Training A Fearful Dog The Right Way
[Complete Updated Guide]

Aaron Rice Expert Dog Trainer
Written: January 17, 2022

While watching your favorite TV show and your dog is peacefully sitting near your feet, imagine a roar of thunder in the skies. Suddenly, your dog gets terrified, barks uncontrollably, and runs helter-skelter in your living room. Does this example seem familiar to you? Have you wondered how you can tackle this tricky situation?

Dogs get scared and anxious often due to a wide variety of reasons. They convey these emotions mainly through their body language. Some of the common gestures include shivering, tucking their tails, cowering, or even demonstrating aggression. 

Some of the common triggers that scare a dog could be a loud noise like a cracker or thunderstorm, certain people, other dogs/animals, and so on. This article tries to list down a few proven and effective techniques on how to help a fearful dog with training methods.

How to Approach a Fearful Dog

Before you embark on your fearful dog’s training aspect, there are some things to keep in mind while you approach or handle your scared dog.

Avoid Looming Over

Understand that your buddy is already in an anxious state. Looming your body over the dog can cause them to feel even more threatened. Instead, try to squat or sit next to them. Laying down a short distance from them can help calm them down in case of excessive display of fear by the dog.

Avoid Direct Eye Contact

Although humans find it normal to gaze directly in the eyes, dogs can feel insulted when humans make direct eye contact while they feel scared. It is advisable to turn your head to the side and minimize making eye contact.

High-Pitched Voice Helps

Talking to the dog in a higher-register and happy tone helps to calm down a fearful dog. An upbeat and reassuring tonality can go a long way in stabilizing the dog’s behavior.

Never Punish a Scared Dog

If you think negative reinforcement can help, that is an entirely wrong approach. Punishing or scolding a scared dog can only make things worse by raising their anxiety levels. The fear escalation can even lead to them biting you.

Yelling, yanking, and beating up dogs can destroy the respect and trust they have towards their owner. Ultimately, they can even run away from the house and never return!

Don’t Force Fear Triggers

While a dog is acting fearful, never force interactions with the fear triggers. For instance, if your dog is repellent to loud music, do not amp up the sound systems during the time of their distress. Making them accustomed to triggers should be done in a controlled and gradual manner over time.

If by chance your dog is willing to face the fear trigger, let them. Do not pull them back. For instance,  if the dog is scared of the water fountain but inches a few steps towards it, motivate the dog by saying, “Good boy/girl !”. Giving treats in the form of food can also be beneficial in this case.

How to Train a Fearful Dog

As professional veterinarians would say, the reasons for a dog’s fear can be as variable as the fears themselves. It is difficult to drill down the fear trigger and coping mechanism and will require sincere effort on the owner’s part. 

Once you learn and find out the initial approach technique to calm your dog down, you are halfway there. In the next part, let’s discuss specific useful pointers around fearful dog training methods.

Before you start on the fearful dog rehabilitation journey, please keep in mind that the path is not straight. You will have to face and accept setbacks and resort to alternative approaches now and again. 

Detours can happen, but that doesn’t mean you should get discouraged. As dog owners who have gone through this phase would agree, parenting a fearful dog is one of the most gratifying and emotionally rewarding endeavors. Every minute and every dollar you spent in the process will feel worth it once you arrive at the end goal. Let’s move ahead to ways in which you can train your dog to win our fear.

Seek Expert Advice

Discuss your canine buddy’s fears or phobias to a professional/registered vet who knows you and your dog. The vet can identify medical problems causing the unwanted anxiety and prescribe remedial treatment. They may also suggest non-drug options like a ThunderShirt that can provide a calming influence to your dog upon wearing. Ensure you communicate even the finer details of the fear triggers and the dog’s reactions to the vet for effective solutions.

Accustom to Fears in a Controlled Setting

It is recommended to help your dog overcome a particular fear by desensitizing them to it under a vet or dog trainer’s supervision. If the dog gets scared by a loud noise, expose them to that noise in a milder, controlled setting. 

But remember to perform this activity in the presence of a certified vet or trainer during the initial phase. Unsupervised desensitizing can lead to the fear problem getting worse, which you do not desire.

Behaviour Modification Techniques

Although your vet can prescribe medicines to control your dog’s fear, the drugs work best in synchronization with behavior modification. This process requires time and dedication, and medical supervision. Just saying “Good boy” to your dog or patting them while they are scared is not advisable as it encourages them to be fearful.  

The owner must focus on basic obedience training like giving instructions to sit or stand during the onset of a trigger. This method will help redirect their thoughts away from the fear trigger. Putting a ThunderShirt on your dog is also an effective alternative to patting.

Learn to Cheer the Small Victories

Engage in positive reinforcement when your dog shows signs of progress from the initial condition. For instance, if your dog felt fearful of a person’s presence, and slowly now the dog acts normally when the person is within viewing distance, that is a good start indeed.

Giving them small treats like food or a safe toy each time they show signs of overcoming fear directs them from being fearful. (You deserve to treat yourself as much as your dog deserves one. Self-appreciation goes a long way in keeping yourself motivated to the task.)

Keep Track of Progress 

Maintaining a written notebook or an online blog can be an enjoyable way to track your progress on fearful dog training. When you look back, it will surely make you realize the worth of the journey.

Additionally, this record can be leveraged by vets or dog trainers to enable tailor-made treatment for your buddy.

Remain Calm and Patient

Some dogs overcome their fears in a relatively short period, like a few weeks or a couple of months. But the other category of dogs showcases a tendency to retain the inherent fears or anxiety episodes. 

Last but not least, it is equally important that you remain calm during the training phase. Venting your frustration on people at home and your affected pet can do you no good. The ideal thing you can do is to provide an environment of safety and belief for your dog. Let them know that they can trust you in all situations by being there for them in the hour of utmost need. This attitude will ease the fear and accelerate the healing process.

Wrapping Up

A fearful dog does not need comfort and affection in the time of anxiety. The fearful dog rehabilitation process primarily requires being calm and assertive. Your dog will not benefit from comforting words. But the right actions and energy will make the difference. 

Try to perceive training from a fun perspective. Smile at your dogs, talk to them and feed them tasty treats as they make little progress. Teach them certain basic tricks like spin in a circle, stand up and dance, and so on. This mindset will help in building trust and improve their overall morale. There are several resources and personnel out there to help you and your buddy overcome the fear. Never feel shy to seek professional help and guidance from vets and dog trainers. 

Clearly, the process of overcoming your dog’s fear is a twisted one, but don’t let that thought demotivate you in any way. One day when your dog remains calm as houses during a thunderstorm, you will recognize that all of this was worth the struggle. All the hard work and commitment you have put in will lead to establishing a bond between you and your dog that is unbreakable.