Ask the Trainer: How to work with a rescued dog’s fearful mindset
August 21, 2012
We recently rescued a female lab mix named Trixie who we think is about 3 years old. She is very sweet with us, but is fearful of almost everything. When visitors come over to our house, she hides under the table. When we are on a walk, she will hide behind our legs if anyone approaches, even if it’s someone she’s met before. She does seem somewhat more relaxed when people have a friendly dog with them. We love her and don’t want her to be so stressed and scared all the time. What can we do?
Concerned dog parents
Chances are her extreme fear is a result of prior life experiences and a genetic predisposition. I find the best way to help fearful dogs like Trixie is a multi-pronged approach. She may never be completely comfortable with new or uncertain situations, but I do think you can help her have a fuller, happier life.
First, I would consult with your veterinarian about pharmaceutical alternatives to help her calm down. If you are concerned about medicating Trixie, there are some homeopathic alternatives that work well for some dogs, however you may need to find a vet who specializes in homeopathic veterinarian medicine. Often, medication can be a temporary option that gives us a window to help her gain confidence through training.
The next component of the plan is for you to become a calm, confident leader for her. This has nothing to do with dominance. An effective leader has a self-assured, unruffled manner that is projected in all communication. Leadership is conveyed through a calm tone of voice, confident body stance and giving clear cues. Think of the best human leader you’ve ever met or worked for and note the qualities that made them so effective.
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Step three is to create a very structured environment for Trixie. The more predictable her world is, the less stress she will feel. Implement a feeding schedule instead of free feeding and make her “wait” before eating. The “wait” cue can also be used before walking out a door and jumping out of the car. If she likes to play games, have her “sit” before chasing the ball. Teach her a “go to bed” or “go to your crate” cue and use it if someone comes over to visit. If visitors really upset her, put her in a crate or in another room so she doesn’t have to interact at all right now.
Lastly, I like to teach fearful dogs how to engage with things that scare them. Teaching her to “touch” a stranger’s hand as a greeting is particularly effective. It eliminates the dreaded reach of a stranger’s hand and puts Trixie in the driver’s seat. I also teach fearful dogs that just looking at something scary is a trick and worthy of reward.
To help a fearful dog like Trixie, your goal should be to gradually expand the world she is comfortable in. Right now that comfortable world is pretty small, but each time she conquers a new fear her world gets a little bigger. Maintain realistic expectations, be patient, and I think you will be amazed how much you learn about yourself in the process of helping her.
– Carla Brown, CPDT, is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of The Savvy Dog Training and Education Center in Truckee. If you have a pet topic/issue you would like to see covered in the Ask the Trainer column, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.