Helping your Rescue Dog overcome Stranger or Object fearfulness.
Valeri Farmer-Dougan, Ph.D. IAABC-CDBC, KPA-CTP
Many, if not most, shelter and rescue dogs have issues with fearfulness. Often, these dogs did not receive the socialization, and thus learn good social skills, during their young puppy stages. This leaves them with both a fear of anything “new” and a lack of skills to handle their fears. Further, as your dog grows into adulthood, it begins to gain an understanding that there might be “bad things" in the world. If he or she has not had appropriate socialization (going out to visit, the vet, lots of outside experiences and people experiences), then, to her, then anything and everything new can be "bad".
Worse yet, if your dog experienced any maltreatment from an individual, she might decide that anyone who looks like that “bad” person is also bad. If your dog experienced a fearful situation (say, was left out in a thunderstorm or was frightened by a large truck), again, anything similar to these experiences might be categorized by him as “bad”. The fix is quite simple- help your dog understand that new people, things or situations are not necessarily bad, and that people, things or situations that remind them of bad things really aren’t bad. Except, it isn’t that simple.
Think of a situation in which you are fearful or even downright afraid. Would it be easy for you to just “get over” your fear? Likely not. I would have to convince you in small steps that the fearful situation or situations that look alike are not scary. This must be done a step at time. Importantly, I must teach you when you are “under threshold”. That is, you are not so scared that you have shut down and can’t learn. And this, then, is what we must do with your dog.
Safe Spaces for your Dog:
The most important aspect to this training is making sure you dog feels safe. If he or she is so afraid that he or she won’t eat a treat or play with their favorite toy- the situation is unsafe for teaching. Thus, we need to first ensure that your dog has a safe place to escape to when they become overwhelmed. This is often a crate or a quiet room. I recommend using a crate or quiet room particularly when introducing your dog to new people or activities in your house.
It is important to think of a dog’s crate or bed as their “bedroom” and safe place. The crate or bed should be in a quiet area of your home, and access to the crate/bed should be available at all times.
Encourage your dog to hang out in their crate or bed. Give them a chew treat or filled Kong in their crate, so they get used to just being in their safe space and relaxing.
Respect their boundaries in their safe place- do not allow anyone to harass or interfere with dog when they are in their safe space. I know you wouldn’t like someone barging in and harassing you when you are “chilling” in your bedroom- give your dog the same respect. Finally, don’t be afraid to send the dog to their safe place when you see your dog begin to get over-aroused or upset. It is good for them to learn that when they are upset, they can escape to a safe space.
What are signs of over-arousal in a dog?
Dogs that are over-aroused or becoming fearful give us good clues that they are becoming upset or afraid. Watch and look for signs in your dog’s eyes, ears, body posture, mouth, and tail.
Eyes: Dogs who are afraid will develop wide open eyes. Often, they will begin to show quite a bit of white around their pupils, what is called “Whale eye”. If you think of your own face when you are terrified- how do your eyes look? Are they wide open? Do they look “scared”? Your dog’s eyes will look quite similar when she or he is afraid.
Ears: Dogs who are afraid will often lower their ears or put their ears back against their heads. Even floppy eared dogs will do this, to some degree. This is a sign that the dog is very uncomfortable.
Mouth: Dogs who are afraid will show tight mouths…think of their mouth in a straight V rather than a soft U. Their lips are pulled tight, and at first, they will not even show their teeth- just the tight lips. Dogs who are uncomfortable will often lick their lips, sniff the ground or yawn. These are “go away” signals. Similarly, growls are a “go away” sign. Dogs growl to warn you they are about to lose any self-control. Respect the growl and help your dog lessen its fear state.
Tail: Dogs who are over-excited may show high tails, such that their tail is over or above their backs. This is not really a sign of dominance, but a sign of over-excitement. The problem with over-excitement is that you can quickly lose any self-control you might have had….and for a dog who has poor skills already, this may occur very quickly. Similarly, dogs who are afraid will tuck their tails between their legs, as if to hide their tail from you.
