Earning the trust of a fearful dog

April 13, 5:38 PM · 1 comment

Everyone has come across a fearful dog at least once. The dog who cowers away from people, tries to hide in a corner or underneath something or even lashes out and tries to bite. How do you deal with a fearful dog? How should you approach it and how do you begin to start teaching such a dog to trust people? The answers may surprise you.

First of all, you may assume that this dog must have suffered some sort of physical abuse at the hands of a human in the past. You may start to feel sorry for the dog, which might cause you to squat down facing the dog, put your hand out and try to coax the dog to you using baby-talk. When the dog further cowers away you might move in closer to him while saying “Come on, it’s OK” and hoping that eventually he will let you come close. Sound familiar? This is the way that most people would instinctively try to earn the trust of a fearful dog. Unbeknownst to them, this is the absolute worst way to approach the situation.

Dogs who act fearful towards people are rarely dogs who have been physically abused. More likely than not, a fearful dog acts this way due to a lack of socialization as a puppy. Unfortunately, the lasting effects of not being socialized during the critical “primary socialization window” that occurs between the ages of 5 and 12 weeks can be profound. It is important to keep a positive outlook, however, because undersocialized dogs can overcome such obstacles. If you cope with the issues in the right way you will find that progress can and will be made.

The first line of defense in working with your own fearful dog is to ensure that you have taken on the leader position yourself. It might be hard to imagine such a fearful dog assuming the position of pack leader but it happens all of the time. When any dog senses a void in leadership they will, out of necessity, try to fill the position themselves in order to look out for the best interest of the pack. When this happens fearful, shy or submissive dogs will suffer extreme stress and anxiety. In order to help your fearful dog, you must be the pack leader.

The next step in rehabilitation is obedience training. Fearful dogs benefit from obedience training just as much as unruly or over-dominant dogs will. Obedience training is a great tool in the sense that it immediately creates a common language between people and dogs. Suddenly your dog understands what you expect from him and that alone relieves stress and anxiety. Asking your dog to perform simple obedience commands and having him obey them will automatically put you in a leadership role at that moment. When your dog sees you as leader he learns to trust that you will protect him. The other benefits obedience training offers a fearful dog are plenty. Doing obedience exercises with your dog on a daily basis fosters the bond between you and builds mutual trust. Obedience training will also help build confidence in both you and your dog.

The way you interact with your fearful dog and the way you allow others to interact with him will make a big difference in how fast and whether or not he can recover and begin to trust people and his environment. It is best to first deal with this by removing eye contact. Making direct eye contact with a dog can be seen as either challenging or a threat. With fearful dogs, eye contact is seen as very threatening. What these dogs really want is to be left alone by anyone who is unfamiliar and in some cases, even people who are familiar to the dog. The kindest way you can deal with these dogs and begin to quickly earn their trust is to avert all eye contact. If you don’t have to approach a fearful dog, don’t. Don’t pick them up or hold them and force them to be petted. You will see the most progress if you pretend the dog doesn’t even exist and wait for him to eventually become curious enough to come and smell you. Continue ignoring the dog even then because if you reach for him now you may undue what trust has already been established.

The way to approach a fearful dog, if you absolutely must approach them is going to make or beak it. You must use canine body language to communicate to them that you mean no harm. This is done by approaching them at a curve rather than in a straight line. In other words, when you walk towards any dog, fearful or not, it is proper doggie etiquette to walk towards them in a curved line and approach them from the side rather than approaching them head-on. Directly approaching them communicates a challenge or a threat. Also, turning your side or back to the dog as you approach them is the most non-threatening way to approach a dog and will yield the best results.

Never try to pet a fearful dog on top of his head. Instead, always come from under the chin when you pet any dog. Do not bend over or hover over a fearful dog. Instead, squat down and turn to the side. Never try to comfort a dog by petting them or telling them “It’s OK” because this only reinforces the behavior. Instead ignore fearful behavior. Don’t let strangers try to pet or talk to your fearful dog. If they are willing to participate in his rehabilitation, great! You can brief them on the rules and give them a treat to offer the dog if he will take it. Don’t let them push too hard by talking to the dog, looking at them or reaching for them.

It is a long road to recover from being undersocialized and/or fearful. Make sure to have a lot of patience and your hard work will be rewarded. Some dogs will embrace all that you teach them and demonstrate enormous improvements while other dogs will take much more work. The important thing will be to stick with the program, follow the rules and have as much patience and consistency as you can.
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