Fearful Dogs – Biggest Challenge, or Greatest Reward?

By Julie Madden
We work with all kinds of dogs at Encore. We love them all. But the shy, scared ones hold a special place in our hearts. I think that’s because they break our hearts when we see how uncomfortable they are in the world. We can’t imagine a life of being constantly afraid. We want to ease their pain. 
Sometimes dogs are scared because they were abused, but sometimes they are scared because they were born naturally shy (just like some people), and weren’t properly socialized as puppies. By the time a dog ends up in a shelter, we may never know what caused them to be fearful. But we can take steps to help them be less afraid. 
A dog who is fearful may avoid people and even run away when they approach. They may drool, pant, or submissively pee when someone gets close. They may also bark or growl aggressively to try to keep the scary person away from them.
At Encore, we evaluate each new dog on their first day with us. For the shy ones, we go slow with everything. We note what they are afraid of – is it everything, or just certain people or things? Slippery floors? Loud noises? Fast movement? The leash? Tall men? This gives us a better idea of how to manage, and eventually lower the level of, their fear. Then we can organize training to help them build confidence and become more accepting of the scary stuff. 
We move slow. If Buddy is afraid of men, for example, we may have Buddy on a leash outside and have a male volunteer come outside but stay far away. Once Buddy sees the man, we give Buddy some wonderful high value treats, until the man goes back inside. This is repeated many times, and over time the man can move closer to Buddy, until he can actually toss Buddy some treats himself. In dog training jargon, this is called desensitization and counter conditioning, and it takes time and patience. If Buddy gets scared and reacts with his usual fearful behavior, we’ve moved too quickly.
Another thing we do is have a volunteer sit quietly in a room with Buddy, where there is enough room that he doesn’t feel cornered. The volunteer will talk quietly to the dog, and toss some occasional treats. The goal is for Buddy to feel less threatened by a new person’s presence. Over time, we’ve been successful with many dogs who will come right up to a new person to take a treat, and later, even accept being petted.
One activity I love to do with fearful dogs is K9 Nose Work®. It’s a searching game where I put food in an open box and set it down with some empty open boxes. The dog gets to search for, find, and eat the tasty treat. For fearful dogs, even approaching a box can be super scary. We move at the dog’s pace and let the dog make the decision to search. Decision making is empowering, for dogs and people! I’ve seen several shy dogs build confidence as they do nose work, to the point where they can ignore their surrounding and focus on the search. 
If an adult dog is fearful, he or she will probably always have a tendency to be at least cautious or shy in new situations. But identifying scary things and slowly helping the dog get used to them, is very possible. And that is the greatest reward. When we see a formerly shut down dog break out of their shell and play with a toy, or run around the play yard, it brings us to tears of joy. We love what we do at Encore, and we especially love helping fearful dogs get a chance to live a normal life.