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Helping Fearful Dogs

It is very important that all dogs have constant interaction with people and other dogs. This is known as socialization. 

If they don't get socialization, they become introverted and as a result, they can become shy or even fearful when they are exposed to new people, dogs or situations.

The root of shyness or fearfulness in a dog can usually be traced back to several things. In adult dogs it can be due to the lack of trust, a stressful environment, prolonged isolation from outside stimulus or even physical abuse or trauma. 

With puppies and younger dogs it can be due to the same things during the prime socialization period from 6 weeks to 6 months of age. Other causes can be emotional trauma or physical abuse. If left untreated, shyness can develop into fear and then ultimately into aggression.

Owners who have a timid or fearful dog can help these dogs develop into a confident, happy dogs by carefully introducing them to other people, other calm and friendly dogs and new environments outside of the home. Daily "on leash" walks in familiar surroundings can often be the most practical way to do this, but remember to take it slow and go at the dog's pace. 

Another great way to build confidence is to do frequent but short obedience training sessions using tasty treats and large amounts of lavish praise. Play sessions can also be a great way to quickly bolster the self esteem of a shy or fearful dog. Just offer tons of lavish praise while you are playing fetch, tug-o-war or other games.  Make sure you let the dog win these games. This will help build confidence. When you want to end the play session, simply pick up the toy and say "That's All". Then praise the dog for ending the session. If you choose Agility Training, stick to the basic to begin with. It is important that your dog is successful in order to build it's confidence.

Once your dog has become comfortable and confident with an area or group of people, you can start to slowly introduce new people, places and things. The key here, is to make it fun for the dog and to do it very slowly ... at the dog's pace. 

Set Your Dog Up for Success
It is important that YOU have control of any situation you introduce your dog to. Begin by working in a controlled environment and find people you can trust to follow your instructions to the letter. 

Here's one approach I have used several times:
If your dog is afraid of people, have a trusted friend enter the area very slowly with his back turned to the dog. It is very important that the person entering the room or area does NOT make eye contact, try to approach the dog, touch or talk to your dog. In fact, it would actually be better if no one even makes a sound during this period of time. 

Once the dog realizes that the person is in the area, gauge the dog's response. If the dog is calm, reward it with quiet praise (such as a very soft "Good Dog"). You may also reward with the dog a treat. 

Once the person is able to get to within 10 feet of your dog, have the person drop several of your dog's favorite treats (one at a time) in front of the dog so that the dog sees that the person is a good thing to have around. If the dog reacts poorly, (depending on the severity), adjust the position of the person and the dog (moving them away from each other) until the dog is able to relax. Once relaxed, reward with quiet praise and a few small treats. Repeat as needed until the dog is able to approach your friend without fear. The final goal is to have your dog take treats from the person's hand. But this can take weeks to do. Don't get in a hurry. (The progression should be: take treats from ground, then from the ground in front of the person, then from the ground with person kneeling, then sitting, then from the persons lap, then from the persons hand.) 

During this desensitization period, If your dog tries to hide behind you or looks for you to comfort it, you must ignore it. The dog must have time to work out the problem and find out that there is nothing to fear and that the person is a source of good things. The more times that your dog is exposed to desensitization, the faster this will happen. But be careful NOT to flood the dog with this stressful situation. "Flooding" can make the problem worse. After a period of time, your dog will gain more and more confidence and begin to loose it's fears. As the dog become less fearful you can phase out the treats. Keep in mind that this may takes several weeks or even months to do. It will probably not happen in one or two sessions. Just be patient. The results will be worth the time you invest.

The same methods can be used for desensitizing the dog to anything it has a fear of. The key here is to reward the dog for staying calm and excepting any situation you introduce. The role of the owner is to project a feeling of relaxation, confidence, and complete control. It is crucial to show your dog that there is nothing to fear.

When dealing with a dog that is afraid of loud or sudden noises, the process above still applies. A good example is a thunder storm. 

