One of the saddest behaviors we encounter is an extremely fearful dog living in the heart of Chicago. Sure, many dogs absolutely love their walks. But, a dog who has innate, negative physical responses to cars, buses, the El, other dogs and people coming at them; the patience needed to help these dogs learn that the HUNDREDS of terrifying things they have to endure daily is not AS scary requires building trust and a whole lot of cheerleading. Here are a few things to consider and work on with your fearful dog:
Inside training games and team building. If your dog is tucking her tail, running away or refusing to move every time she walks outside of your condo or apartment; walks are MISERABLE. Fearful dogs need to feel protected by their human and teaching trust does not come by dragging your dog out the door and down the sidewalk . Training cues like “touch” and “find” are simple exercises for confidence; and games and tricks remind your dog that you are a team and will build long-term responses outside but, patience is absolutely critical. Just because a dog is not growling, lunging or barking at people, does not mean they do not need help, badly.
Power does matter when it comes to treats. In a perfect world, a dog who is absolutely terrified of other dogs, kids, bikes, skateboards, etc. would have a backyard to do her business or live on a quiet street but life does not always work that way. To help create better associations with outside time; you must use the most amazing treats you can possibly find. My “go to” trifecta is hot dogs, cheddar cheese and some homemade meatballs (some store bought contain onions, which are bad for dogs) cut up into TEENY, TINY pieces. The variety prevents boredom and the smellier the treats, the more likely she is to eat them when in an extremely stressed state. We like to teach the in and out game; if the dog takes even one step towards the entrance, reward! Walks back to the safety of home, no reward. If you sit or crouch down, it takes some of the pressure off too. Do this when not going outside for a necessary walk and treat EVERY. SINGLE. STEP. towards the big, scary world like your dog just won the World Series. But, don’t cheer too loud, it might scare her.
Put yourself in your dog’s paws. Take a second to think about something you are truly afraid of and how it affects you. Could you learn a new word in a different language if your heart was racing, sweat was dripping down your face and adrenaline charging through your body? Likely not, and with more research proving the complexity of our dogs’ emotions, we need to consider how brutal is can be to force a dog to be bombarded by scary thing after scary thing. Watch for small signs of fear too; if you can give your dog a break before she completely shuts down, it makes a big difference. Busier neighborhoods like Lakeview, Old Town, Gold Coast and even Ravenswood, Logan Square and Lincoln Park; especially near the train stations are harder for scaredy dogs than quieter pockets of Chicago.
A little help from friends. For some dogs, the Thundershirt can help behavior modification move along; but PLEASE use common sense with varying weather conditions. It is a fabulous tool for chilly and cold weather walks but a heavy shirt on an already panting dog in warmer temperatures can be downright dangerous. Herbal supplements are also a nice choice to ease your dog’s mind and body a bit while working on training, we like Homeopet Anxiety Relief but always check with your veterinarian before administering an herbal remedy. If you live in an area with holistic veterinarian; there are so many wonderful herbs and flower essences, but we highly recommend working with a professional to help you find the right, safe combination for your dog. Speaking of your veterinarian, talk to him or her. If your dog is truly that terrified, you might need some western medical intervention. Again, a good veterinarian will help you devise a plan appropriate for your dog; and when possible, phase out additional help once you create new, positive associations with the world.
Fearful dogs need patience, thoughtful introductions and extensive trust and confidence building exercises. Be kind, consistent and do not be afraid to ask for help.