Fearfulness in Dogs

Thursday, February 7, 2008

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“Can a dog be cured of its fearfulness of strangers and going out of the house?  My sweet, little five year old female Dachshund is petrified of strangers and will not leave the house to go outside for a walk (the enclosed backyard is fine, however).  I am divorced with two college age sons and although she adores the boys, she runs and hides in my room when their friends come over until their friends leave.  I have an older, male Dachshund who is just the opposite (Mr. Personality), so I know it cannot be how I raised her.  Funny, though that she is the "alpha" dog and bosses him around. 

She will not go for a walk outside the house, she tries to turn around and runs back to the house, so I must walk the older Dachshund without her. My vet says don't force her, just exercise her in the house by throwing a ball. At the dog park (she does like the car) she will sit on the bench and watch the other dogs, not afraid of them, just doesn't want to interact. 

I just feel so bad for her and whatever is bothering her. She is the sweetest little dog, but I cannot trust her with anyone other than my sons. I wish I could read her mind!
 Thanks for any suggestions or insights into her mind.  I feel she is just missing so much out of life, although she does seem happy insulated in her home!”

- Daschund Owner

Dear Daschund Owner,

Yes your dog can be cured of her issues. What I am going to respond to here, as I do with all of my students, is in this order. All problems have a cause, an effect, and then the cure. If the ingredients that I spelled out here are not dissected then the cause and the effect could end up with indirectly trained unwanted results. I use the analogy of a merry go round as owners of dogs we must be the ones to jump off first. The dog will follow suit based on developing an issue of regaining trust.


Take a look at the article on submissive urination and the description of the Chihuahua's behavior. We tend to carry the weight for the small dog, coddle it, don't want it upset and then we cater to it. The series of events is we worry (cause), try to comfort through petting at fearful stages (effect), and the indirect result is the dog will act afraid to get affection. Many of us do this indirectly. In human terms, soothing, petting or saying “there, there, it is all going to be alright” actually has a great effect on human results (i.e. in a foster children situation.) With dogs, however, it increases fear; conditioning the dog for approval leading to the trained emotional behavior to get praise. This happens quite often with many owners of fearful dogs in the past. On the other hand when this becomes prevalent then we begin to try to push the dog into socialization. Trying to get people to pet it or having it at the door so it can meet people when it hasn’t been prepared to do so. The dog backs up and now the behavior becomes the trained behavior based on indirect unwanted habits.

On the other note, you have another dog. It is not uncommon for the younger dog to be fearful. Simply because the older dog is the alpha type to this small dog (much like how younger children look to their older siblings for behavior.) Dogs who try to or establish dominance within themselves towards their home counterparts do it in a subliminal or obvious demeaning nature. (I will write an article on this issue soon. "Multi Dogs and Dog Pack Order” is what I think I will call it.) When the younger dog goes for a walk outside two things happen. Her low self-esteem takes over and doesn't want to go to the next step. This could be that the older dog didn't want her to have spirit so he suppressed indirectly in order to control her. The other issue is dogs tend to over-bond with each other and when they go out one-on-one with their human person they think it is weird and can't cope, simply because we humans don't communicate in the same manner. The younger dog is only conditioned to communicate “dog-to-dog” not “dog-to-human” for the majority if its daily time. This above paragraph is your cause.

Currently you are now dealing with a dog whose behavior is trained to back off, freeze, act afraid with low self-esteem, and this is your effect. We are most likely in the withdrawal stage at this point. We need to change this before it goes to complete emotional shut down.

Now for the cure. Firstly we must change our behaviors so the dog does not associate its bad behavior with habits we may have that caused the behavior in the first place. Let’s look at it.

From this point on when someone is coming over, have the dog come to you immediately and have her sit next to you. Keep a leash on the dog so this can be easily handled, letting it drag the ground. This way you go for the leash when you need to get the dog (as opposed to trying to get her or she slips by and hides somehow.) Once this happens have the people walk in the house. At this point the dog is not in the area of entrance so if you have to put her in her crate or another room for a few minuets do so. (again refer to my article on submissive urination). Have the people sit down, bring her in and give her some treats to start off. This must be done with the same person all the time. Until she greets that person and overcomes her fear, do not introduce multiple people as this will accelerate her fear. Once she gets over one, she will get over 2 and 3 and 4 will become easier.

As for walking outside, playing with a dog in the house is a no-no. This is satisfying her need to play and fulfilling her desires in the house...why would she want to go outside? Play outside so she has something to look forward to. When you go outside, instead of pulling her and forcing her at this point, pick her up and carry her 40 to 50 feet from the house. Stand there for a bit and let her calm down, don't touch her don't pet her when she is fearful. Just wait it out (this is my “Breathing” exercise.)  Start walking towards the house. When you see her pawing or pulling to run back home, stop. Wait again teach her that if she is calm then you will proceed, praise her for being brave. We will be using reverse psychology as opposed to getting her to walk into fear, we will take her to it and help her walk out of it in a confidant and patient manner.

If she likes the car then go to a quiet spot, somewhere on the side of a strange (new to her) sidewalk area on a quiet street. Go out of the car and just stand there, do this 3 times a week (it could be while before you go to the store for something.) Once she is calm in that same spot for several days try walking back and forth on the sidewalk or walkway. You will notice that simply moving on this now-familiar sidewalk may bring back her anxious behavior.  That’s okay, just wait it out and remember, only praise her when she’s calm. Do not go to multiple spots, we need to take it one at a time right now.

As for the dog park, it is fine at this point for her to observe. In a few weeks, when her confidence is up, find the friendliest dog, one about her size. Look for this dog. This dog must be behaved in the master’s presence and responsive, not hyper, anxious or pushy. You can usually find this type of dog by watching what happens when the owner hooks it up to a lead. If it is anxious then that is not the dog. Find one who likes the dog park but can take it or leave it and ignores everything when it is with its master. Go talk to this person with your dog, don't allow the other dog or person to approach your dog, just let your dog see this dog and person for a few times. When she becomes confidant, then you can try an introduction. Hold the lead close to you in a supportive manner so she can't back off. While standing, I  put the dog in front of my feet, shaped in a V position with her rear tucked into my heels so she can’t back off. In a sense, I create a safe “cave” and if anything comes rushing in, I put my hands out to block it (your dog sees you as her protector.) This is in case another dog comes running out of control (i.e. chasing a ball and not watching where it is going) towards you while doing this exercise. After 3 or 4 visits around the dog you are aiming to introduce, you can let the new dog in to sniff your dog when your dog is calm. Praise her for being brave! 

Try to have one-on-one time with this dog and put your other older Dachshund in a different room during this time. Make sure you work him one-on-one as well. (I always tell my students that in the beginning stages, you don’t have two dogs, you have one dog two times. There’s a story behind this, I will tell it one day.) This will help in building a relationship with the dog that has the issue. This way you and the dog can connect verses the dog bonding with the other dog.

The three levels of socialization are indirect, direct and confrontational presence. We as owners tend to push dogs into immediate confrontational or direct introduction. This usually causes the withdrawal. Keep everything indirect at this point and we can move onto the next socialization issue.

I hope this helps in some way.  We can progress as we go along.

- Sam

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