Skip to main content

Navigating the Storm

By Mary Jean Alsina

fearful dog
Fear is an emotion and not a behavior so cannot be rewarded. Fearful dogs must be made to feel safe at all times © Can Stock Photo Inc./hannadarzy

“I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.” – Louisa May Alcott

Many dogs who come into this world quickly learn that there are many storms of which to be afraid. These storms come in many guises: other dogs, bearded men, men in general, vacuum cleaners, leaves rustling, visits to the vet and a whole myriad of other spooky things.

Fearful dogs see the world around them as a very unsafe environment in which to live, relax and enjoy the lives they so deserve. They do not know how to steer the ship and so they need our guidance.

As owners, trainers, behavior consultants and veterinarians, we can all do our part in helping such dogs see the light at the end of the tunnel. For some, the tunnel may be short, while for others it can be a long, arduous journey to come out on the other side.

However long the journey though, it is in our best interest to make sure that dogs exhibiting fearful behavior are never placed in a position where they constantly have to come face-to-face with the object(s) of their fears. In addition, we need to show them on a daily basis that, from now on, their fears will take on an entirely different meaning.

Many times, dogs are observed with their owners and it is quite clear to the trained eye that the dog is experiencing fear while the owner is, justifiably, oblivious. So many owners that I encounter in my training sessions are not even sure what signs to look for, unless the dog is openly running away from what is scaring them. Yet the tell-tale signs of fear are always present when a dog is feeling fear and is over threshold.

Body language signals can include a lowered body, tail down or tucked, ears back, lip flicking, freezing, dilated pupils, panting, pacing, avoiding eye contact, commissures pulled back and yawning among others.

Dogs experiencing fear may also not accept food or toys and will seem completely disinterested in anything around them. They are in survival mode and will do whatever or go wherever they need to achieve safety.

Nature vs. Nurture

At one time, it was believed that genetics did not play a hand in determining whether a dog would exhibit fearful characteristics. Now, however, it is well-known that genetics, along with environmental influences, play a large part in a dog’s personality and fearful tendencies.

Research shows that a pup with even one parent with a predilection for fearful behavior will be the recipient of fearful genes, even if the other parent is shown to be a stable and “normal” dog.

As shown in Neilson’s study (n.d.), fearful pups born to fearful mothers then fostered by stable mothers showed no growth towards a more stable personality. This, unfortunately, contributes to the continuation of fearful behavior. Back yard breeders and puppy mills are certainly not concerned with breeding dogs with desirable personalities, so, unfortunately, fear genes are being carried on from generation to generation.

The study states: “In the 1970s Murphree and colleagues did studies on the fearful behavior of pointer dogs. A group of pointer dogs was obtained then the dogs segregated according to their behavior: nervous or unstable dogs vs. normal or stable dogs. Nervous were bred to nervous and normal were bred to normal. Within a few generations the nervous dogs showed less exploratory behavior in new environments, were more likely to freeze at a loud noise, and less likely to greet people. Physiological differences between the groups of dogs (heart-rate and neurochemistry) were documented. Cross-fostering “nervous” pups onto “normal” bitches had no effect of behavior. All bitches and pups were raised and handled in a similar fashion, minimizing the environmental influences. Attempts to modify the nervous pup behavior with both training and drug therapy met with limited improvement.” (Neilson, n.d.)

For example, take a pup who is born to parents with unstable personalities. Nature has taken over before nurture has even had a chance. Does this pup stand a chance at being “normal”? With an abundance of proper socialization, positive reinforcement, force-free training, desensitization and counterconditioning plus a savvy owner, the pup should be able to make strides in the right direction.

In many cases, there will be fearful behaviors that show up, not necessarily in the beginning, but after maturity. This is when many owners find themselves saying, “I don’t know where this came from. He was so well-behaved.” Such things as lack of proper socialization, a traumatic incident during a fear imprint period, removal from the mother too early and/or heavy-handed aversive training can all increase the chances of a dog developing fearful behaviors as he transitions from puppyhood into adulthood.

“My Dog Is Aggressive!”

Trainers hear this phrase more than most and the truth of the matter is that the dog is most likely scared to death. “Aggression” in fear cases is simply the tactic the dog uses to cope and feel safe. Dogs learn quite quickly that by growling, snapping, biting and lunging, they can keep the scary thing at a distance and will do so to the death in some cases.

