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How to Love a Fearful Dog

Updated: Oct 17, 2022

How do you love a fearful dog?

The most common form of love that we give our pets is often excess talk, touch, and eye contact.

Whether it’s a rescue/shelter dog with an iffy past and very, very sad eyes, or a brand new fluffy bundle of cute from a breeder, it is common for a dog new in a home to be flooded with all good stuff. And that’s awesome, right?

Fearful dogs may crouch and pee, run or slink away, or even become defensive and fear-aggressive when confronted by stress or confusion. These dogs have a clear track that can be followed, and it usually shows a worsening of the fear and anxiety: an appearance of the first growl, first lunge, first bite. These dogs are progressively isolated, because walks become too much. Trips in the car are too much. Sedation is now required to go to the vet (and sometimes that doesn’t even work all that well). The nieces and nephews can’t come over anymore. Dinner with guests can’t be held at home anymore. Now the dog is on a psychiatric drug long-term in hopes it will help, and he is only in the house or back yard. And the world he lives in gets smaller... and smaller... and still the dog gets worse.

Why are they getting worse? You love them! You pet them and tell them it’s ok. You give them treats upon treats when a trigger approaches to make their dog feel better. The dog is immediately removed from frightening situations when anxiety is shown, or frightening situations are prevented from happening altogether.

And as the dog worsens and his world shrinks, you become progressively more aware of their dog, aware of what may frighten him or trigger an aggressive response.

And this translates to increased talk, touch, and eye contact. (And likely increased stress for you!)

Love is not what feels best for us, but rather what is best for the loved one.

And sometimes, in order to love the dog you have, you have to reserve some of those things you enjoy giving for times when the good things you give communicate what you want your dog to understand. Often, when a dog is unsure, what he needs it to be shown that all is well—and the way to do that in dog language is to be calm, relaxed, and confident. If, instead, you react to your dog’s fear with all the cuddles, pets, and praise, you reinforce what he’s feeling. Interaction with you is a resource, and all that positive interaction will reinforce his fear.

Time those rewards for when (and ONLY when) your dog is calm, collected, and clear.

Otherwise, stay calm and neutral. Cut back on the constant contact and let your dog discover his own strength. (We have also posted about some exercises for Puppy Socialization that work GREAT as confidence builders for your fearful dog! You can read about those here.)

As Marc Goldberg is know for saying, “The dog you pet is the dog you get!”

Note: Fear and anxiety in dogs is a complicated issue! It can and has filled many books. Often when dealing with fear, a well-meaning person can inadvertently make things worse. If you have a fearful or anxious dog and you have questions, give us a call or shoot us a quick email! We can help you get on the right track.

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