recently i picked up a new dog to foster. it was an urgent situation, the adopters claimed a 5-month-old collie/bully mix “hates men”, “hates kids” is unsocialized and is not trained. and the dog was indeed fearful, shaking like a quaking aspen and very confused. however, after a few days with a balanced older dog and a compassionate family, she is thriving. yes, thriving. luckily, at just 5 months the dog has not completely shut down yet, and it is easier to reach her. but truly some principles can apply to dealing with all fear, in dogs, in people and –hell– even in chickens!
the first and most important premise is, dogs do not hate. hate is a human emotion. dogs can have fear, and a certain person, energy, object or situation can TRIGGER their fear. they can respond to a visual trigger, a scent, a sound, or most importantly an energy. the trigger can set off a full-on fear epsisode, or we can help them move through the fear and move on. it is good to know the dog’s triggers, but to not let those become OUR triggers. for example, i had a foster who was scared of bicycles. rather than avoid bicycles, i would spot them coming and take a deep breath, keep walking. if the dog tried to bark at them, i said NO. and keep walking. do not allow your fear of the dog’s reaction to a person, object, or place reinforce the dog’s state. balance the dog’s fear with your love and calm leadership. avoidance is not training.
use tools. if you are walking a fearful dog on a flat collar, and the dog is triggered to fear, the dog can easily get loose. the fearful dog needs to be in a prong collar, a collar that tightens in some way, or a type of harness. the leash should be heavy, and not retractable. i use a locking carabiner if necessary. if you lose a fearful dog before forming a bond, you are screwed. the fearful dog could bite in the fear state, or get run over.
dogs love treats and petting. however, be sure to use these to reinforce the calm state, and DO NOT give dogs treats/affection when they are in a high state of fear. they do not need babytalk. they need YOU to remain calm and model the behavior for the dog. using a dog without fear issues is a huge help here. the balanced dog can model the desired behavior. treats can be used to reward the dog when they make progress and walk past their former triggers. some trainers do not use treats at all, but send loving beams of light or whatever at the dog when it is in the calm state. that works too, i use both.
there is a place for unconditional love here. an underlying love and respect for all creatures really helps us get positive outcomes. you do not have to like all creatures of course, but a respect for their alive-ness. and the dog will do well with the idea that fear must be replaced by something else. that something else should be a feeling of stability and calm. nature abhors a vacuum.
ok, kids. yes, kids can be a major trigger for some dogs. is it hteir small size? their zany outfits? no. all kids should be taught how to approach dogs. yes, kids have run up to my dog, pulled her tail, stepped on her, tempted her with snacks, screamed at her. many kids, like many adults in this society, are unbalanced sugared-up out of touch freaks. people say their dog doesn’t like the chaos of kids running around screaming while repressing their own anger at the out-of-control scene. dogs can read us like a book. while there are dogs who truly should never be around kids, i would say that many just need the kids to relax. take that hyper behavior outside. or better yet, chuck the sugar and tv and teach kids how to meditate. i am not talking about natural exuberance, which is beautiful. but the wacko-repressed-blue-lake-high-fructose-cable-tv-bieber-fever-screamo-ritalin-freak show has no place in the life of a fearful dog.
exercise. please! please! walk the dog. all dogs need exercise. puppies especially need exercise. fearful dogs need to burn off that nervous energy. take walks. play ball. make friends. socialize. give the dogs something to chew, a safe space to run, and watch the dog’s behavior improve. being cooped up in a crate or animal shelter all day is actually a cause of some anxiety–in dogs, yes but in people too. nothing improves my mood more than going outside. physical activity is vital to life. that may look different depending on your ability, but it has to happen to keep a dog well.
finally, do not use the dog’s fear as an excuse to shower him with un-grounded affection. show boundaries and leadership to the dog on a practical and an energetic level. do not be afraid to say no. sre, the dog got dumped off in a shelter, or was mistreated, and you loooove him, but don’t be a wuss. combine the loving touch and energy with a strong presence that says “everything’s cool. i’ve got your back. i am in charge here. fear is not an excuse to be an asshole. you still must follow the basic rules of the household. ”
ultimately it is you who will be leading the dog into a new emotional state. it can be a beautiful process. a puppy deos not come trained. it is easy to let the cuteness override the knowledge that it is a LOT of work, and a huge commitment to get a dog. millions of people are giving u dogs every year, and fear is one of the reasons why. think it through before you commit to a dog–and call in help if needed. find a great trainer, a dogbuddy or walker who has experience with this type of thing. only you can know your limits, and this is not for everyone. but saving dogs is possible, and important work to do. a better world is possible for us, our families and our animals.
**NOTE: this is my opinion, and ONLY my opinion. i am NOT a proffesional dog trainer or handler. please consult one if needed. this reflects my personal experience and nothing more. thanks for understanding that.**