Tuesday, 3 February 2015

5 Tips For Living With a Fearful Dog

Willow is a non-aggressive fearful dog. By this I mean that she does not respond to fear with growls, snarls or barks – what she does do is go into what I call ‘meltdown’. Her eyes glaze over, she becomes totally focussed on whatever is scaring her and she’ll switch into ‘flight’ mode.

Watching your dog go into an emotional downward spiral is, quite frankly, awful. In Willow’s case, her ears go back, she begins to tremble uncontrollably, her tail curls under to touch her belly, and she starts to slink. If she can, she’ll pull away to get to her 'safety'. For the first couple of months she was with me, no amount of my coaxing or cajoling would unlock this fear – we were, after all, just beginning to learn all about each other.

This photo was taken of Willow about a week after I adopted her. Notice the ears (which are usually pricked) her tail curled between her legs, her paws splayed and the frown lines. She's focussed entirely on her object of fear, which was a person walking towards us.

I've studied canine behaviour for years, long before I adopted Willow – and of course, I need a level of understanding for the work I do - but, no amount of study into the canine mind can prepare you for real hands-on experience with a special needs dog. Willow has been, and still is, a challenge; one I very happily accept - but I'm not going to lie, it’s tough. However, There are some things I've found that have helped us greatly in these situations – if you're reading this because you have a dog who shows fear like Willow, they might help you too.

1. Listen to them

Learn to understand their body language. The very foundations of being able to help your dog overcome fears is by understanding what the triggers are and the minuscule changes in body-language that might lead to a reaction. Once you are armed with this knowledge, you can take on the rest! This takes time, and there’ll be nuances in behaviour that are so slight, you might not notice at first. Work with your dog as a team, observe them as much as you can, and they’ll soon become glaringly obvious to you.

Image from www.drsophiayin.com drawn by Lili Chin

There are general body language signs to look out for –  we’re not just looking for those fearful triggers, but the 'happy' ones too, the ones that make them tick - because it is those ones we can tap into when helping to shape behaviour. Keep a diary, note down every kind of behaviour, even the slightest change – then look back over it week by week and see if there are patterns (other than the very evident ones which you will have already identified) you can then work on shaping that behaviour away from negative and towards positive by avoiding the fearful triggers and encouraging the ‘happy’ ones.

Image used with permission from Lili Chin

2. Speak to them

Let them hear your voice, talk to them often. Ignore the odd looks in the street whilst you’re happily chatting with your dog about what you’re doing and where you’re going. A dog that is fearful will tend to focus just on that, the fear – so keeping your voice happy and upbeat will help them when the scary hits. It is imperative that you are in the right frame of mind to help your dog’s fearful one. Harsh tones won’t do your dog any favours when they’re in The Fear Zone – so think and speak happy and relay that to your dog.

Learn to relax, make your voice soft and ‘singy’ and find a phrase that makes your dog feel good. Normally, it is just one word out of that phrase that your dog will be responding to. With Harvey, this is really simple, anything from “I love you”  or “Good boy” to “Who’s the best boy?” is met with ferocious tail wags, kisses and bundles of ‘happy’ – but, I found out that Willow had actually associated “Good girl” with scary things:

Each time Willow faced a scary thing (which at the beginning was everything), I’d naturally tell her she was a good girl – thinking this would help her get through the ‘moment’. I then found that each time I said it, her anxiety visibly rose. I realised that the phrase “Good girl.” to Willow actually meant “Shit, there’s a scary thing about to happen, I best get ready to run.” and she would react accordingly. 

Once I’d figured this out,  I was able to change my response to her and find something that soothed her. We now have two phrases: There’s my baby– (I actually said this to her the moment she walked up to me after all those days of being lost. She had approached me and when I said those words her tail wagged. I thought this phrase might work, and stuck with it.) The other one is “Clever girl” – just moving the emphasis from 'good' to 'clever' made such a huge difference. 

We’re now working on her understanding that “Good girl” is a positive phrase too by playing retrieve games (that’s she’s just figured out can be fun) and we’re doing really well with it!


3. Give them time

A fearful dog might take a lot longer than a well-balanced dog to figure out what their next move might be. I often watch Willow working something out in her mind. In these cases I stand back and allow that to happen. This mostly happens on walks. No amount of pushing your fearful dog to do something you want it to do will work, and is much more likely to make the situation worse. It has to be on their own terms, but of course, with your guidance. 

You will have likely already built a bond with your dog (even a very new to you dog. I was convinced that Willow and I hadn't had time to build any kind of affinity in the two weeks before she ran away, how wrong was I!) If your dog is a bolter, when they experience fear,  every muscle in their body is telling them to run – but they will also want to be with you – you just need to let them work that out. If your dog is on a lead (and it should be if it’s a runner!) and pulling away from you but you’re dragging it back to you, you’ll just be feeding the fear. Stop. Take time-out, and let your dog figure it out. Try and relax, get some slack in the leash if you can, and wait a few moments – a little happy toned “Come on then” after they settle a little (and they will, once they've gotten a grip of themselves) with you stepping off to continue the walk, should give them the perfect cue to follow you.

