How to Tackle Your Dog’s Fears Head On

dog fear, dog anxiety

A fearful dog is probably the most frightening and intimidating dog that you can deal with, either as an owner or just in general.

Fearful dogs are hard to read, and going from fear to aggression can be fast and ferocious.

Simply put, fear makes their behavior unreliable.

Even a dog cowering in the corner with his tail tucked can defensively attack with little to no warning.

I think dogs like this are feeling what people feel when we have panic attacks.

Your heart beats out of your chest, you can't think, you can't focus, and you literally feel like you might die.

There are 2 main things that make your dog's fear worse.

2 Main Things That Make Fear Worse

#1: Ignore the Problem

The first is probably the most common: a lot of people just ignore the problem.

If the dog is afraid of the clicker, never use the clicker again.

If the dog is afraid of the garbage man, ignore it and keep him inside when there is garbage pickup.

If the dog is afraid of people, avoid taking him out of the house.

I do and don’t understand how people think this will fix the problem!

First, I guess people hope that if they avoid the problem, they won’t have to stress the dog or deal with any kind of excessive fear or aggression.

However, there is no real way of making your dog live in a bubble.

I’ve never had a fear that has just gone away, without significant effort.

Fears in dogs and other animals don’t just go away. And if untreated, untrained and unacknowledged, they can actually develop into full-fledged phobias.

Fears also have the potential to develop into other problematic behaviors like:

  • Aggression
  • Reactivity
  • Vocalization
  • Destruction

Helping your dog overcome his fears will not only help to stop these behaviors, it will help you develop a confident dog!

Confident dogs are much easier to handle and train, you simply need to teach your dog some coping mechanisms and help him overcome his fears.

#2: Forcing Him Into Uncomfortable Situations

The other group of people think that “flooding” the dog by making him face his fears all at once will force him to overcome them.

dog fear, dog anxietyHowever, this method can often create a lot of conflict.

And, in many instances, this will make the behavior worse.

Flooding involves forced, prolonged exposure to the actual stimulus that provoked the original trauma (or fear) and caused the problem in the first place. Flooding has been proven to actually significantly increase fear. Overall, Karen L., Behavior Modification in Dogs; 2011

What Is Your Worst Fear?

  • Spiders?
  • Falling or heights?
  • Small spaces?

Would you want to be forced to lay with spiders all over you?

To be pushed from a plane?

Or to be locked in a coffin or box?

Until your fear resolved?

Might it actually make you worse if someone did this to you?

I have a fear of heights and if you tried to force me off of a mountain or plane to sky dive, I would probably try to kill you in order to save myself.

You see, even though logically I know that people sky dive all the time and live, and I can understand that my fear is unrealistic, it doesn’t make it any less real FOR ME.

At best, you are teaching your dog “learned helplessness”, a condition that occurs when an animal is repeatedly subjected to an adverse stimulus that it cannot escape. Eventually, most animals will stop trying to avoid the stimulus and behave as if totally helpless to change the situation.

Some people see “learned helplessness” as a cure.

Let’s Take Claustrophobia

You are terrified of small spaces and the feeling that the walls are closing in and you can’t escape. You yell, you shake, you can’t relax.

My friends and I are going to come over every day for 3 weeks and lock you up in a box.

dog fear, dog anxietyYou try and fight back, and do anything to get away, but eventually we win.

Day after day you realize you can’t escape, so you stop fighting.

You may even stop shaking, but does that mean you are miraculously cured?

No, probably not. You may actually be even more scared but there is no reason to show the outward signs.

However, it has been proven that slowly working on biofeedback and learning coping mechanisms can help people with their fears.

Imagining the small space; learning how to calm oneself through breathing and other relaxations techniques; and, slowly, working on fears at your own pace can all be effective.

Adding Punishment

Adding punishment to flooding can make behavior even more unreliable.

In his Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, 2000, Steven R. Lindsay, said “Dogs habitually exposed to unpredictable/uncontrollable punishment are at risk of developing disturbances associated with learned helplessness."

In other words, dog that are exposed to flooding and punishment are more likely to develop more behavioral issues as a result of learned helplessness.

You know these dogs; you have seen them. The owner has flooded the dog and corrected the dog over and over around his fears, and the dog learns to shut down completely.

But you can still see the fear in the dog’s eyes and behaviors.

In dog training, we call this a ticking time bomb.

You can try to avoid the problem, but at some point, all that fear and frustration is likely to bubble to the surface and explode in aggression.

