Fearful Dogs

Last week we discussed brittle dogs, those dogs who have a hard time coping with stress despite the best start in life. The dogs we discussed were born that way, and couldn’t deal with scary or uncomfortable situations even with their golden-spoon upbringing. But brittle dogs can also be created in spite of a solid genetic basis. Today, let’s discuss those dogs who don’t have the best start in life.

Some dogs lose the socialization lottery. Maybe your dog was born or raised in a puppy mill or kept in someone’s barn or garage. Maybe your dog was a stray. Maybe your dog grew up in a no kill shelter that didn’t have enough volunteers to get all of the dogs out and about or which kept puppies sequestered due to concerns about disease. Maybe you just didn’t know about the importance of socialization and so didn’t get your dog to puppy class before his socialization window closed between twelve and sixteen weeks.

Photo by Peter Kemmer

Photo by Peter Kemmer

Whatever the reason, if your dog missed out on critical socialization he may still be okay. Or he might not be. If you have a brittle dog whose early experiences were less-than-ideal, studies show that you could have a long haul ahead of you.

Ongoing studies on Romanian orphans have shown us just how crucial early development can be. The “socialization window” during which the majority of social brain development outside of the womb seems to take place appears to be about two years in people compared to the shorter three to four months for puppy development. However, many of the developmental processes are identical.

So, here’s what we know: children with neglectful upbringings do not develop the same way as children with supportive and enriched environments. Their brains are physically different. They develop less white matter, or myelin tract, which leads to deficits in their abilities to form neural connections. The neural pathways in their brain are weaker and the electrical activity of their brains is significantly reduced from children who grew up in supportive environments.

In addition to this alarming physical deficit, many of the children from neglectful environments also appear to suffer from adrenal impairment. Their bodies produce significantly less (or in fewer cases, significantly more) cortisol, a stress hormone, than other children’s bodies, and this causes them to show altered stress responses.

The parallels to our dogs who come from neglectful, unenriched environments are obvious. Many of the dogs with the very worst behavioral issues that I work with have low heart rates even in situations that obviously cause them a good deal of stress. These dogs sometimes appear to suffer learning disabilities and to have issues with impulse control. Their owners report that the dogs develop new fears at the drop of a hat, but that it takes months or years to get over any fear even with appropriate behavioral interventions.

Taking all of this in can be overwhelming to the owner of a brittle dog. If your dog’s history suggests developmental disabilities, it’s important to realize that your dog is not a normal dog. He has special needs. Asking your dog to suck it up and go to the dog park or to stop cowering behind the couch every time visitors come over dismisses the very real disability your dog lives with every day. It’s as insensitive as calling someone in a wheelchair lazy or laughing at the retired combat veteran next door when he asks you to please give him a head’s up before you light off firecrackers. We wouldn’t ask a dog who was missing a limb or an eye to engage in behaviors which were potentially dangerous to him, but because we cannot see the damage to the brain of our previously-neglected dog with our naked eyes we oftentimes forget to give him the same respect. It’s unconscionable to ignore a disability just because it’s not instantly visible.

So, how can you help your brittle dog? Once you acknowledge that your dog needs some special help, the research is very promising! There’s a lot we can do to help these dogs become more confident, happy, and behaviorally healthy with some simple interventions.

First of all, the five suggestions for brittle dogs with positive socialization histories apply here. Go review them now. We’ll wait.

Finished? Great! In addition to supporting your dog in all of the ways mentioned last week, research also suggests that you work to create new neural pathways for your pet. The brain is remarkably plastic, and new neural pathways develop anytime we learn a new skill or experience a new sensation. The trick is to do this without putting more pressure on your dog. Introducing your dog to TTouch obstacle work, agility (with a skilled instructor who will free-shape your dog to interact with the obstacles on his or her own terms), trick training, or canine nose work can allow them to interact with their environment in new and interesting ways. Feeding from puzzle toys or using other search and find games can also be helpful. Anything that engages your dog’s curiosity is good! Be patient and let him or her progress at the pace that makes sense for them. Encourage exploration and applaud small efforts.

The progress many of my clients see in their previously fearful dogs when we create safe places, actively teach coping skills, socialize appropriately, utilize classical conditioning, consider medication, and promote the development of new neural pathways through nose work or trick training is absolutely astounding. These dogs flourish in ways that they’ve never done before. They grow and they learn and they surprise the hell out of us at every turn. They impress us to tears. There’s nothing quite like the first moment when a fearful dog completes a successful search in nose work class or works up the courage to eat in the presence of a stranger. These magical moments of bravery show us how hard these special dogs try and how very much they can overcome with patience and a plan.