Another example of giving time is the stairs fiasco we had: Willow had an awful aversion to the stairs that lead to our garden. I would call her, offer biscuits – I’d have even done back-flips if it made her come down the stairs - nothing worked. In the end I realised I’d either have to carry her (not good - she would learn to become dependent on that, covered in Boundaries below) or just sit and wait it out. I sat on the bottom step, and waited. Eventually she came down the stairs. Without me making a big issue of it, I got up and walked into the garden…she followed. 

Time is key – let them work it out – and praise the heck out of them with soothing words and/or treats that they associate with 'happy' when they do! 

4. Play

If, for whatever reason, your dog hasn't really had a chance, or hasn't been inclined to play before– this can be a difficult task to start with. Willow just didn't know what a toy was.

If you have another dog, take extra time to play with them whilst your fearful dog is in the same room. Throw toys for a game of retrieve, or play tug. Your fearful dog might click on very quickly, or, as in Willow’s case, it might take a lot longer for the penny to drop! The very first time she played tug with me (it lasted all of three seconds) I was so utterly thrilled I did a mini victory lap around the front room! It’s those small moments that build to the biggies. Stick at it…it will happen!


Playing with your fearful dog will eventually give them something else to focus on – if you can get them especially interested in a particular toy, even better – as this will be a great training tool and fear chaser-awayer for the future! 

5. Give them boundaries

I found that Willow only felt safe whilst she leaned on me. She never wanted to be physically on me at all – in fact, if I picked her up she would freeze. But she began a habit of just leaning against me, and I’ll be honest – that gave me comfort too, especially after her Great Escape stunt. But I realised this wasn't actually doing her any good. I needed her to be confident enough to literally stand on her own four feet; it would be impossible for me to be there for her to lean on every minute of every day.

So, we worked on making it right for her. Each time she leaned on me, I moved. Sometimes I got up and sat on another chair, sometimes I just moved my leg. I never said anything to her, no eye contact, no sounds. Now she will come for a lean when she wants a cuddle, which is perfectly fine for me – and I know she’s happy to go and look out the window or lay on her bed without having me right next to her.

It’s really easy to pander too much to a fearful dog – and of course this pacifies us too – we don’t want them to be in fear all the time. However, we have to be aware that some behaviours (such as the leaning) can in the long run be detrimental to their well-being. My goal is to have a confident dog who isn't fearful of making her own stand in the world – and with every day we’re getting there!

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7 comments:

  1. What a great post! And very true. Far to often people think that "comforting" a dog, and attempting to soothe with help with the problem when in fact all they are actually doing is rewarding the fear behavior.
    We're working with our friends on this with Robin - her barking at the husband resulted in pets and "it's ok", which began to make things worse. They now ignore the barking/growling at the husband, and only reward/pet her when she is using her nose, sniffing him, relaxing, etc..it has made a huge difference!
    Poor Willow, you've done such a great job with her. Way to not pander, I love your posts!

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    1. Thank you so much :) Your point is a prime example of the fireworks fear isn't it. Whilst some dog's fears with fireworks are deeply rooted and need a lot of help - others have escalated through worried owners pacifying and petting, telling them "it's OK" - which as you say makes the dog thing, "Oh, I'm doing the right thing here by being scared, I must be scared some more." and the whole vicious circle goes round and round doesn't it. (I'm of course generalising a lot there, but, it's another example :) )

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  2. Thank you for sharing your insights. I can tell that Willow came to the right person - one who has the love and patience to help her learn to cope with the world.

    Shyla and I are much further along in our journey but she is the first dog of mine who ever had total meltdowns (collapse on sidewalk and lose control of her bladder). It would just take a small scary thing to do that at first.

    It sounds like you totally know what you're doing but I just wanted to mention that my trainer had me use "BAT" with Shyla a lot at the beginning (if you google Grisha Stewart and BAT, you'll find out about it). It turned out to be the pivotal thing for Shyla. It made everything her choice... which then gave her confidence that she'd never have to go toward a scary thing if she didn't want to. It's mostly a thing of the past now, except for a few triggers that can still cause a meltdown.

    I'm so happy that Willow is with you!!!!

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    1. Thank you so much for the info KB Bear. I've had a good read up about BAT this morning and its theory is very similar to what we are doing. I use a long-line with Willow too...if she spooks, we wait, we gain a little slack, and let her decide what she's doing - this has proved to be one of THE most important parts of our work together - and we found out how it works purely by trial and error and looking for the right thing for her. I shall be reading and learning a lot more about BAT and hopefully I'll find a practitioner here on the island.

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  3. Thank you for publishing this blog. Although I have been a doggy owner for many years, I have learnt so much from your words. Hopefully, I will be more aware than ever of how to treat and talk to the world's wonderful dogs when I meet them.

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  4. The struggles of having a fearful dog and an aggressive dog is similar, they only have an opposite spectrum. I used to have a fearful dog before, but we were able to overcome this phase thanks to really helpful online sources such as this one: http://dogsaholic.com/lifestyle/how-to-overcome-fear-of-dogs.html

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