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Fearful Dogs

Feral Dogs

A note to shelters, rescues, veterinarians, groomers, educational institutions, and humane animal welfare / protection organizations:  The Fearful Dogs Project is another resource for you. If you are interested in and have a need for help with feral, anxious, nervous, timid, traumatized, phobic, or otherwise fearful dogs, please contact The Fearful Dogs Project to discuss specialized offerings. 


Safety is a basic need.  If a dog does not feel safe, even if he is in fact safe, everything can seem to him like a crumbling or exploding catastrophe.  To protect our dogs' very  lives, we must protect their sense of safety, because a threatened dog, however meek otherwise, may naturally fight if flight is not an option.

Unfortunately, for some dogs, life is not only not all  fun & games, it is rarely fun and games. It's important to take these dogs' conditions seriously because they do not typically get better on their own--they are likely to get worse without treatment. The unwitting errors of well-intended friends, family, and strangers can hasten the pace of things getting worse as well.  No matter what your dog's emotional/behavioral difficulty is, there are at least two things you can do right now and continue to do while awaiting your consultation, your dog's assessment, and the proposed plan of action to help your dog. These two things may seem trite, but if your dog could speak, s/he would tell you different:

   1. Ensure your dog is safe at all times.  

   2. Ensure your dog feels safe at all times.

How you achieve these two things may be as varied as the personalities of each person reading, of each dog, and of all the others living with and nearby them, but the answer probably won't be simply "give cuddles and love." In fact, petting and other contact stresses many fearful dogs, especially early on and unfortunately--unless for you, "love" means doing whatever your anti-aversive, certified behavior consultant/fearful dog specialist suggests that your fearful dog needs in order to feel safe--love won't be the entire answer either.  I'm truly sorry to have to say that. But I can help you get started with what is needed. It will just take a bit of a mindset adjustment.  Here are some examples that people with their first fearful dog might not think of right away:


-Consider actual dangers to the dog and to those on whom the dog relies, as well as potentially perceived dangers.

--In other words, consider actual threats and perceived threats.

-Consider extreme temperatures, natural disasters, and other environmental hazards.

-Consider fights and arguments between animals and between people.

-Consider loud, sudden, or bothersome noises, scents, and visuals--e.g., statues of animals and people--inside and outside.

-Consider grouchy or volatile people, especially those who express their displeasure by, for example, stomping around, slamming doors, tossing things, glaring, or even just muttering passive-aggressively under their breath and carrying around a head of steam.


Dogs are sensitive creatures, and behaviorally disadvantaged dogs moreso. Studies show dogs even read our facial expressions, avoiding negative ones.  


Every person in the dog's vicinity must be willing to set aside certain habitual expectations, needs, and behaviors for the sake of saving the life of your dog.  I say "saving the life of" because not all people are like you, willing to adopt and work with a fearful dog. (A mini-essay at page-bottom explains this further.)  What if something happens to you? We need to ensure that your dog is prepared for life, whatever life may bring.


But we need to prepare the dog in a force-free, intimidation-free, pain-free, anti-aversive way.  This was once also called a "fear-free" way, but we must be honest when working with highly fearful and anxious dogs and acknowledge that they live with fear daily that we cannot control. While we are working with them to change their emotional states, we avoid leveraging their fear and we avoid causing additional fear.  It isn't accurate to say that someone is a "fear-free" trainer, because even though we are careful not to cause fear nor leverage fear, we cannot decide nor control a dog's fear. Fear is an emotion and no one can promise a given animal will never feel that or any other emotion. We work to help the dog feel safe, which over time helps the dog recover from his/her fears; legitimate, humane behavior modification is not some sort of magical, instantaneous cure.  A few years ago, I decided to label the entire collection of force-free, fear-free, pain-free, intimidation-free labels "anti-aversives."  An anti-aversives behaviorist/trainer is against the use and leveraging of force, fear, pain, intimidation, coercion, and compulsion in animal training and behavior modification.  Therefore, an anti-aversives trainer or behaviorist is one who does as much as possible to avoid the use and leveraging of force, fear, pain, intimidation, coercion, and compulsion.


-Consider the quality and availability of food**--another basic need.

-Consider not taking the dog out on walks if it is safer, or feels safer to the dog right now, to just stay home. 


Falling prey to societal norms is a common challenge that loving owners face when caring for a dog like yours, so one must make a mantra of the rule: Keep my dog feeling safe.  While exercise is nice (though walks are not usually the best way to get exercise), and sniff missions are important for dogs, safety and the sense of safety are far more important for a dog in the condition of your dog right now. Many fearful dogs feel terrified when on walks. Safety and the feeling of safety are Job One. If you would like ideas for providing exercise and enrichment within the safety and comfort of your dog's home and property, email me and I will be happy to give you some ideas. 