If you have a brittle dog, one of those special dogs who lost the socialization lottery, I hope this blog post has given you a better understanding of your dog’s very unique needs and a sense of hope at all that you can achieve together. I’d love to hear your stories, tips, and tricks about your own special dogs, so please share them in the comments section below!

21 responses to “Fearful Dogs

  1. While I don’t think Tess follows under “brittle dog” status (she is extremely sensitive and easily stressed), this is really, really great stuff. Definitely things I’ve never heard before. Thank you so much for sharing!

  2. I’ve got a fearful dog. Thankfully she seems to be very resilient and has adjusted well in the past year and a half. She was taken from a hoarder at 3 months old and spent the rest of her first three years in rescues, first in CA, then in OR. The rescue I adopted her from had her for over 8 months and hadn’t let anyone attempt to foster her due to her fear and violent reactivity to new people. She’s an adorable little dog (http://dogsonstuff.tumblr.com/post/82054396187/extra-extra), so most people’s first instinct is to reach down for her. Her reaction would be to bolt, and if bolting wasn’t an option, she’d bite. I’m thankful that she was very animal-social, so she was able to learn from my older, social dog.

    In addition to people, she was fearful of bikes, skateboards, wheelchairs, walkers, scooters.. pretty much anything vaguely mechanical that might pass her on the sidewalk. She would jump to the end of her leash to distance herself. But even at first, she was able to calm down quickly and I could redirect her easily once she started to trust me.

    Slowly she has become a fantastic dog. She still doesn’t warm up to a lot of people, but she is no longer so intensely fearful. She willingly approaches anyone who sits quietly, especially if they have food, and she accepts petting from pretty much anyone. She still startles when reached for if she doesn’t see it coming, but she no longer bites for blood. If she does ever put her teeth on someone, she doesn’t apply pressure. She is good with my friends’ daughter, though of course they are always VERY closely supervised. She likes kids more than most people – probably because they are much closer to her size – and she is much less likely to retreat from their reaches.

    The last hurdle is getting her to accept my partner. She has not been terribly pleased that we moved in together. She barks at him when he comes in, she startles more easily with him than with virtually anyone else, and she does still occasionally snap at him (though thankfully with the inhibited bite). We went to CGC prep with the dogs so that he could work with her and they could develop more of a bond, and she was very good with him in class and was very affectionate with him, which is unlike her, but it hasn’t really changed her reactions to him at home.

  3. We are new dog owners – spent 2 years researching, finding the breeder, went weekly to see the puppy, brought a pillow with our scent and left it a few weeks prior to picking him up. Both parents were super sweet and friendly and from the same breeder, pure breed GSD, shutzhand trained (dad is). Parents and all of her other 6 GSD were great and seemed happy. We brought him home at 9 weeks – he was the love of the vet office. He would sit quietly and we saw no issues. We started puppy class about 4 weeks ago for socialization and things have quickly gone down hill. He turned 4 months last week and he is already 50 lbs. Hackles go up, he lunges and barks and is completely focused on any other dog, person, and sometimes car that he sees. We have been trying to use distraction with treats or his green shammy that he likes to play with but even the scent of another dog while we are walking will make his hackles go up. He does really well with most commands, in fact with a treat if we say “wait” and then open our hand or put the treat on the ground he will focus on it and not move until we give the command “take”. But other commands that are more important like “come” or “off” he doesn’t. His dad is about 85 lbs and the breeder and vet all feel he will be at least 10-15 lbs bigger and with his fearful behavior – I’m really worried about controlling him and his interaction. He has even started testing the boundaries with us at times and air snaps – the breeder has advised us not to have him around other dogs until we see her trainer that she recommends; the vet wants us to have him attend more puppy classes and work with their kennel manager and some one-on-one. Vet says no to the more assertive collars (choke, fur savers), one trainer says no to “grabbing their scruff”, breeder says something else. all is can say is “HELP” just not sure what to do…….

