A dog that is fearful of people is the dog that may bite someone at some point. Often, the trigger that will make them bite is if they feel trapped and/or cornered. What usually happens is a human does not take the vocalized warning to heart, and instead continues to advance. A fearful dog is not a dog that is likely to come at the front of you, unless you make them feel trapped. They are more likely to bite you if you walk away however, because the back of you is less threatening. Also by making you retreat, it does make them feel a little braver. Another thing that can make them feel a little braver and more likely to lash out, is if their owner is in close proximity to them.
The good news is, most fearful dogs can improve a lot and do great with training and/or behavioral modification. It is a different issue if there is a medical or pain component involved. Training a dog with a terminal or temporary pain problem is more complex. Most fearful dogs do just fine, and you can often get them to a point where the owner may forget (later on) that they had an issue at all!
As you can imagine, this can be quite perplexing to a dog owner trying to solve this problem for their dog. Here are the issues that can make this tricky for your average dog owner:
- A dog that bites a human is one that is going to be in big trouble. So how do we go about making that not an issue as we train?
- Obviously, the dog owner will not want to jeopardize another in training their dog to relax and start to trust humans.
- If a dog being close to the owner might lash out, you obviously do need to be close in the beginning to control the dog. So how to do that without endangering anyone?
- How and where do you begin a training plan and behavioral modification plan?
Well dog training in general can fill many books and DVDS, so the total answer will not be in this article. I can however give you some tips and suggestions that will make understanding how to go about this clearer.
- Safety: Safety of everyone should be the foremost concern when going forward with a training plan for a fearful dog. That is going to vary from dog to dog. Common sense items are don't allow your dog to be loose and making their own decisions around people they are fearful of, be sure you have a way to contain your dog quickly and safely for unexpected issues (doorbell ringing et), locking doors so people can't just unthinkingly barge into your house is always a good idea (humans never listen to directions OR read the note you left on the front door),
- Handlers: Handlers should be the person the dog trusts the most at first. If the dog is being trained by a dog professional and not a family member, the dog trainer should be very well versed in handling fearful dogs and managing a pack (and other humans) around the dog.
- Behavioral modification: Behavioral modification and dog training can intersect at points. The general difference between behavioral modification to dog training, is that behavioral modification does not rely on taught and trained commands to communicate with the dog. Behavioral modification with a fearful dog includes things like teaching them how to chill or relax in a situation that may provide them some slight (at first) anxiety, controlling the environment to only allow what that dog can handle, structure to create a predictable environment, and non verbal teaching the dog that they can come close to the handler.
- Training: Training is a way where humans can teach their dogs to understand and perform commands. This helps a dog in a number of ways. One way is that it starts to make things very predictable for the fearful dog. Another way, is that the dog starts to learn what the dog owner needs them to do in situations. Often, dogs have no idea what we are "hoping" they will do. It's up to us to teach them how we need them to act. Once they get good at this, they start to learn how to relax and take our lead in situations. There needs to be defined goals and standards in training in order to get this done as well as possible.
- Experience: While improvement often happens in a timely manner, none of the above are quick fixes. There are no quick fixes. Your dog needs to learn through experience that each time an anxious situation occurs, and you both follow the protocols, that everything ends up fine and nothing bad happened. This happens over time, and is dependent on the quality and quantity of things you can expose them to (safely of course). The experience also extends to the dog owner, and having the owner learn through experience about their dog. A dog owner will gain confidence through a training and behavioral modification plan about how their dog is likely to react. Knowing this allows for tweaks in the plan, and more confidence on the part of the owner. It's also important to get the dog owner over the hump, as often they have begun to feel anxious over their dogs fear issues.
- Patience: Dogs are pretty forgiving of human mistakes. However, a dog owner does not want to move their dog too quickly forward. That can be risky to everyone. You need to have patience, and the ability to read your dog and their readiness to move forward. It is not a race to get there. That will leave too many training and behavioral holes behind you that are bound to bite you (or someone else) in the butt. So patience is a definite virtue with a fearful dog.
- Environmental control/being the ambassador for your dog: Environmental control has to do with knowing the environment you will be training (or hanging out in), and having a plan/protocol for things most likely to happen. So everyone with a fearful dog most likely runs into the person that feels they "know" dogs and all dogs like them. They want to test this out on your dog. This makes many dog owners feel embarrassed if they can not offer up their dog as the nice friendly guy or gal they know at home. It is the handler's job to not allow this in the beginning or at any time before the dog is ready and has been proofed. If you feel in your bones this is not going to go well and you have not experienced it going well in prior controlled circumstances, DO NOT allow the stranger to approach. You may have to get quite nasty to the stranger, and it might be embarrassing. Just remember you are doing it for your canine companion, and so that they can begin to trust people. This won't happen if your dog can not trust you to be looking out for them.
- Lead through example: Dog owners often become anxious after unsuccessfully working with their fearful dog. It's important for a dog owner or handler to mask their own fearful state. You want to work your dog calmly, deliberately, business like, and also friendly and acknowledging their good work or calm state. Not rushing forward too fast is one way of developing the confidence of an owner or handler in this situation. The more success you both have as a team, the more confident and accomplished you become.
I hope those bullet points help you understand a little about the process for giving a fearful dog more confidence and therefore starting to eliminate the fear. Aggressive behaviors often come about because a dog feels fear. There can be other reasons as well, but fear seems to be the most common. It is also one of the easier behavioral problems to deal with, if you know how and have devised a solid plan.
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Authored by: Mannerly Mutts Dog Training and Robin Rubin, head dog trainer and owner