Every dog, no matter their background or disposition, deserves a second chance. Many of the dogs that are rescued from shelters have gone through unspeakable abuse through no fault of their own. When you have a fearful dog, it’s often through no fault of their own. If you have a fearful dog, it’s up to you to teach them calmness. Luckily, it’s not too difficult. I recently read some tips from none other than the legendary “dog whisperer” Cesar Millan. Here is what he had to say:
When your child is afraid, it’s only natural to want to comfort them and tell them that everything will be okay. Your dog might feel like your child, but comforting them like that is actually the worst thing you can do. Dogs relate your behavior to whatever it’s doing in that moment. That’s how positive reinforcement works; if you want to teach your dog to “shake,” associate that behavior with a reward. To dogs, one of the best rewards is affection. So when you comfort a fearful dog, you’re rewarding it for acting scared.
Over time, rewarding a dog for its fearful behavior, even if it’s unintentional, can make an already timid dog even more skittish and fearful. It’s difficult not giving your dog unconditional love at all times, particularly when they’re clearly afraid. But, in that instance, they don’t need to be comforted, they need to see leadership. Dogs learn by imitating, so when your dog is afraid, you need to act calm and assertive, which can help make them more confident.
It’s important to remember that dogs do have the common animal instincts possessed by so many. They can be narrowed down to four: fight, flight, avoidance, and surrender. When your dog is experiencing fear, their first response will almost always be either flight or avoidance. Obviously, you’ll want to prevent the fight response as best you can, but this can occur in extreme cases. The goal is to make them surrender, which is them accepting whatever the stimulus is without reacting to it. This can be done by displaying calm, assertive energy.
Dogs are surprisingly intuitive about our feelings. Your dog can often tell when you’re sad, afraid, or excited. So, when you act afraid, your dog will pick up on that. Humans are typically the leaders of the pack, and when you’re afraid, that leadership role is empty and a dog’s natural reaction is to take over, which could lead to the dog acting aggressive out of fear. This, in turn, creates a feedback loop that exacerbates the situation. Therefore, a fearful dog needs, more than anything else, a calm and assertive leader to show them that everything is okay.