  4. Over the years, we have fostered many fearful dogs. We have found that there are a few things that seem to help them very nicely:
    Patience. Have lots of patience. Do not push your dog into doing anything that he is not comfortable with. Let him explore and let it be his idea that he wants to do something.
    Other dogs. It helps tremendously if they can learn from other, self-confident dogs that can “show them the ropes”.
    Parks. Strolls in parks seem to do a lot for self-confidence building in dogs. Let them pull on the leash, let them take a dip in the lake, let them have fun and be a dog.

  5. I don’t consider my fearful Jack to be the “loser” of some socialization lottery. I met this dog as a 5 week old pup who was well socialized. He was not from a puppy mill or or hoarder, nor was he abused. It is just part of his personality. What he is, is an individual. Great trainers and the support of other fearful dog owners have been essential for me to figure out the best ways to help him learn how to cope with his triggers…and he is learning to cope with his triggers.

  6. In addition to the behavioral training and rehabilitation you have already mentioned, I have found that resistance training exercise can make a WORLD of difference in shy and fearful dogs, as well as other types of behavioral problems. Excess energy tends to exacerbate any state of mind or behavior that the dog exhibits. If he is anxious, the excess energy causes the dog to exhibit higher anxiety, shyness, more shy, etc. What I call ‘dragging’, which is the conditioning method often used in the sport of weightpulling, does not require much time, effort, equipment or physical or mental stress on the dogs. Its easy to train, and has a HIGH rate of owner compliance which is key. Probably due to it requiring little tine, money, effort and equipment. But it can make a nearly immediate difference in the dog, and also improve over time. You can see some testimonials from dog owners on my website http://www.canineculturecny.com as well as http://www.apdasports.com . If you want to learn more I would be happy to talk to trainers, veterinarians and behaviorists about its safe use for rehabilitation training.

  7. I think there are “brittle” dogs just like there are brittle people. Some dogs and people cope easier than others based on socialization, genetics, personality, etc.. Great blog!

  8. We are looking at ways to help our brittle dog. Dale is a 2yo Lab-mix with an intense dislike of being outside. The only time we take him out is for potty breaks which are more scheduled than needed since he doesn’t give clear signs of needing to go out.

    We would like a professional to evaluate and work with him. The problem is that there isn’t anyone with the qualifications we feel are needed within an hour of where we live. Do you think an hour’s drive would be too disruptive to his demeanor to get a proper evaluation? We understand that every dog is different and we want to get him help, but not at doing more damage along the way.


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  10. Is there an alternative to insulin injection for a dog?

  11. Pingback: Diary of a Fearful Puppy: the First Three Days | Paws Abilities

  12. I have a beautiful red Belgian shepherd who was a stray, rescued by a farmer who tied him up with a rope, where he was then attacked by a coyote and got his muzzle and ear torn. Needless to day, he has issues. It’s been a delight to watch him go from a dog who wouldn’t even let us get down on the floor with him, to one who will chase, tease, and come and tuck his head against my chest for a hug, all on his terms. We were able to do this by watching and reading his signals and never pushing.

    • I got a Belgian malinois rescue dog, too. It has been a joy to watch her come into her own again. After two months with her wonderful foster mother and two months with me, she has finally rolled over for a tummy rub and I even caught her wagging her tail once or twice instead of clamping it between her legs. I am adopting the same approach; I assume any “bad” behavior is a result of fear, and I use patience and calming signals to help her through it. I would like to know more about how your dog is doing.

  13. I just started reading your articles yesterday, starting with this one. I have to say, you’ve brought me to tears. Happy tears but tears. I grew up on an Arabian horse ranch. We had stallions, geldings, mares, babies from our breedings, horse shows and so on. Same goes for breeding bird dogs of all types and all of our abused, neglected, dumped off out in the country house and yard dogs and cats. And my own personal years in wolfdog rescue…now there’s a challenge. I never had doubt about my abilities. I had a huge appreciation for the size of a crazed Arabian stallion in rut but was never afraid as it never dawned on me to be so, just respectful of their size and abilities. Same with our in house dogs that were Rotties and Dobies and a smelly Benji looking dog we all loved. I trained these animals as I was taught. It was second nature to handle an animal for me. Until the new ‘don’t do a dam# thing like even say no, you will ruin your dog’. Only R+, Only!!!! Oh my gosh, I got so confused. Being in rescue made it even harder. My point: It has been a breath of fresh air to have found you and your articles/blogs. You have saved my sanity and therefore my dogs. I have a highly reactive GSD and have failed a bit in training him, so I thought. NO, this is how he is. He needs extra time and patience and he gets it. He’s amazingly intelligent, gets it after the first time. Our issues is he was accosted by two little ankle biters on a walk one day and it’s gone down hill from there. Boy do I ever wish I was near you. We don’t have great trainers around here, I’ve tried them, they sent him into an actual dog fight stating the other dog was teaching. Nope, not the end result. He now is fearful of all little dogs and is slightly showing signs he might think that way with cats and big dogs and people. He’s a 6.5 month only GSD from DDR/Czech working lines, so yes, he’s a ball of energy with a high drive but he is mostly stable. He was little scared one of the littler, but I chose him. I knew I was choosing him, that’s the rescuer in me, even though we actually paid for the first time ever for him. Sorry this is so long, I just have to say you’ve given me hope and quite a bit of confidence back. Much needed confidence. Thank you so very very much!

