Dear Labby: Fearful Fido

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Dear Labby

Dear Labby

Dear Labby,

As I was perusing FB I noticed your story on Maggie and wanted some of your thoughts on my situation.  I rescue dogs, and last year rescued a pregnant bitch who had 10 pups at my house.  They are Min Pin/ Rat Terrier / Chi/ doxie, who knows.  It has been a slow adoption for these little black dogs and our girl  has just been placed.  She is shy and she lived w/ me , some of her siblings and my pack for her first year.  She is really struggling in her new home and I am hoping her new family will give her time.  She won’t leave their apartment, is not eating much, will pee out on their balcony but won’t poop but does not want to leave their place.  Any good resources for them.  We live in Los Angeles.

Fearful Fido

Dear Fearful,
This is such a good topic and very near to us because of our Maggie May. First of all, good for you in reaching out and doing what you can to help Zara and her new family adjust. Bringing up a fearful dog can be quite a challenge and requires loads and loads of patience. When we realized that Maggie wasn’t just wary of a new home, but really fearful, I started reading as much as I could about the topic. I also immediately reached out to our trainer who, while more experienced with hyper and aggressive dogs, gave us some good tips for working with Maggie. Please note that I am NOT a dog trainer, so these tips are only based on what has worked for us and our situation. I will provide some additional resources at the end of this article and I also welcome input from our readers. I know many of our blogger friends have worked with or own a fearful dog, so hopefully they will provide some additional thoughts and advice in the comments.

Here’s our tips on what’s worked with Maggie:

  1. The most important thing is to have patience. Fearful dogs will move at their own pace – it may seem like glacial speed, but you can’t rush them or you will undo the good that you previously accomplished.
  2. Discover their ‘currency’ – that is what do they enjoy doing. Use that as an incentive to get them to do things you want them to do. Maggie was afraid of Steve, but enjoyed going for rides in the car – so we would use the car rides to get her used to being with dad. High value treats can also be used as currency. At first Maggie turned her nose up at steak – yes, we tried to bribe her with steak. Eventually, she got her appetite and food is no an integral part of her development.
  3. Get a trainer – one experienced with fearful dogs. You don’t need weeks and weeks of training, a few short sessions where they provide you with some specifics based on their evaluation of your dog can be invaluable. We got a 2nd opinion on Maggie and the trainer introduced clicker training with specific slow steps for Maggie and it’s done wonders for building her confidence – a key component for a fearful dog.
    Maggie, just chillin in her front yard. Doesn't look too afraid does she?

    Maggie, just chillin in her front yard. Doesn’t look too afraid does she?

  4. Give Zara a ‘safe’ zone, a crate would work, or just a nice comfy dog bed. Don’t let anyone else in it – make it be her spot that’s hers alone. If she’s in a situation with children, teach the children to leave her alone when she is in that spot. Praise her and give her treats when she’s in it so she associates only good things with it.
  5. Did I mention patience?
  6. Use proxies. What do I mean by that? Well, Maggie always felt more comfortable when Jack was around, so we started using Jack to get Maggie to do things. For instance, Steve would call jack to him and Maggie would follow. You could see the little wheels turning, saying “if big brother Jack is okay with this guys, then I guess it’s okay”. It might not be possible to have two dogs, but you could try and find a doggie friend closely that they like and see if a play date helps boost their confidence.
  7. Be an observer and protector for your dog. Don’t ever force them to do things that are obviously fear inducing to them and guard against others trying to force them. Learn to watch their posture and reactions to certain situations – increase the ones they react to positively and decrease the negatives.
  8. There is somewhat of a controversy about trying to soothe your dog in fearful situations. It’s our natural reaction to hug them and pet them. I think that soothing them to a degree is fine, just don’t overdo it and make things worse.
  9. Try a Thundershirt. We’ve never used one with Maggie, but have heard really positive things about them from others.
  10. Finally, be patient. It took months and months before Maggie showed any indication that she wasn’t deathly afraid of Steve. There will be triumphs and setbacks, but the rewards are great. When I see Maggie run out to the car to greet Steve when he returns home, it makes it all worthwhile.

The following are some of the blogs and websites where I have found useful information.

Readers – please add your thoughts and advice for Fearful in our comments.


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  1. Those are all great pieces of advice, Debbie Jacobs is an amazing trainer in working with fearful dogs, I’m so pleased to see you include her work.

    I would have to say #7 is so important, Be an observer and protector for your dog. There will be times that you will have to step in and say, “Leave my dog alone, or please take your dog away from my dog.” People will look at you, they might be rude to you but it is so important for your dog to know that you will protect her at all costs.

    Great advice Dear Labby!
    Jodi recently posted…This ‘N That Thursday – June 13, 2013My Profile

    • Thanks for the input.

  2. Sounds like excellent advice to me!
    Misaki recently posted…Friday bits and bobsMy Profile

  3. Great advice. It’s always hard to have a fearful dog, but patients and going slow they will come around.
    JoAnn Stancer recently posted…Follow-Up FridayMy Profile

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