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Friday, August 5, 2011

Ask the Dog Trainer:
Helping a Fearful Dog

by Michael Baugh CPDT-KA, CDBC
© Robyn Arouty
Michael's Stella
Dear Michael:

My wife and I have a very sweet, intelligent, food-loving, 2 year old female Rough Collie.  She is great on a leash, eager to please, and generally very good in public.  I grew up with Collies and am familiar with the common tendencies of the Herding Breeds, but am having trouble succeeding with some of her training.

Lady gets very nervous when guests come to the house, especially strangers.  She does the typical barking and herding, but also has trouble relaxing for hours when other people are in the home.  She will nip at our guest incessantly when they walk around the house.  I know that she has watchdog qualities, but I worry that she will snap when we have guests (especially children) over to the home. 

We have had her since she was 12 weeks old, and we have always had visitors.  She does not seem to be adapting at all.  How can we exorcise this nervous energy and enjoy having people over again.  Thank you for your help! 

Bill H.
Dear Bill:

First, I commend you for asking good and thoughtful questions on Lady’s behalf.  I work with a lot of fearful dogs here in Texas.  I also know a lot of my training colleagues work similar cases around the world.  You are not alone; and yes there is hope for Lady.

Despite our best efforts socializing our dogs and familiarizing them with the quirky ins and outs of the human world, sometimes it’s just not enough.  As our dogs grow up, we begin to notice their developing sensitivities and phobias.  It’s important that we address these fears intelligently and immediately, but also gently.  You are correct to be concerned that fearful behavior can sometimes develop into offensive (aggressive) behavior.  That doesn’t always happen.  Nevertheless, the time to act is now.

I often recommend hiring a qualified behavior consultant at the end of my blog posts.  This time, I’m recommending it up front.  You don’t have to do this alone, and you probably shouldn’t.  Use the link above to find a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant in your area.  I also recommend you visit and download the e-book, Guide to Living with and Training a Fearful Dog.

© Robyn Arouty
"Watch Me"
Certainly, my response here will not take the place of working with a qualified dog trainer / behavior consultant in person.  Still, I want to offer my thoughts and input.  Your goals with Lady when it comes to interacting with visitors are twofold.  1) Teach her how to behave when people come over.  Which skills you teach are up to you.  Sit, coming when called and stay all play a role in proper greetings.  I exclusively recommend reward-based training, and with good reason.  I’ll expand on that below.  2) Teach Lady that new people in general, especially in her home, are good news for her.  Something amazingly good should happen for Lady every time a person comes to your home.  The way to a dog’s heart really is through her stomach.  I often suggest visitors give my clients’ dogs “welcome gifts” when they arrive (New person = cheese or chicken).  Giving her a delicious stuffed Kong Toy when visitors are in the house is a nice approach as well.  Here is where your reward-based training comes in as well.  If you are using food to teach your dog basic manners when people come over, then she is also learning that it’s good news for her when people come over.  Training starts and the treat bar opens.  Win – Win!  The dog knows how to behave and loves every second of it.

I love working with fearful dogs.  Even fearful dogs who’ve grown into angry dogs have a special place in my heart.  I adopted my dog Stella when she was 5 months old and very quickly learned there were significant deficits in her early socialization.  She is a recovering fearful dog.  While we entertain often and she meets lots of new people in her work with me, I still know that every new encounter with a person is a training session for her.  It’s Stella who taught me a valuable lesson about living with and training a fearful dog.  Our relationship is the most important thing.  Meeting new people is sometimes very frightening for her (It has been compared to being in a nightmare in which you have no control).  It’s my job to protect her, help her, and provide the tools so she can succeed.  I’m her person, and I’ve got her back. 

Now it’s becoming a game.  When visitors roll up to t he house I call out, “here are our friends.”  She runs to the front door and barks.  I grab the treat bag and her tennis ball.  (New person = tennis ball.  That’s a very powerful association for Stella).  It’s easy to mistake this for distracting the dog.  The truth is it’s more than that; it’s solid behavior science.  I’m teaching Stella that the world is safe and wonderful despite the scary stuff.  I’m happy to do it.  You see, that’s exactly what she does for me every day.

© Robyn Arouty
Stella with Michael
Houston dog trainer Michael Baugh, CPDT-KA, CDBC is the director of training and behavior at Rover Oaks Pet Resort.  Stella is a 2 year old retriever mix, a training demo dog, a dock diver and a very brave girl.

You may reach Michael at the link for a personal consultation, or write to him at our Ask the Dog Trainer Column Michael's advice does not replace an actual consultation with a qualified trainer.

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melf said...

Great post AND great advice. I have always loved working with the fearful dogs. They were the first dogs I gravitated to at our shelter. They are also perhaps the most misunderstood by so many people. I have one and know what a challenge it can be, but I am so very glad that you and Debbie Jacobs can be a resource for folks.
One thing I always caution people about is voiding those dog trainers who use force with a fearful dog. It can do so much worse damage to the dog. Had a woman write me about her own fearful dog and all the advice from people telling her she needed to show the dog she was alpha. Ugh!

Anyways, I just wanted to let you know I loved your post. Happy Saturday Blog Hop!

Michael Baugh said...

Thank you for your kind words, Melf :)

Sage said...

This was so right on point--what an excellent post. I have used many of these same techniques to desensitize my dogs to whatever they may be fearful of. It's nice to have it re-affirmed!

Teri and her Stylish Adventure Cats said...

Hi, We are kitties but we saw you comment (someplace) that you were trying to make a Twitter list of those who are going to Blog Paws. We are having trouble figuring that out, too, as only 50 attendees have signed up on the RSVP list and that's how we get to know everyone and are also trying to make up some Swag Bags and while we can't afford to make 250 of them, we would hate to leave out some bloggers we follow...

Anyway, Teri and the cats of Curlz and Swirlz (Disco, Brighton and Coco) will be attending and we kinda Tweet, too...

Dawn said...

Great tips!!! My mom has a fearful dog which was rescued from a puppy mill. My mom used much of the same techniques as described here and Solo is doing much better. When I visted this weekend, Solo actually climbed into my lap. My mom was amazed - especially since the last time I saw Solo, it took her two days just for her to let me pet her.

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