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Helping a frightened dog

Some dogs are fearful by nature - and some are more predisposed to it than others. But fear is also something that many dogs learn - typical fears and even phobias are those related to veterinary practices, physical punishment, confinement, storms and loud noises.
Fear of other animals and people

Fear of other dogs and people can arise in a dog as a result of lack of appropriate socialisation as a puppy, or from negative experiences with other dogs and people in the past.

Fear problems can be eased, and sometimes overcome completely, with a careful desensitisation treatment programme. This involves gradual, controlled exposure to the stimuli that evokes the fear in dogs, making sure initially that the stimulus is first introduced at a sufficient distance so that it evokes no fear response when the dog notices it. Gradually, with repeated exposure, the stimulus is brought slowly and steadily nearer until the dog has become quite used to what he was once terrified of and hopefully ignores it, or turns to the owner to gain the opportunity of carrying out a rewarding behaviour, such as holding or chasing a toy. This is very different to the owner consoling or trying to reward the dog when he is in a fearful state but is a key step in helping the fearful dog relax. After this, the treatment may be extended, in the case of many dogs that are fearful of other dogs for example, to helping them then appreciate the fun of meeting them and then playing with them, but this will all take time and a carefully organised learning environment.

Hence, this type of treatment should only be carried under the supervision of an experienced pet behaviourist, as fear, and the behaviour that results when dogs are afraid, can be a rather tricky problem to overcome. If fear is ignored, or worse reinforced by attention from the owner at the wrong time, it can quickly escalate until it becomes deep-rooted. It can also lead to problems of aggression if the dog feels that he cannot avoid the other dog/person and has no other option than to fight to protect himself. If defensive aggression becomes the preferred strategy for the dog to relieve his fear, and he becomes proficient at his attack, there may be many social and legal implications on the dog’s owner as well.

There are many cases where owners have inadvertently also caused the development of defensive aggression in their dogs through a simple lack of understanding. For example, the dog that growls when he is approached by a toddler, is perhaps unused to little people, and so naturally communicates his apprehension. Instead of listening to what he is saying and removing him from the situation, the owner, worried about the dog’s reaction, may shout at the dog, yank him towards the toddler and force him to endure being petted heavy-handedly by the child. The next time the dog encounters the toddler, he may growl earlier and more threateningly because instead of being an unknown quantity, the child has become a definite source of problems, apprehension has now become fear and if unable to escape or dragged into the situation again, the dog may well try to bite the child in order to protect himself. Had the owners sought professional advice when the dog first growled and removed him from the vicinity of the child, and then organised the child to slowly but steadily become a source of something that the dog enjoys, the outcome would have been very different.

So, in summary - the most important consideration in all cases where dogs become fearful of children or adults or of other dogs is safety: your own safety, the safety of others and the safety of your dog. Seek professional advice from your vet at the first sign of fear of ‘normal’ social situations at home or outdoors, and, in the meantime, keep close control of your dog and do not take any risks.

The information contained in this article is not a substitute for individual veterinary or behavioural advice and is for information purposes only. You should always consult a veterinary surgeon if you have any concerns about your pet’s health. He or she will be able to take a complete medical history and physically examine your pet, to then recommend appropriate individual advice or treatment options. For detailed behavioural advice tailored specifically for your pet, we recommend that you contact a qualified pet behaviourist. For further details of local canine and feline behaviourists practising in your area and how they offer help for with problem pets, please contact The Coape Association of Pet Behaviourists and Trainers at, or the Association of Pet Dog Trainers at Do bear in mind that while dog trainers can take you on as a client directly, pet behaviourists will always require a referral from your veterinary surgeon.

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