Imagine Your Dog is Fearful of Children

You start taking the dog to play yards and parks, and forcing the dog to allow children to be near and then to pet the fear, dog anxiety

If the dog tries to get away or shows aggression, you correct the dog harshly.

The dog learns to shut down, but that doesn’t mean he likes children.

Instead he likely will become the dog that “bit without any warning”.

Because instead of correcting the fear that you find offensive, you are correcting the warning response. This is why a growl isn’t always a bad thing.

The Good News

You don’t have to ignore your dog’s fears.

And, you don’t have to force your dog into a scary situation!

You can safely teach your dog coping mechanisms by devoting just a few minutes a day to training and relaxation techniques.

It takes time, it takes patience, and it takes understanding, but fixing your dog’s fears and teaching him how to cope effectively is totally achievable!

You have successfully conquered the first step by acknowledging you need help and seeking information and support.

Do You Want To Tackle Your Dog's Fears Head On?

Check out our 5 Step Formula that helps FINALLY Fixing Your Dog's Fears, Anxieties & Poor Self Confidence.

Click here to learn this 'Becoming Fear Free' training process

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  1. Mat says:

    Thanks for this post on helping your dog to face fears and phobias. So many aggression problems really come down to a defensive response from a fearful dog! Unfortunately, dominance models often DO advocate adding what amounts to punishment for such problems – masking the real causes and simply making a dog more dangerous.

    One of the things that such trainers never seem to understand is that what they are mostly punishing are the warning signs of defensive aggression.

    In other words, they are literally training a dog to stop giving warning signs that they are afraid. This makes dogs MORE dangerous! It does NOTHING to stop the fear and in many cases it makes the fear worse because it is just confirming to the dog that the trigger is associated with bad stuff.

    Imagine if someone saw a child crying and saying they are afraid of the spider and our response was to yell at them and force them to touch the spider! We would call that child abuse. Why is it so hard for some people to see it is the same when we do this to dogs. Besides being ineffective, it is unethical.

    Thanks for this great post!


  2. June Frazier says:

    Very helpful article.


  3. Flora says:

    So where is the answer? This seems like what not to do. What do I do. My dog is fearful of going for walks. I have a hard time.. Don’t suggest to give her a treat. She won’t take them when she’s resistant.


    Minette Reply:

    We have built a whole training program to help fix dog’s fears because it is so difficult for people to conquer


  4. Vera Bachinger says:

    Thanks for this, very helpful. We rescued a GSD in January, he now 16 months old. He has obviously had a very tough life prior to coming to his forever home with us. We could not touch him, step over him or have eye contact.. He was not social to dogs or people. We have been very patient with him and he is working through his issues in his own time. Koda is now a popular playmate at the dog park, he will voluntarily approach people he knows and trusts, but still very careful about making contact with people.. new contacts are instructed not to pat or make eye contact.
    Today I believe he experienced a panic attack. He was having a snooze when he jumped up, ears flat on his head, tail tucked between his legs, he ran around the house in blind terror. I was able to stop him, held him tight, gently stroking him and reassuring him.. he stuck his head under my arm.. after about 10 minutes he settled and his heart rate dropped to a more normal level. He showed no aggression, he’s a really nice, kind dog.. but this really upset us both.. I can’t identify a trigger.. Can I help him with this?


  5. Joseph Brinn says:

    Our 7 lb Yorkie used to love to go on walks with us until he was attacked by a big dog of about 70 lbs about a month ago while on one of our walks. Now he seems ready to go and is ok till we walk about 50 feet from the house and then he puts the skids on and pulls us back to the house. We have attempted to walk him several times even going a different route but he still wants to go home as soon as we start our walk.


  6. Rebecca says:

    My dog is also fearful of going for walks, I think because she is afraid of cars. She also won’t take treats, even her favourites when she is walking, even in her best state. She doesn’t want to walk out the front door. She walks on the lead fine in the house and backyard. She is a big dog and really needs the long walks though. Suggestions?


  7. Margaret Saddo says:

    Yogi, while walking him, has started to stop, start barking & almost to the point of maybe biting people who are walking down the sidewalk. I’ve walked him since a puppy. Tried my best to socialize him with people & pets at PetSmart for 1st year. He will be 2 In end of October. He even barks in car at people walking by when we are slow or at stop sign. Help.


  8. Mickey says:

    I think this training would be use for my boy. His fear is of been groomed, it is worse when he is professionally groomed as his warnings are ignored – at home I simply stop or move on to another part of his body, my groomer who is fantastic and patient has to press on and we use distraction (food) at the moment. My belief is that the aggression he shows (low level snapping and growling) is driven by fear of pain. Would this training work in this situation? I have worked with an excellent reward based trainer who has given some excellent counter conditioning exercises to work with but this method is going to take a long time and I am concerned that this need resolving asap (he is a Cockapoo and need daily grooming). I am in the UK and go on holiday in 2 days so would not be able to start the training until mid August, will this be okay?