Each time the dog keeps the scary person/dog/item away by aggressing, he has learned, yet again, that this is the path to safety and will continue the behavior. Not only will the behavior continue, but it will, in many cases, worsen over time. At this point, many owners start implementing severe corrections and may yell at their “out-of control” and “bad” dog for misbehaving, not understanding that the dog is crippled with fear and needs help, not discipline.

Dogs are similar to children in many ways, but discipline and corrections are certainly not appropriate. While children can learn from corrections, a positive route usually garners more success. A parent or teacher can explain to a child why the discipline is necessary or warranted.

Dogs, on the other hand, do not understand this and can become more fearful and aggressive with corrections and yelling. Dogs need advocacy, distance, safety and good old-fashioned desensitization and counterconditioning.

The Path to Success

How then do trainers best communicate to owners how to deal with their fearful friends? There is an infinite amount of misinformation in cyberspace, books and on television so the first thing to suggest is that clients do not read information from non-credible sources. Many people will have themselves diagnosed with a disease before even meeting with a doctor because of endless searches they have conducted on the internet.

Owners should be made aware of this when it comes to their dogs because many “quick” techniques to fix fear in dogs will do further damage, thus making the behavior even more difficult and time-consuming to improve. There is no quick fix to fear. Let’s face it, it can be a slow-moving, though, ultimately rewarding process. I tell all my clients who have fearful dogs that they must celebrate baby steps of improvement.

The most crucial thing that owners of fearful dogs need to understand is to move at the pace of the dog, which means being schooled in the body language of fear. In this world of instant gratification, people find it very challenging to take their time and have to wait for results but there is no shortcut to freedom when working with fear.

Many trainers will use “quick fixes” and wind up with a dog that looks as if he has given up and ceased exhibiting fear, but in reality the dog has simply engaged learned helplessness. The fear has not dissipated by any means. This occurs many times with a technique called flooding.

Flooding is, in simple terms, forcing the dog to face his fear head on and hoping he “gets over it.” Some dogs will habituate to certain sounds, for example, but in many cases expecting a dog to habituate can have the opposite result and what occurs is sensitization, a worsening of the fear.

Many dogs I meet in my training path spend the day lying around the house focusing on their anxiety and timidly waiting for the next monster to jump out of the closet. My first suggestion is to get these dogs’ minds active as mental stimulation is critical.

All dogs need to get their brains working and this is especially the case when dealing with fear. To start with, these dogs often so desperately need FUN in their lives.

Every fearful dog I come in contact with learns a game as soon as possible, even if it is a simple hand targeting game in which he learns that a behavior he feels comfortable performing will produce a wonderful consequence.

I also suggest dogs are fed from work-to-eat toys to keep their minds stimulated for longer periods of time throughout the day. In addition, a high-quality dog food should be used, as lower grade foods may not contribute as well to the good health and well-being of a dog.

In addition, there are many calming aids that can be very beneficial to dogs with minor to moderate fears. Various combinations of them may sometimes be all a dog needs to improve their quality of life. Some of these include the Thundershirt, Pet Comfort Zone (DAP), Zylkene, B Complex, the Through A Dog’s Ear calming music CD and Chill Pill, among many others.

Owners, of course, should always discuss use of these with their veterinarian first. For some dogs, though, aids such as these will not be sufficient. Some of them suffer from such severe fear that living on a day-to-day basis is an absolute challenge and they need more help than a simple holistic spray or music can provide.

Owners with dogs who exhibit fear of this intensity may find it helpful to work with their vet or a veterinary behaviorist to find the right match of prescription drug such as a selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor (SSRI) to help their dogs function at a level where they feel more comfortable and safe.

A person who is suffering from anxiety will, in many cases, not improve with drugs alone. The combination of both drugs and therapy is the most advantageous route to improvement. The same is true for dogs. Even if taking an anti-anxiety medication, fearful dogs will benefit far more if their owner combines the pharmaceutical assistance with a behavioral modification plan conducted by a trained, knowledgeable, force-free professional.

When working with a dog who is fearful, it is extremely important that the owner (and trainer) be an advocate for the dog. These dogs are so often ridiculed, ignored and not taken seriously when fearful behaviors are exhibited, as can be seen in the countless videos circulating the internet.