  14. We have a brittle and fearful dog with complex PTSD. It’s so difficult. She is afraid of loud noises, cuss words (in a normal voice), raised voices, crashes, bangs, fireworks, pots clattering, sudden movements, the dark (I think), other people, other dogs, going outside… The list seems endless and overwhelming. She started peeing in the house recently, on our rugs, and now we can’t stop her. We crate her at night, but any time during the she will do it. We havea 10 month old and are at our wits end. The realization that she is special needs really helps. She *does* have special needs and we’re clearly not meeting them.

  15. My BJ was abused as breed stock in a puppymill for almost 5 years. When they were through with his blood line they threw him away because he was unsaleable. I got him from a rescue facility who thankfully gave me warning of his past. My vet diagnosed him immediately with PTSD. It took 5 MONTHS to get him to drink from a water dish on his own. He was mostly pancaked down on his belly, shaking. He didn’t have fight or flight, he had flight or freeze. I didn’t know he had a tail till I gave him a bath. Medication helped a lot. Absolutely poop-your-pants terrified of sudden noises (thunder, anything loud, clicker, leaf crackling under feet, doorbell, etc.). In short, he was a mess. The upside was that he loved other dogs, . . ANY other dogs. We surmised that they were seen as comrades in misery, and therefore OK.
    Two and a half years later, BJ can sit like a regular dog (not on command- just in general). Also, he will occasionally seek out humans. He has discovered that he like to be petted. Still not interested in toys, but they are available. Not motivated by food, and the clicker still scares him. Friends and neighbors are amazed at his progress. He still has a long way to go and may never be “normal”, but s l o w progress is still happening. While he may not show love, he gets a lot.

    • So glad I read this. We just adopted a 6 year old breed stock. He was even more abused due to not having enough testosterone to breed. He loves to lay on our lap, but it takes hours for him to be ok with us picking him up. We have 5 other dogs that he seems to like. I’m hoping this sweet boy will eventually trust us and feel safe. For now, patience is what we have!!

  16. My dog is a labrador retriever. He is 2 and half years old. My house is located in a village. One day he left home going after female dog. And he got lost for 2 weeks. So just yesterday we could found him. In a very miserable condition. He was almost anorexic, very very thin. His eyes from brown went white, his hair changed colour. So he is transformed in a very bad way. But what worries me the most is his psicologiacl condition. He doesnt remeber anything, he doesnt remeber us. He is going through trauma. He is scared. We are trying hard to make him feel safe. We give him healthy food, care, love and attention. But its been 2 days and we can not see difference. He is very focused on having sex. Doesnt want to play. Yesterday was the first day we found him. And i spended all day with him. Washed him, gave him food and love and care, the vet came to visit him, phisicly he is fine. And today i wasnt home, he satyed with my mom, when i came late evening he didnt regonized me. I am very worried about my dog. Will he be fine? What should i do to make him be the same again. Will he pass this trauma and be fine again. Is this situation normal. As he as been 2 weeks far away from home, maybe violentet by humans and dogs. Will he be the same labrador again?

  17. Just before turning one year old, My male shitzu was run over by a car after he and my female shitzu got Out of an unlocked front door glass where I left them to
    Look Out while I was getting ready for work. He had three surgeries and was near
    Death several times. Needless to say he is Not the same dog. He will
    Instantly try and bite Me If I pet him and then put him down too
    Fast or if I pick him up And put Him in the bathtub or upset him in any other way. I have to watch him around everyone. With certain people It Is Instant
    Dislike. I never know. He doesn’t have a problem with other dogs. When he’s outside he is at his best. But I have to Muzzle him.

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