Help for Fearful Dogs Interview

Author Nicole Wilde and her dog Mojo
Author Nicole Wilde and her dog Mojo

Are you looking for help for fearful dogs? If so, this interview with dog behavior expert Nicole Wilde, author of Help for Your Fearful Dog, will be just what you're looking for.

Help for Fearful Dogs: An Interview with Nicole Wilde

Fear in Dogs

How common is fear in dogs?Unfortunately, fear issues are all too common in canines. There is a spectrum of intensity ranging from mild, such as a generalized anxiety when visiting new places, to more worrisome, such as a fear of men or of being left alone.

Some dogs even have full-blown phobias; a common trigger is thunderstorms. Most stable, confident dogs only experience fear now and then, and even then, it's mild. However, when the reaction is stronger, chronic or generalized, or when the resulting behavior is unacceptable, the issue becomes problematic.

What typically causes fear issues?

There are four main causes:

  • Genetics: Even if a dog has an inherent disposition toward anxiety or fear, the accompanying behaviors can be addressed and the underlying emotional state changed, within the range of what is possible for that individual.
  • Lack of socialization: This is a very common factor. Many owners believe they shouldn't bring their pups anywhere until all vaccinations are complete, which normally happens around 16 weeks of age. However, the window of optimum socialization is between four and 12 weeks, meaning if you expose a dog to various people, places and novel stimuli during that time, he will be less likely to be afraid of those things later in life. The ideal is to socialize early and consistently, taking care not to expose the pup to places like dog parks and veterinary waiting room floors where they could contract diseases like parvo and distemper.
  • Past experience: Sometimes a traumatic event is at the root of a fear issue. For example, a dog was attacked by another dog in the past and is now worried when he encounters other dogs. Or, the past experience could be a learned association. A dog might, for example, start to fear the car because he has learned that car rides only lead to the vet's office or the groomer's, both of which he finds frightening.
  • Pain or illness: If a dog has arthritis in his hip, he may become anxious about being touched in that area. A dog who is vision-impaired may be afraid of close, sudden movements. Any type of pain or illness, regardless of the dog's age, can cause related fear issues.

How can you tell the difference between a fearful dog and an aggressive dog?

The majority of aggression issues are actually fear-based. Let's say you have a dog who has not been well socialized around people, so he is afraid of them. When a visitor comes to the home, the dog runs to the door and barks at the person, sounding as though he may attack. What the dog is really saying is, "Don't make me come over there, you big scary thing!" The goal is for the person to go away. And that's the key difference; a dog that is afraid wants to increase the distance between himself and the thing he's reacting to, while the intention of a dog that is truly behaving aggressively is to cause harm.

Are dogs with fear issues forever a danger or problem?

Absolutely not! Fear issues can be treated with behavior modification protocols so that the underlying emotion is changed. Once the dog's feeling about the trigger has changed, the issue should be resolved.

However, owners should be aware that fear and fear-reactive behavior may resurface if the dog is not exposed to the original trigger for a long period of time. That is why a dog that has learned not to react to other dogs may resume doing so if he runs into one after a prolonged absence; he regresses to the original behavior.

Helping Fearful Dogs

Cover of Help for Your Fearful Dog

Can dog owner help their own dog with these issues, or is professional help required?

There is a lot owners can do. For example, if a dog is only mildly fearful and simply lacks socialization, it's possible that through careful, regular exposure to new people, places and things (what behaviorists refer to as habituation), he will gain confidence. However, more serious fear issues, including fear-reactive behavior, should be treated with the help of a professional.

Do most professional trainers know how to handle fear issues properly?

Owners should look for a trainer who understands how dogs think and learn, and uses methods grounded in science. A competent professional will never force a dog to face his fears or use strong-arm methods. A knowledgeable trainer will design a behavior modification program that includes techniques such as gradual desensitization and counter-conditioning, which is a way of changing the dog's emotional reaction to the trigger.

The "Trainer Search" feature on the website of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers is a good place to start. Although the organization is dedicated to positive training methods, owners should still ask questions about what methodology is used by the individual trainer.

Handling Fearful Dogs

What body language should a person be aware of in a fearful dog? Are there warning signs that a dog is going to snap?

Most people are aware that flattened ears or a tucked tail signal fear. However, even changes in ear or tail position can be subtle warnings; knowing your dog's normal ear and tail carriage will alert you to when there has been a shift.

Dogs who are afraid may turn the entire body away from what is frightening them, or just turn the head to one side. They may cast their eyes downward and away. Two little-known signs of canine anxiety are lip-licking and yawning. Next time you're in a vet's waiting room, look around; you'll probably notice quite a bit of this! None of these signs should be taken in and of itself as a sign of fear, and some are, of course, seen for other reasons. Body language must be read in context and as a whole.

How can you discipline a dog without making it more fearful?

There is never, ever a need to physically reprimand your dog. A verbal interruption, delivered in a tone and volume that will not frighten him, is best. Let's say your dog is chewing on the table leg. If you were to shout, "No!" he'd startle and stop what he was doing, but he wouldn't have learned a thing. However, if you teach "leave it", meaning "kindly move away from that object," it serves as an instructive reprimand.

In other words, you want to teach your dog what to do, rather than what not to do. In this example, you could then ask for a sit and reward your dog with an appropriate chew toy, which effectively redirects his chewing. In all scenarios, across the board, avoid techniques such as jabbing, slapping, kicking, alpha rolling (rolling your dog on his back), and other physical corrections that only teach your dog that you are to be feared.

Final Notes

What do you want readers to know about fearful dogs?

It takes time, patience and compassion to rehabilitate a fearful dog, but it can make a huge difference in the quality of the dog's life. My book Help for Your Fearful Dog can assist you in recognizing subtle fearful body language, setting up a confidence-building program at home, teaching important skills and more. Book knowledge is a good start, but if you feel the situation warrants professional assistance, again, find a trainer who uses gentle, positive methods. All of your efforts will help your dog gain confidence and live a happier life, and will strengthen the bond of love and trust between you.

For more information on Nicole Wilde and her book, Help for Your Fearful Dog, visit her website at Phantom Publishing. There you will find a variety of books that provide professional advice to dog owners. You can also follow Nicole on Twitter at would like to thank Nicole Wilde for taking the time to teach readers how to find help for fearful dogs.

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Help for Fearful Dogs Interview