My Dog is Afraid of EverythingOccasionally clients say, “My dog is afraid of everything.”

Sometimes it’s  a new puppy and other times it is a rescue dog. We all want a puppy or dog that is outgoing, confident and not afraid to approach anyone – one that grows up to be a good basic companion – one that you can take everywhere with you.

There are three causes for fear in dogs. Let’s take a look at these causes:

The first is genetic – rare but it can happen. You will notice this fearful pup has a lower tolerance to almost everything:

  • Objects like garbage cans, noises and people – even leaves blowing across the yard will spook this pup.
  • In the people category dogs may be most fearful of men, then little boys, then little girls and the least afraid of adult women.

The second cause for fear in puppies or dogs is a lack of early primary/secondary socialization.

  • The optimum time for this is from birth to about 12 – 14 weeks of age.
  • We pull them out of their critical schooling at 8 weeks causing them to miss an additional 4-6 weeks of finishing school with mom and their littermates.

Now the responsibility is on us to complete the task.  We are not nearly as well-equipped to do the job as their mom and littermates. Besides, we have other “human” stuff to do. I see a lot of “lack of socialization” in puppies and dogs.

The third cause is learned fear.

  • This is where a puppy or dog associates pain with something. An example would be if a phone rings when the pup or dog steps on a tack, the phone ring (and other similar sounds/tones) signal that pain is coming and fear is induced. Or in our case, our lab Sammy had 2 surgeries at an early age, strangers to him mean pain.

With puppies that come across very timid and almost fearful we tend to initially soothe their fear or feelings, thinking they will grow out of it.

If your puppy is under the age of 5 months, you have an opportunity begin before the window of socialization closes.

But by the age of 6 months, if it’s not happening—-it’s time to get busy training your dog.

Beyond the age of 5 months in puppies – and of course older newly adopted dogs it will just take a little longer. In either case, you should start sooner than later.

Irrespective of what you think, these fearful pups need help – sooner than later. Any timidity or fearfulness in dogs should be addressed as soon as possible. You should embark on a major campaign to get your puppy or dog comfortable with whatever specific things seem to spook your pup.

Your goal: Be able to have a puppy that will be confident around all of these things of which he was once fearful.

How do you do it?

Begin a program of positive reinforcement training.  Working on obedience commands like Come, Sit and Down will slowly begin to help a fearful dog learn to focus – become task oriented. This will set a secure foundation that your dog will rely on outside in the real world around the things that frighten him.

Set up daily routines and expectations of earn-to-learn (sit and down for everything) around the house and be consistent with this every day – weekends included.

Finally, once you have accomplished the above, begin to associate positive things (high value food treats is usually the easiest) with the scary things – Keep the scary things at a distance at first. Go at your dog’s own comfortable pace.   Time and patience on your part is a must.

Additional concerns.

Allow your dog to approach in his own time and at his own speed.  This allows him to build confidence as he copes more easily with the process, keeping the stress to a minimum. If the dog wants to stay away, that should be okay.

Take him back to his comfort distance, put him in a sit then praise and treat.  This above all rules must be respected and not forced on the puppy. Some call it passive socialization.

If the puppy if afraid of someone and you force that “someone” on the puppy, you’ve just confirmed that person to be dangerous. Let the puppy approach in its own way and time.  If the puppy trusts you, click and treat for approaches and, if you have been working on sits and downs, begin to work on redirecting his focus on obedience training at a comfortable distance from the person or thing that is spooky and begin to slowly and methodically get your puppy closer.

Depending on how fearful your puppy or dog is, will to a large extent, determine your pace and ultimately how long it will take.

Closing thoughts

Remember; as you are obedience training your dog, always let it be the dog’s choice to approach. If he backs off, that’s okay too.

One other point to make is that puppies and dogs learn one person or thing at a time. Getting him used to one person is just that – he’s okay with that particular person. It’s not easy for a puppy or dog to generalize that all people are now okay. Their survival instinct – flight or fight – kicks in and causes them react in this negative fashion.

Bottom line: This takes time and patience. Do not, I repeat, Do Not switch gears and pressure the puppy. You’ll be glad you had the patience to take the time to make things work out.

Be as comfortable with the trainer of your dog as you are with the teacher of your children. And remember, “Opportunity Barks!”

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Together we can raise happy, obedient dogs!

Jim Burwell is a “thanks for making the impossible, possible” professional dog trainer having trained 20,000+ dogs and counting and serving more than 7,000 clients.  Jim’s easy to follow, common sense, and positive methods have made him the “dog trainer of choice” for 30 years.  One of his clients says it best: 

There are people who are so good at, and passionate about, what they do, that in their presence, one can’t help thinking that they have found their true calling and are doing exactly what they should be doing on this earth. Jim is one of these rare people. His quiet and understated manner, his effective technique for training dogs (and their families) is something which I feel fortunate to have witnessed and in which to have been an active participant