    Minette Reply:

    Honestly fears take time. but yes, this helps teach coping skills


  9. Beverly Dekker-Davidson says:

    My dog thinks all car trips involve a vet in the end.Its so sad, I have to tranquilize her for long car trips, otherwise, she pants, shakes and salivates.The vet is kind but she does not want any part of it.What to do?


    Minette Reply:

    Take her there often for food, treats, toys and not just for appointments.


  10. Gloria says:

    Will your program help a dog who is so fearful, he’ll start yelling BEFORE another dog appears, even if as soon as he stiffens I walk him off at right-angles & try & treat him which he won’t take ( even high calibre treats)?
    He does agility, but yells if new dogs join the class. In between runs he sucks on a tube of cream cheese to keep him occupied. He hates jumping towards dogs he doesn’t know. Loves people. Don’t know history as he came from a rescue.


    Minette Reply:

    Our program has been very effective for dogs with fears.


  11. Mickey says:

    Sorry..I couldn’t find where to post about your IMPULSE CONTROL issues…so I will post here and you can move me 🙂
    Awhile ago I watched your Impulse Control lessons with the dog at the Front door. It was a dog you were boarding that bolted out the door.
    I commented and said…My 15 mo old Shepherd will NEVER look at me. she is SO focused on the door. Now what?
    Well, the other day, I had enough. She almost bashed into the glass and broke it thinking I was opening the door. ENOUGH !!!
    I told myself..OK…this is it. I don’t care if it takes 5 hours a day…I will not give up. And yes, it took about 5 hours a day all tolled to do this exercise. Not once did this dog look at me for more than a split second.
    Yesterday? I was bringing in groceries from my car. Freedom has to accompany me everywhere I go..runs to find her ball..and trips me up a hundred times anticipating play. This time? I REALLY HAD ENOUGH.
    I was going back outside to get more bags. She was pushing past me. I turned and said,,,CALMLY…” DROP…STAY”…opened the storm door wide stepped on the thingy to hold it open…and walked to my car…50 ft away…around a corner..she could not see me.
    I knew I was setting both of us up for failure..but…OMG !!!!! I came back to the doorway?? And she was STILL LYING DOWN !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    I walked past her…put the groceries down, went back to her eyes riveted on me…told her OK !!!!! And loved her up like crazy ! A fluke? Maybe..but..
    I did the same thing again…Drop Stay…out to get bags…came back…all the while the door is WIDE open..and…the other dogs actually waiting behind her !! As she is without a doubt the Alpha dog. Even THEY knew something was different.
    I came back in..and again… NO TALKING !!! put groceries down and then released her and praised her. I also rewarded her with a throw of her ball a few times.
    All I can say its…I have done this with her now about 7 times at different points of the day. It was like somehow something CLICKED and she GOT IT. WOW.
    My dog is a BEAST>.I mean it…A brilliant bad ass bitch. This incredible show of respect to me? Has shown me how we don’t realize every second of the day is a lesson for them. WE think they aren’t paying attention..but they are just absorbing the information and maybe trying to get the process straight in their mind. Then BAMMO !!!! It all comes together.
    I am not only thrilled…I cried….I mean ..I CRIED !! She is an awesome dog..but very headstrong and I get frustrated. I now see…this dog NEEDS STRUCTURE> She LOVES doing this now..she know she pleases me..and she knows she gets her ball. I mean..a win win right??
    I know this is long..but I felt it would encourage all of you guys with tough heedless dogs to stick with the plan. THIS GUY KNOWS HIS STUFF !!!
    PS> I am a Dog Trainer…:) Humbled.


  12. Julius says:

    My Dog Ava is fearful of going down stairs not familiar with, she goes up but not down. She is a 7 month old, 70 lb shepherd, setter,
    Don’t want to ignore this.
    Please respond.


  13. Dick Cantner says:

    Another great article from someone who knows! I have twin Standard Poodles 2 years old. They are not so much fearful but want to jump and get in way while coming into my home. All these techniques assist me in training the Boys.
    Thanks so much as I love your articles.


