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What to Do When Your Dog's Scared of Everything

Is your dog afraid of everything? As I mentioned in my last blog, my new dog Easy is afraid of many things. In fact, it might be simpler to list the things she's NOT afraid of. She's not scared of familiar people or dogs, as long as they don't DO anything frightening. Like move suddenly, growl, drop something, dance, etc. Riding in the car is fine, until she sees something unfamiliar out the window. Then she requires a straight jacket.

Desensitization is obviously called for, but desensitization to everything?! And how to expose her to new experiences when we live in on an isolated farm, and she can't be driven to the nearest town without adrenaline bursts when she sees things through the window?

Fear is indisputably one of the most problematic issues that dog trainers and behaviorists encounter. Fear runs deep, and it's the main reason why many vets and most trainers now encourage owners to get their puppies out and about at an early age. As Dr. Ian Dunbar repeats at every opportunity, "Socialization, socialization, socialization." The risk that puppies may contract a contagious disease before a full series of vaccinations can be given is still a concern, but that pales in comparison to the behavioral problems caused by isolating puppies until their vaccinations are complete. If puppies can be taken out in public and have good experiences during their first four months of life, so many of the issues I'm now encountering with Easy can be avoided.

It is very disheartening to try to train a dog afraid of everything. It's like unwrapping an onion; you try to address one thing the dog is afraid of, and you find another underneath. You plan a strategy for dealing with one problem, and then find it won't work until you backtrack and treat another issue. At this point, it's best to put your long-term vision for your dog on a shelf. Someday, a Canine Good Citizen certificate, but, for now, let's toss the dog a biscuit every time we bend our legs.

It is important, when dealing with behavioral issues that are likely to resolve slowly, to keep track of the progress you are making. You can do this by recording video footage of your dog, keeping a training diary, or through feedback from friends and acquaintances who see your dog irregularly. You may be discouraged that your dog's not perfect yet, but others may be able to sincerely tell you that they see an improvement.

After our last trip to town, I was pretty discouraged. Easy saw another dog as we were driving in, so she was already very wound up before I let her out of the car. We managed to calm down and had a good session outside the recycling center, where traffic was low and everyone was following a predictable path, allowing us to stay well out of the way. But then we went on to the farmer's market, which was a little too busy and populated by friendly people who wanted to approach and pat my dog. It's good that I'm forty-something instead of twenty; as a young woman I might not have been assertive enough to fend off these well-meaning strangers, whereas now I think nothing of holding up my hand and shouting at them, as politely as I can manage, to stay away. Still, I'm probably alarming my dog by tensing up and shouting, so I've requested a "Dog In Training" vest for Christmas. I hope this will help, although I wonder if people won't just come closer to read the darn vest!

I won't be returning to the farmer's market with Easy anytime soon, but I do have to keep exposing Easy to new environments if I want her to ever be able to travel off the farm with me. In order to keep her under threshold while I'm driving, I've decided to try using a Calming Cap. This training aid acts as a visual filter, blocking out visual stimuli which would otherwise excite or upset the dog. The hitch is, the cap can easily be pawed off by the dog, so before we try to use it in the car, Easy has to be desensitized to the Calming Cap. One step forward, one step back. Another thing that can be helpful for counter conditioning while in the car is the Treat & Train remote treat dispensing machine. If your dog sees something concerning out the window you can pair that with a treat so he or she starts to feel a little better about that thing. Or you can simply reward calm behavior with it.

What to do when your dog's afraid of everything? Pick something to desensitize or counter condition her to and get to work. The younger your dog is, the faster progress you can expect to make, so starting today is better than putting it off until it fits into your schedule. Also for more help, a great Yahoo group to check out for help is shy-k9s. Pet Expertise also has many tools to help calm anxious dogs which can be well worth a try.

Shane Windatt, CTC, CPDT
(250) 559-8807


  • I’ve just adopt a 3yrs germen shepherd who is afraid of her own swallow I’ll tried taking time with one on one it’s been about two weeks with know improvement HELP

    Pet Expertise Response: Hi Aletha! I’m sorry to hear it. Sounds like you may need to locate a positive trainer in your area.

    aletha scott
  • Hi Shane, I just got a 3- year old Border Collie. He was supposed to be a puppy, he was advertised that way. But when I got to the breeders, I found a dog who had been left in a run and a kennel. Perhaps used as a breeding dog. Completely unsocialized. I felt so sorry for him, I took him. And now I’m learning how to try to teach him to get over his myriad fear problems. He’s afraid of men. Definitely afraid of them when they get up and walk towards him. I’ve had my husband call him over and finally he’s coming and wagging his tail and allowing him to pet him and scratch him. But as soon as he straightens up my dog skitters backwards and the whole thing starts again. We’ve been doing this for weeks. The only person he allows to approach him without to much cowering is me. He’ll also sit and lay beside me. Last night was the first time he’s played with me and this last week is the first time he’s figured out what treats are. He’s afraid of toys. We do work on basic commands and he’s very smart and knows them all on lead. But off lead I’m lucky if he comes when I call him at all. And he’s starting to run from me when he sees the lead, and not come at all when I don’t have it. He’s proving to be a great puzzle and I’d appreciate any help anyone can give.

    Terry showalter
  • My little Penny is one of those dogs who is afraid of everything. My Vet suggested giving her Rescue Remedy,I did so and it made a big difference. Better than giving her drugs as Rescue Remedy is drug free made from flowers. So thats what I give her now.

    Randy Bovill

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