Dogs commonly display fear in a variety of situations. Most times, this display of fear is repeated consistently in response to situations or stimulus, and is hence easily anticipated by you. The severity of fearfulness in dogs can vary greatly between individuals and can lead to several outcomes, which can be positive or negative. Guiding your dog to associate the once perceived fearful situation with relaxation allows the breakthrough in allowing your dog to enjoy life to his fullest. Most fears won’t subside on their own and if left untreated, may get progressively severe overtime. This is because a fearful dog left alone instinctually fends for himself, which may then progress to fear-based aggression.

The term “fearfulness” is commonly misunderstood. Your dog may show signs of being scared, which is an umbrella term used to describe fearfulness, insecurity and anxiety, which are all very different!

Fearful is defined by:

  • a lowered body posture

  • a lack of appetite in the presence of humans

  • great reluctance to get up from a spot

  • commonly flatten his ears

  • commonly freeze when on a leash

  • involuntary control over waste excretions

  • tail consistently tucked between the legs

  • having very cautious eyes and facial expression

  • the frequent quivering of the hind legs and/or whole body

  • the possibility of dashing away in an attempt to escape

  • hiding under physical structures

  • lack of whining, panting, pacing, barking or jumping

  • lack of belly exposure of side sleeping

 If your dog is able to walk well on a leash but get frightened by sounds or is cautious to approach people, your dog is insecure and not fearful!

Causes of fearful behaviour

Determining the cause of the fear is relative to the success in training your dog to be less fearful of that fear. This allows us to anticipate fear and rehabilitate our dogs from there, by altering that perception of fear.

  1. Genetically predisposed to general fearfulness

  2. Improper socialisation during the critical stage of development

  3. Medical reasons

  4. Being mistreated or attacked by humans/dogs

  5. History of being caught or trapped

  6. Traumatic event(s)

  7. Influenced by humans/dogs

What You Can Do

1.   Desensitization and conditioning

Some dogs are afraid of certain noises such as thunder, dogs barking or children playing. Tackling the fearfulness can be done by playing the audios of those noises that your dog is fearful of during the afternoons. This is when your dog is most likely to take a nap and in doing so, your dog will be more likely to prioritize napping over any mild fearfulness. Prepare treats and reward your dog when he is relaxed, thus reinforcing relaxation with the sounds. Playing the audios allows us to re-enact the fearful situation in a controlled setting so that your dog will be calmer and more prepared should that fearful situation occur in the future. End the session only when your dog seems relaxed with the situation, hence organise a training session only when you have some available time.

If your dog is afraid of objects visually, start by bringing your dog to the object but keep your dog a distance away from it. If your dog is always hiding at a corner, you may bring the object in the vicinity of your dog. Reward him if he maintains a calm disposition with whatever he looks forward to – treats, massage, verbal praise, toys, and so on. If he looks away from the object, quickly give a reward to encourage a lack of fixation. Gradually move the object closer to him, or him closer to the object. Avoid giving any form of reward to him when signs of fearfulness or anxiety are seen, hence reinforcing the idea that we are only acknowledging a relaxed state. You can choose to wait for the anxiety to reduce or increase the distance between your dog and the fearful object before progressively reducing the distance. Repeat these steps until your dog is beside the object. This whole process must be done with confidence which reflects a leadership role. Avoiding hesitation can also be done by providing calming signals. This is done by looking away slowly when your dog looks at you, forcing a slow yawn and sitting with your dog. These actions influence your dog that you do not perceive the situation or object as a great threat. End the session only when your dog seems relaxed with the situation, hence organise a training session only when you have some available time.

This method is ideal for those who are less experienced with dogs as the method is easy to follow. However, following this method alone requires lots of time and patience, taking anywhere between a week to a few months for drastic improvement to be seen.

2.   Leash-and-treat guidance

Some dogs are reluctant to even stand up and be leashed. If you have tried the method above with little improvement, you can start to break the training down into smaller steps and identify the stage that is of greatest resistance. For these dogs, you may conclude that they are fearful of a hand being near the neck, associate something bad with the leash or are fearful of new people. For a start, mealtimes should always involve the presence of a human. This allows the association of humans with a positive, primitive activity, forming and strengthening the dog-owner trust. Slowly work on placing your hand on the shoulder and head. Progressively hold a leash and pat your dog without attaching the leash. Treats should not be provided until your dog associates both the leash and you with relaxation as your dog may still feel unsure. The next few steps include attaching the leash to your dog and guiding him into a sitting position, standing position and then walking motion in that order, all of which will require you to provide treats or other form of affection for advancement of each stage. Treats should be used as rewards and not a form of bribery. Practice this until your dog can get up and walk with you when instructed.

3.   Flooding

Flooding is a method that guides your dog to face a situation and forms the association that nothing bad is happening. This method requires high confidence and should only be carried out with the assistance of an experienced dog behaviourist. A rough outline of the method would be to use a training leash to guide your dog forward. Do note that the term "guide" is not the same as "drag" or "forcing" your dog. Standing and facing the fearful stimulus or situation will make your dog realise that there is nothing to worry about after some time. Improvement usually takes about an hour to several days for drastic improvement to be seen, depending on individual and breed. If done incorrectly, your dog may become more fearful.

Common mistakes

  • Commands

Commands and behavioural training are two very different aspects of training. A well-behaved dog (knowing boundaries, not fearful, not aggressive) is not the same as a well-trained dog (sit down, stay, heel).  The use of commands shows your dog that you are lacking understanding and are trying to mask a situation rather than changing your dog’s perspective of the object from being fearful to being relaxed. Furthermore, many severely fearful dogs and aggressive dogs ignore commands and treats as dogs react without rationalising.

  • Talking to your dog

Talking to your dog with the intention to change behavioural issues may backfire, as attention is given when your dog shows hesitation, anxiety or fearfulness. This fear is then reinforced and may snowball to severe behavioural issues when a similar situation occurs in the future. It is always best to lead by actions instead of complicating the training process and introduce sentences that your dog may never figure out.

  • “Giving your dog time”

Under-expecting the potential that your dog can reach is a common mistake. Many trainers tell owners that training a fearful dog takes time, which is true. However, we are expecting a maximum of a month for the behaviour to be fully addressed and not relapse. Waiting for excessive amounts of time will only make your dog strengthen its fear of stimulus or situations, which will be difficult to address later on. Strengthening the relationship with your dog is important and is not all about affection, pampering and cuddles, but with knowledge and consistency for effective communication.

  • Avoiding the fearful stimulus

It is impossible to shield your dog from every fearful stimulus during an outdoor walk. Some owners result in preventing the fear by abolishing walks totally, which suppress the behavioural issue and cause the fearfulness to become more severe overtime. Overcoming the fear helps to alter the perspective such that your dog can be relaxed anywhere, leading a happy life.

  • Carrying

Carrying a fearful dog allows immediate control in getting your dog from one place to another. However, your dog is forced to face the fearful situation without understanding why you put him in it. This results in an increase in fear of the situation or object, lack of trust in you and possibly straining the dog-owner relationship. Carrying your dog is a way of suppressing the behavioural issue rather than addressing it and hence should not be done to a fearful dog.