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Fearful Dogs – Karen Phillips

Recently the hot question on my Facebook night is how to manage dogs who are frightened of people and/or other dogs.  This fear can be displayed by the dog as either aggression or anxiety but both have the same root cause but dogs just deal with it in different ways depending on their personality.

Beagle puppyOne of the most important things to understand when getting a new puppy is that temperament is 100% genetic.  This subject has been extensively researched over the years and the findings showed that even when puppies from a fearful mother were taken and placed with a non-fearful/confident mother, the pups still grew up to be fearful adults.  So the lesson there is, before considering bringing a new puppy into your life, give a lot of thought as to where you get your puppy from.  Having the ability to meet the parents and see what temperament they have is so very important.  Without getting into the controversy around buying puppies from pet shops, online or from puppy farms, doing so is a huge risk as the opportunity to meet the parents does not exist.  Therefore you have entered a genetic lottery as to what your puppy’s temperament may be like.

Socialisation of your puppy is still the number one priority once you bring them home with Puppy Pre-Schools being hugely popular.  However, a lot of people unknowingly purchase puppies from fearful parents and even with the best intentions, no matter how much socialising they receive, the pup still behaves in a fearful manner.  This isn’t necessarily because you haven’t done a good enough job socialising your puppy, it may be that you are working with a puppy that is genetically wired to be fearful.  Puppy socialisation classes can still help but they should be approached with a little more care so that you don’t inadvertently create a bigger issue.  If you do end up with a fearful puppy or dog, there are some important things to keep in mind that will help it to learn to be less worried.  We refer to it as behaviour modification, in that you are modifying how the dog currently feels about something from a negative association to a positive one.

The biggest mistake I see most people make is trying to do something with their dog only when their dog has already reacted.  If your dog is worried enough to have already reacted you are too late to do anything much other than remove your dog from the situation.  Success will come from becoming more aware of what is going on around you and when you take your dog for a walk, be pro-active, prepared and vigilant so you can jump in and take action before your dog exhibits stress behaviours such as barking and lunging or hiding behind you or trying to get away.  Create distance between your dog and the thing it is worried about before it gets too close.

If your dog is really scared of something don’t force it to get closer in the hope that it will “just get over it”.  I’m scared of snakes.  If someone held one up to my face, I would freak out and any semblance of sensible thought would leave me.  The only thing my brain would tell me is “get away as fast as possible”.  The same applies to dogs.  If your dog is freaking out about something, get it away from it pronto to a distance where it can calm down and then reward it for being calm.  The distance each dog needs to be away from something will vary; let your dog show you what distance is best.

Be prepared to give your dog lots of food rewards.  It’s the food that works to change the dog’s emotional response.  When a dog eats food it makes the dog feel good.

When I have students who have reactive dogs in my agility class, I get them to move to the outer edges of the group to reduce the level of response.  Then I get them to feed their dogs constantly to bring the emotional response down.  The distance the students need to go will vary on each individual dog.  They need to be far enough away so that the dogs know there are other dogs and people around but isn’t stressed enough not to eat.  The students’ only focus with is to continuously give their dogs food rewards until they no longer react to the other dogs in the area.  As they get more confident they can move closer.

Again let your dog dictate when he is ready.  Don’t be stingy with your rewards.  Reward anything that even vaguely resembles good behaviour which can be as simple as being calm.  If you reward the first time and your dog remains calm keep rewarding every few seconds to maintain the response.  Don’t give just one treat and expect that to fix things.

Managing fear in your dog is an ongoing process requiring patience and time.  Most fearful dogs will never be “cured” but you can certainly do a lot to help them feel better about the world and lead a much more enjoyable and calm existence.


Karen and RiotKaren Phillips is the owner and trainer of Riot, the beautiful Border Collie that is the Better Pets and Gardens mascot.  Karen has had immense experience and success with her dogs, all border collies except for Cassie, the very fast papillon, and is currently involved as a trainer with the Agility Club of WA.  Karen is also a regular expert on our Facebook page every Monday night.

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