Heather runs Lovebugs Rescue and we’ve been working together for several years. So when she calls it’s usually to ask for help with a dog in foster care, get some training tips or to attend a rescue event in the “Ask the Dog Trainer” booth. But yesterday morning was different. When I answered the phone she went into a long discussion about a young dog that just came into rescue. She told me this dog was terrified, more than normal, and this dog need professional help. This dog was young, maybe a year old, wouldn’t let her touch him, hid in the corner in the bathroom and wouldn’t eat. She had a few fosters available to take in a dog but this dog was going to require a special foster because he was too frightened. I told Heather I would come by and meet him.


When I arrived at Heather’s house, she told me that he was gated in her bathroom and when I peeked in to see him, he growled at me. I toss him some chicken and the movement of my arm caused another growl. I tossed a few more pieces and he wouldn’t eat them. This told me a lot because when dogs are really worried they won’t eat, even when they are starving, and this dog was thin. After talking to Heather for a few minutes, we went back to check on the dog. We moved the gate so he could come out, instead of us going in and he started to walk around.


I took a quick video. You can see he is shaking, his body is low and his tail is tucked under his body. He’s looking for a way out (perimeter checking) and he runs into the bathroom if I move or make a noise. He’s on high alert ready to run in an instant. He is terrified.


I decided to foster him to see if I could help him become comfortable and eventually get adopted.


Driving to my house I could see him watching me in the crate. He was too scared not to watch me. He has no idea what is going on and what is going to happen. Now some people might say, doesn’t he ‘know’ that you’re helping him? No, how would he know that, especially when I just met him. He has no clue what is going on and he assumes the worst. All he knows is that I’m a scary monster and he’s stuck.


My heart breaks for this dog, because he has so much fear. Living with this much fear is horrible! We know what creates fear but yet we keep making the same mistakes with our puppy’s over and over.


Dogs are fearful because they were abused, right? Wrong.

Now some people might be thinking, he was abused and that’s why he is growling and is so frightened. That is a very common thought, but I find that it is almost never the case. I seriously doubt that anyone could catch this dog, let alone raised a hand to him. I just look at him and he runs and hides in his crate. He has been neglected, but not physical abused. So if this dog wasn’t abuse then why is he so scared? What if I told you that I have seen dogs like this before, feral dogs and they weren’t abused. Most of the time, I would say even 95% of the time (anecdotally) these fears develop from a lack of proper socialization. We will dive deeper into socialization and how it saves dogs lives in another post, but for now this dog is grossly undersocialized. In fact, my guess is that he has only met a handful of humans. His fear is not from a lack of positive experiences with people, it’s from lack of experiences at all! In the absence of positive experiences before 16 weeks old, dogs will assume the unknown is dangerous and to be feared. Fear is the reason for growling, barking, biting, running and cowering, etc.

But wait, can’t he be socialized now? Isn’t that what he needs to over come his fears? Isn’t what the dog training TV show says? Why can’t I just sit in the room with him until he’s no longer fearful? It only takes an hour on TV.

No, socializing this or any terrified dog won’t work.


Socialization will not help fearful dog.

Anytime we talk about dog behavior we need to operationally define what each word means. Socialization is a broad term that could mean one thing to you and something totally different to me. Socialization is a stage of puppy development that is biologically determined and takes less effort. Puppy’s develop fear around 16 weeks old the socialization must occur before them. According to Megan Herron, DVM, a Veterinary Behaviorist and professor at Ohio State University, after 16 weeks old any novelty is dangerous; the brain is programed to say, this is new it must be dangerous. Dogs develop fears of dangerous things and use barking, growling, biting, etc.


Step 1

Step 1: Building trust

Ignore the dog. Trust is the cornerstone in any human relationship and it the same with a dog. If you can’t trust your spouse or your friends, then you don’t keep that relationship. Dogs are the same, they need to trust that humans are going to listen to them and respect their boundaries. For the next few days, and even weeks I will be building trust with this terrified little rescue dog. I will not be able to train him, counter-condition his fears or descensitize anything unless he trusts me.