Fear is not something to be joked about as we certainly would not laugh at our children when they are frightened. Parents would most definitely stand up for their children, protect them, comfort them and find ways to help them feel safer. This is key when dealing with fearful dogs. They must feel safe at all times.

Fear is an emotion and not a behavior, thus cannot be rewarded. This is just the same as comforting a child who is afraid of thunderstorms is not rewarding the fear. When, and only when, the dog feels safe is when progress will begin.

Getting the Ship to Sail

Dedicated owners desire nothing more than for their precious friends to feel safe and live a happy, well-adjusted life. The first step is getting an experienced force-free trainer with whom to work. Desensitization and counterconditioning, via Pavlov, is the most effective way in working to change a dog’s emotional response.

Desensitization involves exposing the dog to what frightens him but at a level that does not evoke a fearful response. If the dog is afraid of men, the dog should be kept at a distance from men where no fearful response is exhibited. Begin at this distance and, when the dog sees a man, the party begins.

Praise and the most amazing food such as cut up pieces of chicken, hot dogs, freeze-dried tripe, mini ground beef balls etc. should be given. The food should flow until the man is out of sight. We want the dog to clearly see that when a man appears the food flows, the praise is lavished and there is nothing else the dog would want than for this very moment to happen again.

This should happen every single time a man comes into the picture as consistency can surely make or break progress.

If the dog sees a man during the training period and does not associate him with the party or the man is too close, this can set back progress. It is critical for the dog to see that each and every man at a comfortable distance means life gets better.

We want the dog thinking, “Every time I see one of those creatures, my life suddenly becomes amazing. I need to start seeing more of them, please!” thus changing the emotional response to men. This takes time, of course, and every dog will respond on a different timeline.

When the dog sees a man and looks to you with happy, bright eyes, a tail wag, and an expectant look (conditioned emotional response or CER), the work is being accomplished and distance can now be decreased slightly. At this point, any time the dog exhibits a fearful behavior, take a step back, increase distance and move more slowly because pushing a dog over threshold (feeling fear) will set back progress.

The dog should look excited and happy and not just accepting or tolerating the man being close. This is a critical aspect of this work because, if the dog is not in a positive emotional state, it means he is being put somewhat over threshold which will undo work that has been completed previously.

After the dog is feeling more at ease at the sight of what used to frighten him and is looking to you expectantly for the food, it is time to start implementing operant conditioning. In the beginning, it is crucial to show the dog that whatever scares him immediately powers on the chicken vending machine.

After that is ingrained and he starts to anticipate the food when he sees the said scary person, adding in a cued behavior is the next logical step. Some cues to use would be a “look at me” or “let’s go.” The sight of another dog now means the dog performs the cue and then earns the chicken, thus the transition from classical to operant conditioning.

If the dog is fearful of the food blender, for example, desensitization and counterconditioning will also be utilized. Depending on the level of fear, the blender should appear without being powered on. At this point, the appearance of the blender (at a distance which the dog feels safe) predicts amazing yummy treats and praise. The blender goes away and the yummy treats disappear.

When you get to the point where, whenever the blender makes an appearance the dog’s eyes brighten and he perhaps gives a little wag of the tail (+CER), it is time to move to the next step, which could possibly be turning on the blender to the lowest speed with the dog in another room.

Every dog is different and there is certainly no ‘one size fits all.’ It is very important to remember the order of events: this must be scary thing first (conditioned stimulus), immediately followed by food (unconditioned stimulus). Due to the law of temporal contiguity, if the time elapsed between the conditioned and unconditioned stimulus is too great, then learning cannot occur.

Helping Louie Find His Sails

I received a call from a desperate woman saying her dog was biting family members, attacking the vacuum cleaner, was leash reactive and extremely anxious.

Louie, an 8 pound mixed breed, was 3 years old and absolutely terrified when he was rescued from a hoarder’s house in Louisiana. His hair was matted, he smelled horrible, had many missing teeth and had lived this way for the first three years of his life.

He had learned through experience that biting was the best tactic to help him feel safe and secure. Settling into his home took a bit of time, as expected, and owner Kim felt it would be beneficial to get some professional help to guide and assist him over the hurdles he faced each day in dealing with his fears. He had bitten the two school-aged children when they had attempted to pick him up or move him, which concerned Kim greatly and was the last straw for her to pick up the phone to get help.

