Seven Tips for Training a Fearful Dog

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Train-Your-Dog-Badge-150x150Training 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 "Watch Me"

Maggie “Watch Me”

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.

Maggie in a down-stay

Maggie in a down-stay

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:

  1. 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!
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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 doing a "Leave it". You can just see two little Zuke's treats she's staring at.

Maggie doing a “Leave it”. You can just see two little Zuke’s treats she’s staring at.


For the January Train Your Dog Month Challenge presented by Something Wagging This Way Comes, Alfie’s Blog and Rescued Insanity, we wanted to try a few tricks on the list they suggested.

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.


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  1. Yeah on the down! Great information for fearful dogs and it sounds like you really had your work cut out when you got Maggie and you did a excellent job with her. Good for you not giving up and turning her around. People are sad, sad, sad with what they do with there dogs. No reason for it.
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  2. Wonderful post.
    Lara Elizabeth recently posted…Five Things I’ve Learned About the Relaxation ProtocolMy Profile

  3. Awesome job! As you said, extra patience with a timid dog is key. They know when you’re upset or frustrated and it will make them even more timid.

  4. Poor Maggie! I am so glad that you rescued her! My first dog (as an adult) was a Sheltie (Laddie) that had major fear issues. It took a month before he would even go up to my Dad (a man that ALL animals loved), and he was never the type of dog that would walk up to a total stranger. Laddie lived to almost 17 years of age, and learned to trust quite a bit. I was so happy when I was able to teach him sit, down and “shake”. As you experienced with Maggie, teaching a fearful dog takes time & patience. You cannot force them to learn. Your best advice to to keep your expectations reasonable. Such a good point!

  5. Great post! I have a fearful Lab… who came to me at 9 months old, having spent her entire life cooped in a crate (no socialization whatsoever). I had NO idea what I was in for… but it has actually been one of the most rewarding journeys of my life. Now, 1.5 years later, she’s mastered many many things. But, underlying it all, she is still easily scared (like Maggie). However, I’ve learned what scares her well enough to “manage” situations so that she’s usually okay.

    I think that #7 on your list of suggestions is the most important one. I am a person who perseveres and tries my best to overcome obstacles. But, if I let this mentality creep into my training of Shyla, I only mess things up. I need to be easy on her, and not ask too much. Asking too much is a recipe for a big regression. So, keeping the bar attainable is key!

    Thanks for this great post. It’s odd – because I’d always gotten my Labs as 8 wk old puppies before Shyla, I actually didn’t know that a Lab *could* be fearful until I met her. Now, I know there’s another one out there in the world. And, it sounds like you have been Maggie’s savior. That’s so wonderful!
    KB recently posted…Happy Friday!My Profile

    • Thanks you’re right, Labs have such a reputation…and here I’ve got one with some reactivity issues and one fearful one. Just goes to show how environments play a role. I’m glad to hear Shyla is doing so well – I would never have expected her fear issues looking at all of your wonderful pictures of her adventures.
      mkob recently posted…Seven Tips for Training a Fearful DogMy Profile

    • And our first pup was a chocolate Lab like Shyla…your pics remind me so of her.
      mkob recently posted…Seven Tips for Training a Fearful DogMy Profile

  6. These are such wonderful tips for helping a fearful dog learn. And really great ideas for just paying attention to your dog and what she needs. As you said, every dog is different. Great post!

    I find that button clickers are a little quieter than the cheap clickers. Combined with putting the clicker in your pocket, that helps relieve the sound problem for some fearful dogs.

    I also find that some fearful dogs are fearless in some areas. For instance, our foster dog Cherie would panic going on a walk or meeting strangers. But she had no problem with ramps, wobble boards, or bike carts. Honey helped her with her fears on a walk (like Jack helps Maggie). And Cherie helped Honey with her fears around agility equipment.

    So glad you joined the Train Your Dog Month Challenge.
    Pamela recently posted…Train Your Dog Month Challenge 2014 – What I LearnedMy Profile

    • That’s true about different fears. One of our first break through with Maggie was taking her to the dog park – she loved it and went up to the dogs and to the people. She didn’t engage much, but was obviously happy. She also greets people when they come to the house…but if they are IN the house, well, that’s a different story and if they are male…forget it.
      mkob recently posted…Seven Tips for Training a Fearful DogMy Profile

  7. Great tips!
    My one husky is fearful but only in certain situation, like for instance, walking down a busy sidewalk, where there are buildings on both sides, she does anything she can to try and run towards the road, and constantly shies away from the big buildings. I have never known why she is like this, and was never entirely sure what to do about, having tried all I could think of to keep her as comfortable as possible while walking. I tend to just avoid busy spots while she is with me.
    ((husky hugz frum da pack))

