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Friday, September 13, 2013

Ask the Dog Trainer: Fearful Dogs

Michael Baugh CDBC, CPDT-KSA
courtesy Chrissy Olson via
Take it Easy with This One
Hello Michael,

My Jack came from a good home, into a good home, and he's afraid of his own shadow. How do I make Jack see that noise or movement is okay?

I have a young roommate (since a few weeks ago) and a hubby (of 23 years; he works out of town) and Jack is afraid of both of them. How do I make Jack see they won't hurt him?

Theresa Lyn

Hi Theresa Lyn,

I can help.  It turns out I specialize in helping people with fearful and aggressive dogs in Houston.  I know your dog's problem well, and I know how to start turning it around.  You could say, I know Jack.

(Enough with the bad puns).

How about we start by shifting our verbiage a bit, specifically our verbs.  We can't make Jack see that noise, or movement, or the people in his life are safe.  Emotions don't work that way.  The best we can do is help Jack come to terms with his environment.  So, let me help a little more by simplifying this as best I can.  Helping Jack feel better and more relaxed about his life is all about how we behave.

This doesn't mean you're doing anything wrong, or scaring him on purpose.  It just means we have opportunities to make some changes - opportunities to help.  Here are the two broad points to consider.

  1. Take some of the spookiness out of the scary things.  This means moving less suddenly around Jack, and perhaps making a bit less noise.  It also means your roommate and husband will want to avoid reaching for or even looking at Jack (give him his space).  The technical term for this part of the plan is called desensitization.  We're taking some of the sensation out of the scary experiences, making them smaller and easier for the dog to tolerate.  It's all about our behavior.
  2. Associate the scary stuff with good things.  This is usually high-value food, forbidden pleasures like cheese, chicken, or cooked beef.  Every time he experiences something that used to be scary, show him that the thing actually means he's about to get something delightful.  This is called counter conditioning.  Our behavior is helping Jack change the way he feels about movement, people and sounds.
Do you think I'm crazy yet?  Don't blame me, I didn't invent it.  I just teach it.  We actually have decades of solid research to back up this process (desensitization and counter conditioning).  It started with a guy named Ivan Pavlov, but folks like John Watson and Joseph Wolpe really dug into how the process relates to fear in animals and people.  You can read more about them if you want to geek out some on the behavior science.

For practical help, definitely consider hiring a dog trainer who is an expert in fearful behavior.  The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants has a great search engine for finding a behavior consultant.  I'd also recommend you visit   They have a Facebook page with the same name that posts daily tips about living with and training a fearful dog.  Super valuable.  There's even a Facebook page called Support for Men who Live with Dogs who are Afraid of Them.  Also very valuable.

All of these resources will encourage you to remain upbeat, gentle and calm in your training.  Breathe.  Using any forceful, scolding or startling techniques will only make Jack's problem worse.  Remember, we're not making him do anything.  This is about helping him feel better.  You can set the obedience training aside for now.  He doesn't even have to know "Jack sit."  

(Okay, now that really is enough).

used with permission
 from Robyn Arouty Photography
Michael Baugh CDBC, CPDT-KSA writes a dog training blog for The Houston Chronicle and for his own blog site,  

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Michael's advice does not replace an actual consultation with a qualified trainer.


BoingyDog said...

Great post! Thanks for sharing, especially clearly teaching counter conditioning.

ruckustheeskie said...

There's a group for supporting men who are fearful of dogs?

Carrie, with Tanner and Oliver said...

@Ruckus Eskie: The opposite; a group for men who live with dogs who are fearful of them:

Dawn said...

This is exactly what we did with Pierson when we first brought him home. He was scared of everything. He still gets spooked from time to time. But otherwise he feels perfectly comfortable with us.

Unknown said...

YOu have shared nice post here thanks for this ,,,

Dog training dallas tx said...

Wonderfully well put. Thank you so much for writing this!

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