When I first met Louie, I slowly entered the house and immediately gave him some yummy treats, while making no eye contact and positioning my body sideways. Within a matter of minutes, Louie was on my lap covering my face in slobbery kisses.

I could sense that this boy was full of love but desperately needed to be shown how to trust and to successfully navigate his way through life without being frightened. I was determined to help this little love nugget. I was thrilled that he relaxed so quickly with me as that showed me we could begin our journey together where I would teach him his world was a safe place to live.

We spent the first couple of sessions working on various obedience behaviors, such as hand targeting and a “go to your bed” cue. Louie was a very smart cookie, extremely food motivated and not only learned these behaviors quickly but also had a grand old time doing it, which of course is one of the goals in my force-free training. He picked up the obedience cues at lightning speed and had fun performing them.

We also did some body handling because Louie also struggled at the vet and, most times, had to be muzzled. He responded beautifully, although for the handling work I had to take my time with certain reaches as he was quite uncomfortable being touched and handled in certain ways or positions.

At the next session we took our work outside to focus on his leash reactivity with other dogs and people. We, of course, kept our distance so Louie could easily stay under threshold and we could accomplish what we set out to do, which was to see Louie exhibit a +CER to the approaching person or dog.

Many dogs take a while before showing the signs of being delighted at the sight of another dog or person, but not Louie. By the end of this session, we had not only decreased the distance dramatically, but Louie was also looking right at me for his chicken when a dog or person approached and was auto sitting as well.

The next session centered on the children picking up Louie and, also, his fear of the vacuum. We had to first desensitize Louie to the children’s approach and reach before any picking up could occur. I broke down the body language signs for the children so they would know what to look for if they hurried through the training.

I told them Louie would communicate to them without talking if he was comfortable or not with what they were doing and to invariably listen to what he told them with his body. I had them, one at a time, approach slowly, then immediately treat. We repeated this quite a few times and then began to add in a slow reach towards Louie’s body.

Louie responded well and did not growl, which is what he would previously do when the children began to reach to pick him up. By the end of the session, they were able to approach, reach and lightly put their hands on his body while Louie relaxed calmly on the couch. I advised them to gradually advance because pushing Louie too far too fast would unquestionably send him over threshold and set back our work.

The vacuum work went wonderfully as well and I was shocked at how well Louie responded to the desensitization and counterconditioning. He was fine when the vacuum was quiet but, when it became “alive,” he would start to attack.

I first moved the unplugged vacuum slowly onto a small area of the rug, then immediately gave him a treat. After repeating this for a while with no reaction from him, I turned the vacuum on but did not move it because I wanted to ensure he would not react to the sound alone. Sound and movement together would follow.

I did not want to increase sound, movement and distance all at once because that would have been entirely too much for him – or any dog – to handle when doing work like this.

Once Louie was faring well with the sound alone, I turned the vacuum on, moved it an inch or so and delivered the treats. He stayed on the couch in a relaxed down so I realized he was enjoying the vacuum predicting his treats. By the end of the session, I was able to vacuum the whole carpet while he lay peacefully on the couch.

Louie is still in training and his owner, Kim, has informed me that he is doing much better with guests, with his petsitters, and no longer requires a muzzle at the vet. He is improving steadily each day and is slowly learning how to sail in this world for which, sadly, he was not given sails.

“I can’t control the wind but I can adjust the sail.” ― Ricky Skaggs

As owners and trainers, we long for our fearful dogs to be able to find their way in this world that they perceive to be so scary and threatening. It takes time, perseverance, support, knowledge and providing them with the tools they need to navigate through daily life.

The most beautiful sight to witness is when a frightened dog shows us that, even in a small way, what once used to terrify him now just does not seem to be quite so bad. Now that is a good day.

Neilson, J. (n.d.). Nature vs. Nurture 

This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, May 2015, pp.18-23. For more great content on all things animal behavior and training, you can sign up for a lifetime, free of charge, subscription to the digital edition of BARKS from the Guild.

About the Author
Mary Jean Alsina CPDT-KA MA owns and operates The Canine Cure, LLC in Northern New Jersey. She has a master’s +30 in education and is a certified pet dog trainer. She studied at The Academy for Dog Trainers and is a regular dog training columnist for She is also a member of Doggone Safe and is a certified CGC evaluator for the AKC.

Spread the love