  14. IRISH PACK says:

    Wow, Mickey…just awesome. I am also a dog trainer and my current ‘project’ is my 4yo Papillon/Pom that was traumatized when I got her 3 1/2 years ago. I am trying new techniques that I am learning from Chet…..what a great resource


  15. christine hickey says:

    flora, we have to pay $27 to learn the answer. my adoptee is developmentally challenged and fears even a collar being gently put on. the 4th of july or gunshots will cause him to hide, shake, refuse to eat or drink for days. lies in his own waste. am truly afraid he will die from this horrible fear. am so scared for him, but don’t know how to help. am 70, on assistance, and cant afford to find out. makes this a sad article for me.


  16. christine hickey says:

    mickey, I loved your post.
    my 30lb adoptee will seldom look me in the eye and often turns his back to me. what does this indicate? even tho I have been nothing but kind to him, he shows fear, little affection, and doesnt care if he pleases me.
    he has a genetically deformed head, jaw, and brain, but does show some cleverness. the shelter people said he was retarded, a ‘ruined’ dog that should have been euthanized as a pup.
    despite reading and trying all the valuable help chet offers, I have not been able to train him at all. is like a wild animal at 5yrs old. I am 70, have had him over a year and love him in spite of all this.
    oh how I wish I could afford professional help – is a desperate struggle to get a harness on him, cut toenails, use earwash, etc. (uses teeth on me but no growling) . he backs out of collars, harnesses and struggles at leash. my home and yard have become his glorified kennel I dare not try to take him out of. is he hopeless?
    I also posted about his horrific fear of fireworks, gunshots etc. below.


  17. Karen says:

    You are not alone. Our dog will also be 2 the end of Cctober. She also barks at people passing by outside car and on walks. I usually will cross the street before they get close, if I have the time. I find I am anticipating problems so take lots of detours on our walks. Our dog also barks and lunges at people on bikes. I take her to Day Care for full day once a week to socialize her with other dogs and humans, and as you, exposed her to other dogs and people in classes during her first year. Our dog is a Wheaten Terrier/Standard Poodle (Whoodle) almost 50 lbs and strong.


  18. Caren says:

    My dogs 2 main issues are 1. Excitement when someone comes to the door. She thinks they have come to play with her. She is 8 pounds., chihuahua, very happy but has aggressive problems. . I did finall get her to sit and stay and still work in progress.
    2. She was attacked twice under 1 1/2. Once by little dog second by idiot man who had his dog on a leash, walked over to us ( I picked Angel up) he continued over to me even with pleas to take he and his dog in a different direction. The dog jumped up and terrified both of us!!
    So now she can spot a dog or person from quite a distance and starts viciously barking. The only thing I have accomplished is distance and occasionally when just a person approaches an uncertain reaction untrustable either happy kisses or cautious then aggressive. Open to all suggestions. Would like to enjoy taking her for walks!
    I appreciate all the help I have gotten from you Chet and am in a place where I can give her more time. Illness and moving have not been good for training.


  19. Tina says:

    My dog was in a shelter for about a week before my husband and I rescued her. She was young (under a year the shelter thought). It was very traumatic for her; she didn’t sleep, ate almost nothing, and crouched in the back of her cage shaking that whole week. We brought her home (about 3 1/2 years ago) because I was home recovering from a very serious illness and needed a companion and someone for me to take care of (to help me not get depressed) and to help me get back on my feet. Needless to say, we became very bonded to each other. She has separation anxiety. If I leave she howls the whole time I’m gone (according to family members). She starts shaking when I grab my keys or purse. I’ve been on this site many times, looking for ways to decrease her anxiety, and I’ve read several of your tips. We’ve made some progress; my question for you is this… Is her separation anxiety a fear? What would you recommend? I am probably going to go back to work part time, and want to take care of this issue before I do.


  20. Tina says:

    P.S. I wonder if her time at the shelter brought on PTSD.


  21. Debbie Moses says:

    When my Staffie was just a few months old, a group of 5-6 kids came running over to her to pet her, and she was so frightened, she urinated on herself. To this day, she does not like kids of any age, and she is selective of the adults that she likes. She is okay unless the kids cross her threshold of tolerance, then she becomes this crazy, lunging, snarling mass of fur. I have been told by several trainers that she will never be friends with kids, but that I can help her be around them. What are your thoughts? I don’t have a lot of kids in my home, thankfully, but I am worried about what could happen.


    Minette Reply:

    Dogs that are aggressive with children can be dangerous. It is difficult to safely “socialize’ with children without putting them in danger. In these instances and with the aggression you are describing I recommend our programs but also the help of a boarded veterinary behaviorist that can witness the behavior and help with the problem.

    Not just a “trainer” a vet who has gone to school for behavior, there is a HUGE difference


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