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How to Help a Fearful Dog Get Better

There is Help for a Fearful Dog

I have a fearful dog. She is a one-year-old female Chihuahua who has always been fearful since we got her at 12 weeks. She has never been comfortable with my husband picking her up and only seems happy when my 13-year-old daughter comes home from school. She will literally spend all day in her bed! Have I left it too long to help her overcome this? It’s so frustrating because we have never been nasty to her. Also, it’s hard to teach her anything because she won’t take treats. If you could give me any advice, I would be very grateful.

Many thanks,

M.S. Surrey UK

Hi M.S.,

When you get a dog from a responsible and knowledgeable breeder, I don’t mind them leaving at 12 weeks of age as opposed to what is a more adaptable age 7 ½ to 8 weeks of age. The problem is that maybe 1 out of 100 breeders do the things that would prevent the sort of problems you are encountering.

It’s possible in your dog’s case that genetics is playing a role as well.  I say so because any breeder that releases puppies at that late age without doing all the appropriate sound/sight/smell/texture imprinting required to keep what you are describing from happening is likely not so much a breeder as what I refer to as a ‘greeder’. I’m not saying they aren’t fond of dogs. I’m saying they have no business breeding dogs as they are breeding ‘poor’ bred dogs as opposed to ‘purebred’ dogs and a fearful dog like your own is a byproduct of their ignorance and/or laziness. This type of breeder causes untold harm to companion dogs and companion dog owners that take on their dogs.

If you want to learn more about the do and don’t elements about properly socialising any puppy between 3 and 12 weeks of age and understand why your dog ended up this way read my book Socialise Your Puppy for Everything.

In the meantime, while we may not be able to transform your dog into the  Chihuahua equivalent of Lassie there is much you can do to improve her outlook on life and temper her suffering.

I see and do telephone consults for a lot of dogs like yours, and I’ve found that 80% of the behaviour that develops in poorly socialised dogs is more drama than solely a result of their poor socialisation. The histrionics component advances for a few reasons, and I’m going to outline a couple of them here.ask the dog guy column Patreon

The first is a tendency for companion dog owners to live with their companion dogs in a manner that doesn’t lend itself towards obedience training let alone effectively helping a dog in need. In fact, many companion dog owners unintentionally reinforce dog’s idiosyncrasies through their efforts to help. They may attempt to soothe and sometimes inadvertently bolster the behaviour. Alternatively, they may try to discipline and increase the fear/anxiety. Either way, most companion dogs perceive their owners as fantastic roommates as opposed to parental authority figures for which they are better wired to accept guidance from and find that they aren’t making significant progress helping their suffering fearful dog.

The second is due to the difference between the dog’s speed and agility and in some cases, the strength it is problematic for the less so companion dog owner to interrupt the early aspects of a problem behaviour with enough frequency for the dog to improve. If your fearful dog is allowed to remain on your daughter’s bed and perceive it as a safe zone and avoid your husband or flee when a newcomer arrives there isn’t ever going to be a reason for them go in a different behavioural direction. After all, what they’ve been doing seems to have worked as they continue to live and breathe.

The first step is to gently transition your fearful dog over from thinking of you as a great roommate and into seeing you as more of a parental authority figure. The second step is related and involves interrupting your dog from repeating behaviours that aren’t helping her learn that, “Oh, when I didn’t/couldn’t run away –  nothing “bad” happened.”

For guidance on how to achieve the gentle transition from roommate to a parental authority figure, I’d suggest reading my book ‘The Beautiful Balance – Dog Training with Nature’s Template‘ and gently implement the exercises contained over a 30 day period. You want to do this before taking on the bigger issue of fear and anxiety, but I’m confident you will see some significant improvements along the way.

The second stage is related. Start requiring your dog to drag a leash while supervised around the home. If a regular length leash dragging is initially too disturbing, then make a little leash a few inches long and gradually lengthen. Start supervising the dog like a two-year-old child. A 2-year-old child would not be allowed to retreat to their bedroom and never come out, nor should this dog.  That doesn’t mean the dog has to sit on your husband’s lap but if his presence causes the dog to retreat someone should gently step on the leash handle and interrupt the flight. The length of the leash allows for enough distance to prevent the dog from entirely shutting down and make room for processing the possibility that maybe nothing bad is going to happen. The leash isn’t there to force the dog into the deep end of the pool. It’s there to break a cycle while leaving some cognitive wiggle room.

There are other strategies you can do that can break the fearful dog cycle and rewire your dog even further. Enough that the 80% of this behaviour which founded on uninterrupted responses that evolved into habits and reinforcement of the anxiety and fear is very likely going to be shed.  The two outlined above will give you a good start.


John Wade



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