**Food availability includes the dog being allowed to eat her meals in peace and privacy--from her own bowl, not by being hand-fed. The practice of hand-feeding meals to feral/fearful dogs is a mistake because it uses a basic survival motivator--hunger--as leverage to force human contact upon the dog before the dog is ready. Also, if the dog has nowhere to go to escape the invading hand (for example, if the dog is leashed, housed in a kennel, etc.), then the dog also is being flooded by that person, so learned helplessness becomes a risk as well, as may self-defensive behavior, misleadingly labeled aggression.  The proper way  to encourage contact is to slowly allow the dog to develop positive associations with people outside mealtimes, at a pace that is comfortable for the dog, and in ways that do not force or coerce the dog. It also is inadvisable to force the dog to take her meals in stressful conditions, for example, where s/he feels threatened by the presence of other dogs within reach of her food.


To discuss your dog's situation, or to schedule a consultation, you may email me any time, day or night. If the situation is urgent, you may call or text my cell phone, 831.239.9417, and I will return your call as soon as possible. Emails and emergency calls seeking help are almost always returned within 24 hours, so if you do not hear back within that time, that means your message did not arrive and therefore, please send another. 



Misunderstandings Tend to Lead to Misdeeds

Fearful dogs may well be the most misunderstood dogs on the planet.  Even some well-educated trainers and behaviorists have mistakenly declared that fearful dogs are, or will become, "aggressive" dogs. The truth is that being afraid does not automatically mean one is going to be aggressive. The misinformed assumption that fearful dogs are or will be aggressive too often leads not only to misunderstandings, but to euthanasia.  The undeserved "aggressive" label is often the result of humans ignoring antecedents and canine communication, or lack of humane training and behavior skills. If a human corners a scared dog and / or forces his will upon the dog, ignores the dog's 'fidget' and 'freeze' signals, and gives  the dog no options for flight, it should be no surprise if that dog attempts to self-defend.  All animals have natural drive for self-preservation when they feel threatened. That does not mean they should be labeled "aggressive."  We'd all be wearing a big letter A if that were the rule.

​If your dog is fearful or has another emotional / behavioral upset, there is hope--plenty of hope--even if you do not know what caused the upset. But do not wait. Waiting gives the situation time to worsen.  Contact us for a consultation; we'll assess what is maintaining the problem currently and then propose a strategy for modification.  If you're not in our area, we'd be happy to discuss potentially taking your case via our private video conference sessions.  Email us for for details. ​​


The Dangers of Being a Fearful Dog​

Most people are aware that dogs deemed highly aggressive are at risk of being euthanized, whether by animal control or by their owners.  Fewer people are aware that sometimes, dogs deemed highly fearful are also at risk of being euthanized. These dogs may be euthanized in shelters because they are considered unadoptable, or because they are misdiagnosed as aggressive dogs if their fear leads them to try to protect themselves from humans whom they have experienced as threatening or endangering them. Or they may be taken to vets for euthanasia by their frustrated owners. Additionally, dogs with unaddressed fear may be at risk of self-injury, and often are escape risks, which increases their risk of permanent loss, accidental injury or death, or worse.

A fearful dog often is a misinterpreted dog. We should not presume to know what a dog is thinking, but we can change or improve the conditions in each dog’s life, since those conditions are largely the source of their ongoing fears and other emotional states.  Unfortunately there also is a lot of misunderstanding about how change is achieved, and much of what is currently being done in our society increases fear in an already scared dog. Yet due to learned helplessness or survival strategies such as coping in the animals involved, the people involved often are unaware of the risks of their methods.

There are many examples–too many to list here–but a notable, unfortunate practice that we see over and over again is known as “flooding.”  Flooding is, essentially, attempting to force a cure of a fear by overwhelming the animal in or with the thing of which s/he is afraid, with no way for the animal to escape.  For example, a person taking a dog who is afraid of people or other dogs on a leash walk through a retail store or a dog park to ‘get it used to’ them is likely flooding that dog.  Insisting that the dog must accept treats from strangers, or insisting that the dog must tolerate strangers petting her/him, before the dog is allowed to move away from the strangers would also be flooding. There are more obvious and less obvious examples of flooding. The point is, forcing a dog to “face your fear” only increases fear and distress in the dog, decreases trust in the forcer, and can result in the dog becoming increasingly avoidant or self-defensive, or in learned helplessness, which comes with a host of other problems.


Note:  Do not believe people who tell you not to comfort your dog when s/he's afraid.  Job One is to help them feel safe. The trick is making sure that what you think is comforting is, in fact, something they find comforting.

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