My Alaskan husky Datson became scared to go outside after a hornet’s sting—you can read about it here. It’s an unfortunate truth that dogs can become fearful after a scary event, like a hornet’s sting, a negative interaction with a person, or even scary sound, like a car backfiring. Actually, it’s an unfortunate truth that dogs don’t even need to experience anything scary to be fearful, which is why progressive breeders do not breed fearful dogs and why everyone should socialize their puppies as carefully and broadly as they can. We can’t always protect our dogs from scary things, of course, although we should certainly try—scared dogs can live stressful lives, and can even be a danger to the people around them. But sometimes, despite our best efforts, dogs do end up scared.
Which brings up a really important question. Is there anything to be done to help fearful dogs?
Well, there is good news, and there is bad news.
The good news: We can absolutely help. We can help scared dogs to live a more comfortable life, and we can often help them to feel less scared, or even overcome their fears.
The bad news: Helping scared dogs takes time and effort. It’s worth it, of course, but if you are the owner of a scared dog, take a deep breath: it’s time for some elbow grease.
There are four things to do to help scared dogs. First, we must keep them feeling safe. Second, when we are training fearful dogs, we should give them the scary thing in bite-sized packages. Third, we must always have the scary thing predict something good (this sounds easy, but it’s the trickiest part). And finally, those of us who live with fearful dogs should talk to our veterinarian to see if behavioural medication might be appropriate. Behavioural medications used to be seen as a last resort, but many practitioners consider medication a standard and welfare-increasing component of treating fearful dogs.
Keep Scared Dogs Safe
Once Datson had become scared of hornets, the fear generalized to him being scared of even going outside, especially outside the back gate. Datson was luckily comfortable enough to slip outside to use the bathroom in our yard. To keep him feeling safe, I didn’t pull him past the gate or even ask him to come on walks, nor did I make him sweat it out in the yard if he asked to come in. When he needed to be inside the house, in his safe-zone, I simply let him.
Many dogs are scared of things we can manage. For example, they’re scared of delivery people, or strangers in their home, the slippery kitchen floor, or vacuum cleaners. In these cases, it is often possible to keep dogs away from the thing they’re scared of to give them relief. Just vacuum when the dog is in the backyard, or on a walk. Usher your dog into the back room with a food toy or delectable chew when the delivery van shows up or a new-to-you friend comes over. Head to Pier 1 and stock up on throw rugs if your dog finds the slippery hardwood to be terrifying…I mean, do you really need an excuse to pull out the credit card? The big lesson: if possible, we should give our dogs relief and keep them from being up-close and personal to the thing they’re scared of.
In some cases, it’s trickier to give them this relief. Dogs who are scared of thunder, for example, need help from both a veterinarian and the friendly neighbourhood dog trainer.
Give dogs the thing they’re scared of in bite-sized packages
Datson stayed inside most of the time for a few days after his sting. After that, with no pressure from me, he started spending more time in our large, fenced yard. All of this was on his own terms. When he wanted in, well, in he came. After a few weeks I wanted to try walking him again. I called him over when I was leaving the yard on a walk with a crew of other dogs. The first few days he wouldn’t even come to the gate, he would hang back when we left. Then he started to come to the gate. And even later, when he was starting to come on walks, I let him decide how long and how far he felt like coming on any day. Bite-sized packages: not the whole walk, but just as much as he could handle.
As training progressed, he sometimes came on the whole walk, running around like a giant puppy. Some days he found anything past the gate to be too much, and I let him make that call. As best I could, I kept him feeling safe: no exposure to the scary thing beyond what he decided he could handle.
This parcelling up of the fearful thing can be a very important aspect of training dogs to overcome their fears. If possible, we should refrain from exposing our dogs to the whole scary thing at once. This is because in some cases experiencing the scary thing—the person, the noise, the place—can be too much. It can make the fear worse. For example, if I had leashed Datson and forced him to walk with me on our regular route, it would have almost certainly set us back. It would have made the training slower. With fearful dogs, going slow is, paradoxically, the fastest way to heal.
There are a few ways of decreasing the intensity of the scary thing. With Datson, I let him choose how far along the walk he would come. If a dog is scared of a person, they can be introduced to the person from across the room…across the road, or across the field, if need be. Distance is the easiest way to reduce intensity. A fearful dog’s owner may also be wise to keep early interactions short and sweet. For some dogs, a long stretch near scary thing x, y, z can make it tougher to handle. And in some delightful cases, we can actually parcel up the scary thing. A vacuum cleaner can be left out, turned off. It can be turned on, but in the back room so the dog only hears the sound. And it can be run in the same room, but without movement. Each increment can be useful, as we can condition, or teach, our dogs to like each increment separately. Which leads us very nicely to our next thing: food.