You can’t force a fearful dog out of being fearful. Kidd, his new name in foster care, will have a safe place in his expen and he has an open crate in the expen which he frequently runs into when I walk into the room. That’s fine for now. We’re stranger and I’m not going to push him because it won’t work and it will take longer. I am going to ignore him and let him get comfortable being in a new place with all of the new sights, sounds, people and dogs. I will not try to pet him, because he asked for affection and because he would bite me.

The first step to working with a fearful dog is to build trust and we do that by going at the dogs pace. That mean that for the next few days this rescue dog will stay in my spare room in an enclose ex-pen. I won’t try to pet him (he would probably bite me anyway) and I’m not going to sit in his pen until he’s not afraid. I will wait until he wants to interact with me. I will wait until he can eat in front of me. I will wait until he comes to the edge of the gate to sniff me. And until then, I will respect his boundaries, give him clean water, good food and a soft warm bed to sleep in.
The first step towards helping this rescue dog is to build trust! This is the most important step because you can’t

If he faces his fears he’ll get over them, right?
Some people believe that force a dog to face his fears will help him get overt hose fears or be comfortable. For example, I’ve head clients tell me that they had to pick up and hold their dogs and puppys so that humans could pet them. When I asked them why they had to pick them up they tell me that the dog was trying o get away or growling at the person. Whiles these pet owners are well intentioned, holding a dog that is frightened so someone can pet him makes the fear much worse. This is very common and I’m not sure why with dogs we think this way. I know that I thought this was the correct way before I started to study animal behavior and psychology. We think that if the dog is afraid of children, then I need to bring him around children. If the dog is afraid of dogs, then he needs to play with dogs. And, if he needs to be socialized, then I can take him to dog daycare. Thinking like this is where we dog wrong with our dogs and make matter worse.

Let me put it in a different context. If you were afraid of the water and I pushed you into the pool, are you less afraid once you’re in the water? NO! In fact, you’re not only still afraid of the water, but you’ve lost a lot of trust in me. Will you be standing next to me by the pool again? I bet you won’t be standing next to me by the pool again, right? The process of being forced to face our fears is called flooding. This is a scientific process that has been used and it’s proven to be ineffective. In fact, it rarely even works. And, if you try to flood your dog, even unintentionally, and it doesn’t work, then you make the fear worse! To top that off, take a big withdrawl out of the trust bank account you had with your dogs. Trust is big! Your dogs expects you to know and understand his language to know what he is saying to you, or to the dog walking towards you. When you’re dog is put into a situation where he feels like he has to defend himself by barking, lunging, biting or snapping, then you’ve lost some trust.

step 2 eat

Step 2: Can you eat in front of me?

When a dog is too worried, fearful or stressed he won’t eat. Kidd, my scared foster dog only ate after I went to bed and the house was quiet. This is fine because at least he ate (he’s so skinny). The next day I tossed a few pieces of chicken to him in the pen and he wouldn’t eat them. He went the whole day without eating. I cook for my dogs so later that night after I had made a batch of dog stew, I put a little in a bowl and left it for Kidd. An hour later I could hear him eating it (yay, he finally ate).  Hopefully in the next few days he will feel comfortable enough to eat while I am in the room with him. I don’t expect him to eat from my hand, that will be way to scary and I don’t expect him to eat outside of his enclosure.

Step 3: Can you sit for a piece of food

This is a big step but once the dog is comfortable eating in front of you for a few days, it’s time to start communicating. This a great exercise and it’s very simple. You simply wait for the dogs to sit and then drop a piece of food on the ground so he needs to get up to eat the food. The dog will have to think

Sherry Nativo, CPDT-KA, KPA CTP

Sherry is a dog owner, dog lover and professional dog trainer. She is determined to teach dog owners the most effective training techniques so they can enjoy walks, hikes, cafe visits and life with their dogs. To get more tips visit the blog at www.allabouttrainingdogs.com/blog or sign up the newsletter here.

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