    “love is being owned by a husky”
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  8. Thanks Slim – Leo spent the his first 6 months on a mountain in Blacksburg, VA. That’s where the breeder lived. It has taken two + years to get him comfortable indoors. To this day he still looks up when he walks into a room – scared to death of ceiling fans. What you shared rang many bells with me, and I will start training him “outside” and see if he seems to enjoy it better. Great post, so happy I found you guys!
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    • We’re happy you joined us! Our dog Tino used to spend about 75% of his time outside – he just liked it better. He wasn’t afraid inside, it’s just what he grew up with.
      mkob recently posted…Seven Tips for Training a Fearful DogMy Profile

  9. Patience is a huge key to helping a fearful dog, and another dog helps a lot too. Great information and you should be really proud of how far she has come. You know she is grateful, just shy about showing it.
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  10. Maggie is such a lucky lady to have you both. Your tips are wonderful.
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  11. You are doing so great with her, and she is so lucky to be with people who have the patience and love to work extra hard with her. It must be that much more rewarding for you too when you see your successes.
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    • It’s very rewarding – we love seeing her act like a dog…and when she’s happy…well it makes your day.
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  12. This was really fascinating; we’ve never had a fearful dog. The most we’ve experienced is watching Blue go from sleeping in a curled up ball to all out, on his back, feet up in the air. That was our sign that he felt safe and comfortable.

    Rodrigo has anxieties about things – brooms, baby gates – and he doesn’t like it when we rearrange the garage.

    One thing I’ve learned with him (and I apply to Zoey, because she’s so submissive) is not to coo when they’re afraid. Instead, I encourage them and act like everything is fine. This works, because they don’t have any deeply ingrained fears so we can move past them easily.

    Rodrigo and Sydney’s mom was the opposite and I’m always curious to know what it would have been like to adopt her and give her a second chance.
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    • We never had a fearful dog before her either, so it was a real mindset shift for us. The closest was after he went blind, Tino didn’t like the wind and would come inside and under my desk. You’re right though – the best thing you can do is kind of ignore it and just act naturally.
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  13. Great post and tips. I’ll add to the list to avoid exposing your fearful dog scary thing purposely before the dog has a sense of trust and the emotional ability to chose to react constructively. Desensitization can be counterproductive for a fearful dog.

    • Good point. Flooding is often used, but it really is counterproductive.
      mkob recently posted…Black & White Sunday 2-1-14My Profile

  14. Excellent tips and nice job Maggie. Chessies don’t care for down either. It is the giving up of control I think. I have used some of your tips when training down with them. High value treats and tons of praise work. We also keep the session very short to start.
    2 brown dawgs recently posted…Aerial AcrobaticsMy Profile

  15. Great job and wonderful of you to share your experiences with Maggie. It’s important for people who may have a fearful dog to understand there are ways to help those dogs overcome some (if not all) of their fears and live a happy life with a family.

    Patience is key working with fearful dogs and knowing if something is not working, it’s okay to try something else.

    I’m learning to gauge when Delilah will react and determining what our best course of action is to help her in that situation. Some times we will remove ourselves from it and other times it’s necessary to see if we can stay calm and observe from a distance. I know she hates being approached by other dogs when she is on leash, so as long as I’m sure she’s safe, I will drop the leash, other times I have no choice to change direction to avoid it.

    I’m glad you’ve found what works best for Maggie.
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    • Interestingly, Maggie loves other dogs and is very interested in being with them. I think that’s becasue she was always around other dogs and don’t see them as harming her. Who knows – one of the many times I wish they could talk.
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  16. The are great tips for training, thank you for sharing! I fully believe that all dogs can be trained, certain situations just might take some more time or different techniques. A shy and timid dog can be a difficult situation, patience and consistency is definitely the key.

  17. Wow, sounds like training a fearful dog can indeed be a handful. Congratulations on your success so far though! Thanks for the tips; I’ll keep them in mind and may recommend them to my readers at some point… (just tweeted the post too)
    Ruan recently posted…Puppy Socialization TrainingMy Profile

  18. It’s always refreshing to see owners take special consideration with their pets. I’ve known some people to give up on training if what they’re doing isn’t working so kudos to you guys for trying new things until you got it right. My pup isn’t fearful like Maggie but he is a bit headstrong so I understand the difficulties you can have when training. I hope you continue to keep us updated on your progress with Maggie. 🙂
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