You might think that a fearful dog is the exact opposite of an aggressive dog. While this is true to a certain extent, the training approach is the same. It’s important to treat fearfulness seriously because it can quickly develop into dangerous reactivity.
The core of the problem is negative associations a dog has with some triggers. Or a lack of positive associations. A fearful reaction is also common when a dog is exposed to many factors that he is not necessarily afraid of that isn’t comfortable around them neither.
What to do?
Connect triggers with positive experiences
The most important thing to prevent reactivity and fearful reactions is to start with socialization early and in the right way. Expose the puppy to as many different and unusual situations as possible and reward abundantly with treats or toys to create the experience as positive as possible. If a puppy is uncomfortable with a trigger, reward them every time they look at it.
If you didn’t focus on the socialization of a puppy or if you adopted an adult dog that is fearful, the process of changing the behavior is very similar to socialization. The most important thing is to make a dog connect triggers with positive experiences. Always carry treats with you and reward your dog for looking at the triggers.
In some cases, the dog will be too stressed out to take the treats when exposed to a trigger. In those cases, immediately move the dog somewhere, where they feel safe. With dogs like that, the training process should be carefully planned to enable the dog to make a slow progress without being under stress. I recommend distancing the trigger or using higher value rewards. If, for example, your dog is afraid of other dogs, start with another dog 100m away, or even more if needed, and start from there. Then slowly decrease the distance or incorporate more dogs into the training process. If at any point your dog reacts or feels uncomfortable take a step back and strengthen up the positive association.
The final goal is to make your dog completely comfortable around other dogs and to make them able to focus on you and to work with you with triggers being present. It’s important to take time and to take small steps. If your dog reacts at one point, all of the efforts are to no avail, and you should start at the beginning again.
Calm a fearful dog down
Another mistake people make is that they refuse to calm a fearful dog down because they wouldn’t like to reinforce the fear. This is just a myth. Fear cannot be reinforced. Always try to calm the dog down or move them away from a stressful situation, when you notice that a dog is uncomfortable. The longer the dog is exposed to a trigger the harder it’ll be to condition that trigger with a positive response. The history of reactivity should be as short as possible because behavior that is not very strong will be easier to change.
During the training process, your dog will show signs of fear and will try to communicate his feelings to you. It’s important to notice and take into account even the smallest body language changes. You will know that your dog is fearful when he starts to cower, lick his lips, pant, yawn, look in many directions. The disability to take treats is also a symptom of fear and anxiety. When you notice these signs, you’ll know that your training process is not slow enough. Take a step back.
Build a positive and trusting relationship with your dog
Fear is something that many owners ignore until it becomes serious. It’s much easier to change the behavior at the beginning when a dog is just uncomfortable and not yet reactive. The training should always be slow and focused on rewarding the dog for a positive response to a trigger. Respect your dog, work consistently, and the fear is something you’ll overcome together in no time.
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