Scary things must predict something good
Ever heard of Pavlov’s dog? Pavlov was a physiologist working around the turn of the nineteenth century, studying digestion. He noticed—and wow, what an insight!—that the dogs he studied would anticipate food if they were given any kind of a head’s up. If there was a bell that predicted food? Salivation, and anticipation, at the sound of the bell—even with no food in sight. He continued to study this type of anticipation learning, which now bears his name as Pavlovian conditioning, and his work and the work of later psychologists have given fearful dogs the gift of a whole new… well, feels. We can turn the thing the dog is scared of, the scary human or sound (or in Datson’s case, the world outside the gate), into the bell that predicts food. And just like how Pavlov’s dog learned to salivate and anticipate good food at the sound of the bell, a dog can learn to anticipate good things at the sight of something that previously scared them.
Well, they can learn to joyfully anticipate. But it’s tricky. First of all the scary thing has to actually predict treats. It has to be a head’s up. The dog must see the scary thing first and foremost, and then—and only then—be surprised by the appearance of a treat. If the dog is already anticipating treats because “human has treats in their hand or pocket” or “human has that look that I know means treats” or anything else, then the predictive power of the scary thing is lost. So humans using this type of training have to make sure that the one and only predictor of treats is the sight (or sound) of the scary thing.
Furthermore, the scary thing must always predict treats. Every time. No halfsies here. We must set things up (food in a canister on that shelf by the door, treats in a baggie in the pocket all-day-every-day, and so on). Even if the dog behaves like a Tasmanian devil: every time they see the thing, out comes the treats. Now, since we’re doing our best to give the dog the scary thing in only bite-sized packages, we generally won’t have a Tasmanian devil of a dog, of course. But even if things go sideways and the dog ends up scared, we must first get the dog outta there, and then give the dog that delicious treat.
I was able to use Pavlov’s dog with Datson quite easily. Every time he came out of the gate, I gave him a handful of treats. Not just one, I wanted him to really pay attention. A few delicious treats for each step, in early walks. I dialed down his supper and breakfast so I could feel free to load him up with goodies on our walks. He didn’t get these treats at any other time, so it was particularly clear in his mind that “walkies” = “treats”.
Ask your vet if behavioural medication is right for your dog
The idea that behavioural medication is a last resort for fearful dogs is heading to the idea graveyard where it belongs. If anyone has a dog whose quality of life is impacted by their fearfulness, medication may be indicated. Talk to your own veterinarian and if you wish, get a referral to a veterinary behaviourist. Medication likely won’t be the whole answer, but it can give the training described in this article a real chance to help. Read more about medicating fearful dogs here, here, and here.
Put it all together
How was I able to help Datson? I put it all together. I kept him feeling safe by allowing him to stay inside as much as he wanted. He felt safe inside. I gave him the scary thing—walks past the back gate—in bite-sized pieces he could handle. A couple of weeks after the sting he came out of the gate for three steps: bite-sized package number one. And I made sure the scary thing, walks past the gate, always predicted treats. On that first day I gave him approximately a cup of delicious treats a few steps past the gate, after which he scampered back into the yard. Over the next few weeks, Datson decided to come further and further on walks. A few steps past the gate turned into a few meters down the lane. Then he would start coming along for longer and longer stretches, always getting treats as we went. He probably got his body weight in delicious food like boiled chicken and treat roll that month, but I wasn’t going to complain. After a month he was jumping at the back gate ready for walk-time again. Now, he’s not the same as he was before, and this is just how it works. Hornets and hornet-like insects still scare him, and he’ll sometimes need another week off walks. When this happens, I just reach back into my treat bag and get training.
Do you have a fearful dog? If you have embarked upon the journey of helping your dog overcome their fears to the extent possible: brava! If this process sounds overwhelming and technical, don’t be put off. It is indeed overwhelming and technical. This is why good modern dog trainers educate themselves about how animals learn—read more about finding a good trainer here. A good dog trainer working with you and your veterinarian can be an absolute godsend on your journey to help your scaredy-dog to live a fuller, happier life.
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