Tuesday, January 31, 2012

How to Train a Fearful or Insecure Dog

By Langley Cornwell

Some of you know about our rescue dog. We’ve learned so much from her that I can’t help but write about her in many of my articles. For those who don’t know, here’s a summary: we heard about a shy pup that urgently needed a home at a time when we were considering taking in another pet. We agreed to meet her. When describing the dog we met that day, the word ‘shy’ is an understatement. She wouldn’t stand up. She held her head down low and her tail tucked under. She nervously dribbled on the floor. When coaxed, she slowly belly-crawled over to where I was sitting on the floor and gave my ankle a timid lick. My husband took one look at me and knew immediately. She was coming home with us. 

Since that time, our insecure dog has blossomed into a happy, well-adjusted pet. Even now, however, there are times when she reverts back to her fearful ways. In researching the topic, I learned that shy or fearful behavior in canines usually stems from insecurity. According to dogproblems.com, a dog's insecurity can be a result of different influences including genetics, a traumatic experience, limited socialization or even mixed messages from the dog’s owner. Whatever the case, there are certain steps to follow when training a fearful or insecure dog. If you are consistent with these concepts, you’ll have the joy of watching your shy dog gain confidence.  

Make sure your dog considers you the pack leader, and be a pack leader she can trust. Work on basic obedience skills with your pup, either individually or in a group training class. Teaching a dog to successfully sit, down, come, heel, and stay will build her confidence. Basic training is always easier if you reinforce desired actions with treats your dog loves, like CANIDAE TidNips. When a shy dog has a clearly defined and trustworthy pack leader, she can relax in her surroundings.

Gently control your dog’s body language. I learned this concept early and was amazed at the results. When our dog tucks her tail under and scrunches over, I gently lift her tail up to the normal/confident position. When I do, she stands up taller. Therefore, don’t accept submissive body language from your dog, even during training sessions. When you tell your dog to sit, don’t let her hang her head down and act like she is unsure of the request. Instead, softly reach below her chin and lift her head up. Apparently, the mind follows the body and if the body is in a confidence position, the dog feels confident.

When your dog displays unwarranted fear, avoid coddling and reassuring her that everything is going to be fine. Your dog will translate the coddling as a reward; she will think she’s pleasing you by acting afraid. Therefore, you are not helping the dog; you’re actually reinforcing fearful behavior. Instead of reassuring your dog when she seems insecure, do the opposite. Ignore fearful behavior and praise her when she acts confident, especially when she shows assurance in a situation where she used to be fearful. 

Following that concept, do not avoid situations or circumstances where your dog displays insecure behavior. Dogs get over their fears by doing the behavior that causes them fear and realizing that it’s not so bad. This takes patience; don’t use force or aggression to get your dog to do what she fears. Assert yourself calmly and communicate clearly. For instance, our dog was afraid to jump in the car. She would sit by the side of the car trembling. We didn’t pick her up and force her inside. Instead we acted nonchalant about it and showed her what we expected. If you can imagine my husband and I getting down on all fours and climbing in and out of the back seat of a Toyota, you’ve got the picture. We kept at it (in one session) until she caught on and joined in the ‘fun.’ Now she jumps in and out of the car like a pro.    

When you’re teaching your dog to do something she previously considered scary, repeat the activity over and over. Repetition builds confidence. Practice the activity in a variety of locations, with a variety of external stimuli. Your dog will eventually realize that the activity is familiar and not to be feared.

Training a shy or fearful dog may take a bit more patience and time, but the rewards are tremendous. As long as you make sure your dog understands what you expect of her, you are consistent with your actions and reactions, and you are quick to reward good behavior, you’re on the road to a happier and healthier relationship with your dog.

Photo by Langley Cornwell

Read more articles by Langley Cornwell


  1. Finn freaks out at gunshots. This is very helpful!

  2. That is a terrific post. Like the part where you shouldn't cuddle when they are afraid of something. My border collie is deathly scared of loud noises under our house. I try to ignore her when she hides behind the bed. I feel so sorry for her.

  3. While I agree with much of what you have written, the idea that it's not okay to reassure a fearful dog is becoming outdated.

    Because fear is an emotion, not a behavior, it can't be reinforced (unless, of course, YOU freak out yourself, thereby freaking out your dog). But gentle words, along with reassuring strokes, will not make your pet more fearful. It may not HELP (although petting a dog does release oxytocin both in the dog and in the owner), but it won't make them more fearful. A great article on this was written by Patricia McConnell: http://thebark.com/content/reducing-fear-your-dog

    I, too, have a fearful dog and tried to adhere to the "don't coddle" advice when we first got her (before I joined a fearful dogs group and read the above article). She had never lived in a house before and was afraid of everything - including stairs. When we would let her in from outside, she would jump up on the couch and hunker down there. This one evening, I tried everything to get her down off the couch and up the stairs. In frustration, I tried to physically move her from the couch. She shot away from me to the corner of the couch and huddled there shivering. I could NOT just let her sit there terrified and do nothing. So I took a deep breath, sat on the couch next to her, wrapped my arms around her and whispered soothingly to her. I could feel her relax in my arms and after a few minutes, I stood up and said in a cheerful voice, "Okay, let's go upstairs!" And up the stairs she went.

    Anyway, sorry for the long response but I think the main key to working with a fearful dog is building a trusting relationship. And to me, that entails recognizing when your dog is afraid and not ignoring their very real emotions. We have to figure out what works for us AND our fearful dogs, and if that means hugging them or talking to them when they're afraid, we should do that rather than be hemmed in with "one size fits all" advice.

  4. Excellent article, well explained from the folks working through this new experience. I've shared your article everywhere I can think of.

  5. Good post. I agree with the idea with being engaged with your dog through their fears. Like you did with the car. And I like the idea of lifting your dog's head when they drop it. Good idea.

  6. Thanks for the super responses. @MayzieMom, I appreciate you sharing your story and the link to Patricia McConnell's article. I completely agree that 'one size fits all' is never a good approach when working with animals. The information I shared works for us and for others I know but the best advice I could ever give anyone is to work tirelessly to understand your pet and do what works best for the two of you.

  7. I had a fearful dog we rescued off the street several years ago. She was afraid of going up and down the basement steps to go outside, she was afraid of a flashlight when it was turned on, she was afraid of the dark, she was afraid of the ceiling fans. I didn't coddle her to help her get over her fears, but I also didn't completely ignore them either. I'd sit and talk to her and give her a mini body massage just before we were ready to take her outside, which meant going down the steps.) When she hesitated at the top of the stairs, I'd pet her head and coaxed her down staying positive and happy. It took her about 3 months to completely overcome the scary steps and every now and then, she'll hesitate, but for the most part, she races up and down them just like the other dogs now. She also has overcome her other fears.

  8. Totally agree with both both of you...and thanks for sharing the link fromPatricias McConnell's article. ;)

  9. Good ideas. I'm going to try a couple of them with my own timid dog. She's getting better and better as her confidence grows, but everything is a process.

  10. Great post! It helps a lot. Eva gets agitated when there is any loud noise especially like thunders and fireworks. She goes cracker and bark a lot.

  11. I am so pleased to find someone else who lifts the dogs tail, it really does work and I have been using it for years thanks


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