How do you start with a dog that cannot even be comfortably approached?
Since each dog is unique and the challenges owners face will vary, defining a seriously fearful dog is difficult. Any dog that is either incapacitated or wildly aggressive in the presence of its triggers is seriously compromised in their ability to be a successful pet. Even this is a somewhat open ended description since it does not take into account the dog’s threshold or tolerance to its triggers. From a practical point of view a dog that cannot deal with people at close range is going to struggle as a pet. This is a dog that needs special treatment and training and realistically few owners or shelters are able or willing to provide more than the basic care it will need.
Most training books and advice on how to deal with scared dogs do not take into account extremely fearful dogs. Though there is useful information to help supplement your knowledge of animal behavior and cognition, most don’t start at the beginning for the person trying to figure out how to work with an extremely fearful dog. It’s like getting a computer manual that begins by saying, turn on the computer but has not shown you where the on switch is. You are left feeling frustrated since you are not sure how to even get started.
Create a situation in which the dog needs to be handled as little as possible and has a place where it can feel safe, a crate for example. Take social pressure off the dog by not looking at or talking to her. Make every approach count for something good.
Few people have the time or resources to devote to the needs of a dog who is extremely fearful. Shelters should be diligent in their assessment of potential owners who are moved to save the dog that hasn’t left the back of its kennel since it arrived. Love and care are important but they will not be enough to change the behavior of a dog that has lived with and practiced its fearful behavior for months or years.
Don’t rush the dog. Consider medications. If you feel overwhelmed by the dog’s inability to deal with you, take a break and lower your expectations. Check out this page when you’re feeling frustrated.
For easier reading and more information about living and working with a fearful dog you can purchase a copy of A Guide To Living With & Training A Fearful Dog. For an even more complete understanding of how to help fearful dogs consider this online course.