I had a dog that would get up and run to the basement every time a storm came rolling through. She would NOT come up from her "hideout" until it was quiet again. She was so afraid, she would sometimes wet herself. My solution was to downloaded a thunderstorm soundtrack and put it on a CD. When I knew she was relaxed I would put the CD in and play it at very low volume. I slowly turned it up until I saw her become mildly concerned. Then I called her to me and rewarded her for coming. Then we would play on the floor while the CD played. Each day or so, I would turn the volume up slightly until she was used to hearing it. After a few months, she was fine with everything except those earth shaking cracks of thunder. But I'd cut off her path to the basement and get her to play with me. All the time praising her and telling her (in my happy, playful voice) "wow, that was a big one!" "Come-on Let's play", and "You're a Good Dog". By conditioning her, and not making a big deal of it, she realized she was in no danger and after a few minutes of this she was fine again.

Important Tips:

Before trying to help a fearful dog you need to eliminate any possible medical reasons for the dogís behavior. An injured or sick dog needs to be treated before you can effectively train or recondition it. 

Shy and fearful dogs can be more frightened or traumatized by using any kind of forceful or heavy handed training. Your first job is to gain the dog's trust. Therefore, it is very important that you use ONLY positive, reward-based training. This is also recommended with puppies and young dogs. 

Once trust is achieved, building the dog's confidence will be easier. A trusting and confident dog can be easily encouraged  to do any desired behaviors. For any behavior you want to eliminate, a clear but gentle "no" or "ah-ah." can usually get your point across to the dog.

NEVER coddle (pick up or hold), your dog when it is fearful. (That's not to say you can't pat it on the head, comfort it with a few kind words or ask it to lay down next to you). It's actually best if you don't speak, but if you feel the need to, speak ONLY in a calm, quiet tone. Use words like: "that's enough, no, stop or hey" ... By comfort your dog when it is afraid, you are not telling it that's itís ok to be afraid. You are in a sense, holding the dog's hand and helping it realize that there is nothing to fear. 

Your dog can't reason or rationalize when it is afraid. It simply reacts and does what it has learned to do to protect itself. In order to help your dog you are going to need to show your dog that it doesnít need to worry anymore, and that everything is alright.

When it is in a fearful state of mind it becomes fearful. The best thing to do is ignore the fear and move forward with positive, upbeat activities as if nothing scary has happened. Get the dog's mind off of what has caused the fear and get it back on you. By doing this you are helping your dog to change its behavior by changing the way it feels during stressful or fearful situations.

Possible distraction suggestions include: asking the dog turn around and sit, lay down, speak, do a trick or something that can be rewarded by you. When your dog completes the behavior reward it. Your calm, confident, relaxed verbal praise (in an upbeat or playful voice) should relieve the fear or stress your dog is feeling. You can also start up a play session with your dog's favorite toys. If you do these kinds of things, your dog will soon figure out that there is nothing to fear.

In Server Cases:

Server cases of fear or anxiety (aka complete shut-down) are much harder to work through. You will most likely need to consult a professional animal behaviorist at one point or another.

The one thing you must remember is that your are not simply trying to training your dog to do a trick. You are actually modifying it's behavior by teaching it that something it now fears, is nothing to be afraid of. This will take time and a lot of patience!

This is only done by slowly building it's trust and confidence. Because the dog has "shut down" you must first work to build the dog's trust in you and any other family members. This takes a lot of time so be prepared to spend countless hours just sitting and playing with your fearful dog. Do not put any demands on the dog at this time. Just reward the dog for doing the things you like. Ignore the things you don't like. If it sniffs you, walks by you, lays down or what ever, give it quiet praise and reward it. If it sits in your lap, licks your hand or gets comfy next to you ... reward it. By doing this you are giving your dog opportunities to behave in ways that help it feel more confident.

All dog's have a sense of who is nice and who isn't. Once your fearful dog begins to trust you, things will move faster, but don't push it. Work at the dog's pace.



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