fixate back to you and disengage from activities or strangers that may be frightening him. When you’re out in public, try the “look” trick and reward him generously as the other person approaches. If he sees someone scary and does the behaviour before you even ask, give him even more treats and verbal praise to cement this good behaviour in his mind.
Step 3: Desensitizing & Counterconditioning
Desensitizing and counterconditioning your dog are great ways to help him overcome his fears. We humans have a saying, “you have to face your fears!” Desensitization is basically that philosophy but implemented in a gentle way. The base behaviour trick mentioned above is great for desensitizing as it brings a scary person or situation to the periphery of the dog’s view, starting off farther away, and ever so slowly getting closer.
Counterconditioning is taking a scary experience and replacing it with a pleasant one. For instance, when a stranger comes close to your dog on the walk, reward your dog with treats. The goal is to use a pleasant stimulus to change your dog’s emotional response to one that is happy with the addition of something that makes him excited, like treats!
Here are some ways you can put your training into action to desensitize and counter-condition your nervous pet:
- Have something special as their “conditioning treat.” Here’s where you can really spoil your new puppy! Break out the special treats, like real meat! Make sure he’s hungry and it’s something he loves. He should only receive these treats during the conditioning sessions.
- Find out his limits. If your dog is afraid of strangers and starts reacting when they are 10 feet away, you want to start training at 11 feet away. Start with your base behaviour and every time your dog notices the stranger, start feeding special treats to him rapidly. As soon as the person leaves the area, stop feeding him treats and continue your walk. Keep doing this over and over until your dog can’t wait to get those treats! He will start becoming more and more comfortable with the stranger getting closer as he notices the correlation.
- One of the most important things to remember is to let your dog set the pace. Some dogs may only take a few weeks to overcome their fears, but sometimes, it takes longer. Whatever the case, it will be worth the time and investment for both you and your dog!
We know the struggle that comes with walking our shy or fearful dogs. Our best recommendation in the interim is to hire a trained professional who knows how to walk your dog. Poop’d Out is Fear-Free certified and committed to stress-free handling practices for all animals. Our owner, Dacey, has a soft spot for dogs who are “leash-reactive” and for those who are shy or socially awkward, especially on walks. While other dog walkers or doggie daycares may turn away pets with behavioural needs, we make it our mission to create great experiences for dogs who need a little extra TLC. Give us a call or book your dog walk now to make sure your pet is in good hands!