Body: Dogs who are over-excited tend to lean forward or do quite a bit of jumping. Again, this may not be a problem initially, but they may lose self-control and could move into fear and then bite. Dogs who are afraid may lean back with their body, lift a front paw off the ground, and lean away from the “Scary” person or thing as if trying to get away.
Watch for all of these signs. These are all clues to your dog’s level of comfort. As your dog shows more and more signs of discomfort, the likelihood of your dog biting to push you away increases.
What to do if my dog is too afraid?
1. Assess the situation. Is your dog in control of its behavior (Will she take a treat or respond to her name), or does your dog show many of the stress signs discussed above? If your dog is too afraid, help your dog get to his or her safe space. No one can learn when they are terrified, there is time for learning later.
2. When new people enter the house, or the house gets loud and raucous, I would help your dog to his or her safe space until everyone is settled, and the house is a bit calmer. This helps him or her from making associations between new people or loud voices and fear...we want her to make “people = fun and nice” associations instead.
Working with a “stranger” or someone your dog appears to be afraid of:
1. Teach him or her the "look" cue before you allow your dog contact with the “scary person”. Say "look" with a treat on your nose (I know it is silly). When he or she looks at the treat/you- praise her and give him/her the treat.
a. Slowly fade the treat and just point at your nose and say "look". Eventually, stop pointing and just say "look"- when he or she looks. Be sure to give the treat for looking. This is critical to give him or her a reason to look at you (We will fade the treats eventually
b. You always want to treat her looking at you.... this will become her go-to self-regulating cue to determine if things are okay.
2. Now, bring out the scary person/item. See how far away it must be before your dog reacts. Watch for ears back, wide open eyes, licking, yawning, paw lifting off the ground, or sniffing of the ground- these are all clues to her beginning to get stressed and fearful. Move the object/person to just before he or she gets afraid. Start there.
a. Now...have your dog look at the scary thing and then look at you. Just look at "scary" for a very brief second. When he or she masters this, move the person/item a bit closer.
b. Keep moving a step or about 12 inches closer. and reinforcing each time.
c. When the person/item are very close, encourage her to sniff, then look at you. Her looking at you reinforces that everything is okay.
d. Importantly, if she becomes afraid again.... move the item/person back to the last "Safe" location.
e. I know this is hard, but it works.
3. When people come over, again, have your dog in his or her safe space. Once the people are settled, hand them some treats.
a. Instruct them NOT to look at your dog. In fact, they should completely ignore him or her.
b. If your dog approaches the person, then the person can drop a treat, but they should NOT look at your dog. Eye contact can be scary- and we do not want the emotion of “scary” associated with people; rather we want “yummy” associated with the person.
c. When your dog can comfortably take the treats and has learned to be very near the new person, the new person can offer a treat in the hand- again with no eye contact.
d. When your dog is willingly taking treats from the hand- begin eye contact. This way the "new person" isn't scary, and your dog can approach on his or her own terms. Doing this prevents your dog from pairing "new people" with fear...instead “new people = treat time”.
4. It is critical that fear isn’t punished. I know that this sounds crazy, but if there is fearfulness involved, do not punish biting, barking or growling. Recognize that growling and barking are a dog’s way of communicating to you that they are distressed. Punishing it only makes them more fearful. If your dog is showing fearful aggression, please put him or her in their safe space to calm down rather than punishing them.
5. It is important to remember that YOUR body language is communicated to your dog. It is critical that you remain calm and quiet and in control. Model good social skills to your dog. If you can’t be relaxed or are uncomfortable, then your dog will be, too. If you feel uncomfortable with your dog in a social situation, put your dog in his or her safe space until you feel more in control of the situation.
Remember that all of this takes time. You didn’t learn your adult social skills in a day- it took years and years of playing and going to school and adult supervision. Your dog is not only learning the new skills, but he or she is having to learn that their old way of dealing with situations- through fear behaviors- no longer work. IF you are willing to be a good teacher to your dog, your dog can learn to overcome fear.