Fearful dog.

Posted by Marina
Jun 18, 2008
My German Shepherd X rescue dog is fearful when out walking. I've had him just over a year now and have usually been walking him alongside my other dog who is calm and walks well. I have also tried just walking with Harry, the fearful one, but find he is better when we have Millie too.

In familiar situations the fear is not too bad. I just totally ignore the fear and carry on walking as if nothing is wrong. However the area is getting busier and this is making the fear worse.

He is fearful of men coming towards him, any movement including shadows, at the side of him, and anyone coming up behind.

I reallly don't think that ignoring the fear is having a geat benefit and the only other thing I can think to try is rewarding him with tit bits. I am worried though about getting the timing wrong and reinforcing the fear. Any tipsfor getting this right? I intend to walk Harry on his own when doing this.
Posted by KOPsRobyn
Jan 29, 2010
Hi Marina,

Fear of novel things is relatively common amongst dogs, especially those that are rescued as often they have had quite a few bad experiences with people and so now are wary of everything in general. It is important that you sort this out as soon as possible though, before it turns in to a phobia. You are doing well to ignore him when he is acting fearful. Although it may not seem to be working all that well, you are in fact telling him that there is nothing to be afraid of and that he shouldn’t be scared of the situation. Dogs are very sensitive to your body language, so being calm and confident whenever he starts to show this behavior is vital. Tension can be transmitted especially easily through the leash, so it is important that you are completely relaxed when in this situations. It wouldn’t hurt him to be walked with Millie too when in new surroundings, as if the both of you are confident, he will draw strength from this and not feel the need to be on guard and wary the whole time. It will also help if you have your status as alpha dog firmly established as he will feel safer and more secure knowing he is not in charge, and that you are there to protect him should fearful circumstances arise.

You are definitely on the right track regarding giving him a reward when he is showing confident behavior. It is important that you only praise him when he is not being fearful though, otherwise you will be only reinforcing the behavior and so doing more harm than good. Even by reassuring him or telling him ‘it’s alright’, you are sending the message that he is right in being afraid, so it is vital that you get the timing right when rewarding him.

It is also a good thing to desensitize him to the thing he is afraid of, such as strange men and shadows. He needs to learn that nothing bad is going to happen to him. You will have to take it slowly and be very patient but firm with him when getting him used to things that scare him. Feeding him outside at night, where there will be lots of shadows, is a good way of helping him learn that they are not to be feared. Ifshe is calm and behaves himself, reward him lavishly with treats and attention, talking to him the whole time in a cheerful voice. Then play a few games with him so that he can learn to fully relax in those surroundings. Giving him commands, such as 'sit-stay' when in the presence of lots of shadows will also distract him from his fear and give him something else to focus on. Do this as often as possible and she will learn quickly that they are nothing to be scared of. The same can be applied to her fear of men approaching her, although you will need a few patient volunteers to help you out. The most important thing to remember is to simply ignore him when he is being fearful but give him lots of praise and rewards when he is being confident. For example, if you give him a command such as ‘sit-stay’ whilst someone is walking towards you, and he focuses her attention fully onto you and ignores the approaching man, you should give him lots of attention and treats so that he knows that he has done well.

Taking him to many different places and exposing him to a variety of surroundings and situations will increase his confidence and ability to deal with sudden changes in environment, although this will have to be taken slowly as too much too soon may overawe him and cause him to become even more anxious. It will take some time for him to become more confident as this fear and anxiety has become second nature to him, but if you are patient with him, you will see the fruits of your hard work in time.

I hope this helps and all the best with your training!