Seven Tips for Training a Fearful Dog
Training a fearful dog is much different than training a dog like Jack. Jack is totally dialed in to his humans and wants nothing more than to be with us and make us happy. Maggie was the polar opposite, she wanted nothing more than to crawl into her bed, pull the covers over her head and not have to deal with us at all. It was heartbreaking. We adopted Maggie from a rescue who had saved her from her life as a breeder mom at a puppy mill. She was too old to have puppies anymore (8 years old) so they tossed her out. Luckily she ended up with a Lab rescue and we adopted her from there.
Maggie was totally shut down when we got her. We had no idea of the extent of her fears and they seemed to mount each day for the first few weeks. It took us 3 days to get her to eat and then only from a flat paper plate and only if Steve was not in the room. She’d never been on a leash or been trained in the basics. We soon realized we were way out of our league and we called in a dog trainer to help us.
Today, while Maggie is 1000% better, she still has her moments – she always looks over her shoulder to check what’s behind her, she’s skittish about certain noises and she rarely initiates an interaction with us (unless it’s dinnertime). It’s been a very long two years of working with her and training her. Our two biggest challenges so far in her training were ‘down’ and ‘stay’.
A down position is a scary position to a fearful dog. She grasped the sit easily and quickly, but the down? She wanted no part of it. To train her, we had to be outside of the house – the house was too closed in – and then I had to lie on the ground with her the first few times until it clicked that if she did it, she would get a treat. We were using clicker training with her and while she picked up ‘touch’, ‘watch me’ and ‘sit’ quickly, ‘down’ was a struggle. “Stay” has yet to be mastered. She will stay if Jack is there and he has a pretty reliable stay, but if Jack isn’t there, she’s a popper, she pops right up and away.
The key concern that we’ve encountered with a fearful dog, or at least with our Maggie, is that something (or someone) is going to come up behind her, so I try to make sure we are alone in the house, or that she is in a safe place. I thought an enclosed space would work best, like my office, but she doesn’t like that either – you can almost see the little wheels turning in her head making sure she has an escape route. We end up doing a lot of Maggie’s training outside. That open space seems to comfort that fear.
While training a fearful dog can be done, it is a different experience. Here’s our suggestions based on OUR experience with Maggie, remember each dog is different:
- Use lots of positive reinforcement with high-value treats. We initially had to use cut up steak with Maggie and sometimes even that didn’t work. Luckily, we’re able to get her with just Zuke’s mini’s now!
- Clicker training worked well with Maggie, but it’s not for every dog – particular if they have any noise fears – the clicker sound may scare them.
- A second well-trained dog to act as a model can be useful in getting the fearful dog to do something they are unfamiliar with. Maggie will try most anything that Jack is doing.
- Get down to their level, present an unimposing figure. This was particularly important in teaching the down. If I was ‘lower’ than her it was easier for her to come down to my level.
- Pick a spot where they feel comfortable. While an enclosed space didn’t work for Maggie, it might be perfect for another dog. They are all different and have different triggers, so if one spot doesn’t work and they seem distracted…move. Find a spot where they can focus on you and not on what might be happening around them that is fear inducing.
- Keep the sessions short, sweet and successful. I could spend 20 minutes training Jack and he’d still be good to go. Maggie we train in much shorter stints and I always stop before her anxiety builds too high and while she is still succeeding. Part of the issue with fearful dogs is low self-esteem, so you need to build their self-confidence by having them do and then be rewarded for things they do RIGHT.
- Patience, flexibility and endurance are critical for YOU. Training a fearful dog is a slow process – push too hard and they will regress, ask for more then they can give and you will get nothing. Don’t set goals that are too high and keep you expectations reasonable.
Maggie’s pretty good on #1-5 and so-so on #6-12 and forget beyond that. We kept it simple and really tried to master #6-12 and I’m happy to report and present photographic evidence of some of her successes. The down – leave it seen here was by far the hardest for her, but she mastered it. Oh, let me add an eighth tip: train just before dinner – you get their full attention then!
Thanks to our sponsors for this Blog Hop – it was fun to focus on Maggie.