Safety first for fearful dogs

Written by Claire Atkinson M.A. (Cantab.), Qualified Dog Behaviourist and Certified Tellington Touch® Practitioner

A fearful dog is one that has difficulty adapting to its environment. All dogs have a threshold of fear that is reached when the dog no longer feels safe, for whatever reason. At this point, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in, causing various physical and emotional changes in the dog. The stress levels are also raised due to the release of cortisol and adrenalin. This results in the ‘flight/fight/freeze’ response. The key to helping the dog, therefore, is to ensure that stimuli are kept below the fear threshold.

Often, particularly with rescue dogs, they missed out on basic socialisation, both within the litter and in the critical first three months. Some have been abused and need to learn to trust humans again. To help a fearful dog feel safe we should slowly introduce the dog to the bewildering world we humans live in.

The ways in which we are able to help our dogs cope with the fear they feel are:

  • Observing what appears frightening to them.
  • Managing the environment to protect them and helping them to feel safe.
  • Training through counter-conditioning and desensitisation.
  • Vet-approved medical intervention.

At home

An obvious starting point is to ensure that the home area is securely fenced, as fearful dogs are more likely to bolt out when they are scared. Ideally the dog will also have a ‘safe place’ in the home, such as a crate or gated part of a room in a quiet area. It should have a warm bed, water and plenty of toys so that it is enjoyable rather than punitive. It’s a no-go area for kids, other pets and loud noise. S/he should be encouraged to go there whenever s/he feels unsafe, or feels like time out. Thus, for example, if s/he is fearful of the vacuum cleaner, s/he can go there and know that the ‘scary thing’ will not intrude.

Keeping a dog safe when outside the home requires constant attention to the dog’s behaviour and the environment. As soon as s/he shows signs of fear, s/he should be removed from the cause of fear by turning away, walking quietly and calmly, creating distance from the stimulus.

Out and about

There will always be a ‘safe’ distance at which the dog feels comfortable, which will vary depending on the strength of the stimulus. If the dog is leashed, the ‘flight’ response is no longer available and chances are the ‘fight’ response will be triggered. This is often mistaken for aggressive behaviour, which is unfortunate as it may result in an inappropriate response from the owner or others.

If there is no alternative (e.g. a stranger determined to approach you) stand in front of your dog – this lets him know you are there to protect him.

Confidence boosting

It’s important to increase the dog’s self-confidence so that avoidance of fearful stimuli is not the only (or preferred) solution. Training, using scientific methods of positive reinforcement, is essential to help the dog handle fearful situations. It will also help to increase the bond between you. If you need help, contact a qualified behaviourist or trainer. Use of medication or supplementation should always be under veterinary supervision.

You will need lots of practice and loads of patience, but the rewards of watching your fearful dog gain confidence, enjoy life, and become the companion you want is beyond price – for you and your dog.