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Living with a Fearful Dog

Imagine that you are someone that has a fear of spiders. Now imagine that you are in a room filled with spiders. You encounter one spider and get weirded out and turn in another direction. Low and behold there are more spiders in your path and you get more creeped out. You turn again in a different direction. You can’t escape them. They’re everywhere you turn. You’re in a constant state of panic and all you want to do is to find a space to hide from all of the creepy crawlies. The fear you are feeling isn’t logical, but yet to you is very real. This is the mindset of a fearful dog.

There are varying degrees of fearfulness in a dog. Some might only be fearful of a specific trigger like loud noises, sudden movements, other animals, etc. Once the trigger is removed, they go back to being a happy go-lucky dog that enjoys life and the people around them. Then there are other dogs where everything in its environment causes the dog to be afraid and apprehensive. Some might refer to the dog as shut-down.

Training can help fearful dogs, but training alone might not be enough. Depending upon how advanced their fearfulness is, you may need to consider consulting a veterinarian about pairing training with anti-anxiety medication. Anyone that takes on the guardianship of a fearful dog must realize that despite all of your best intentions and training, this dog may never become a happy, normal dog. Even if training does help, it will not be a quick process. You may spend the entire rest of the dog’s life training it how to cope with living in our world.

Allow me to introduce you to Sherman, my current foster dog. He’s been with me since August of 2014. He’s listed as a Sheltie/Spaniel mix that is around 4-5 years old. Sherman is unlike any other dog I’ve ever fostered. His level of fear is high. He’s on alert most of the time, and is spooked by so many things…noises (they don’t have to be loud noises), sudden movements (or any movement towards him), cars, any object you’re holding in your hand and humans…including me. You’ll want to check out the video below of me trying to coax him to come towards me.

He’s not completely shut-down to humans. He is capable of being relaxed and happy. There are times where he is content to have me pet him. Then there are other times where he stays about 5 feet away from me just wagging his tail. He acts like he wants to come toward me, but he stays where he is. He more readily approaches me if my other dogs are already around me. This would be the reason why the rescue is looking to place him in a home with another dog.

There are two times of the day where I witness him in a state of mind where he truly seems relaxed and happy to see me: first thing in the morning before I get out of bed (check out the video below); and then first thing when I get home from work. He gets super excited in both instances and eagerly greets me with tail wagging and body relaxed. During the morning greetings I actually witness him play with a dog toy. It makes me so happy to see him like this, and then so sad to see him once those endorphins wear off. After the euphoria is over he reverts back to this dog that would rather go off into another room by himself.

Given the fact that he does seem capable of being happy around humans, the rescue took him to the veterinarian to be evaluated for anti-anxiety medication. After his evaluation, the doctor prescribed Fluoxetine (i.e. Prozac). He started the medication this past January. I haven’t tried to push any behavior modification training on him yet. I wanted to give the medication some time to kick in and see how he would respond to that alone. I’ve seen some mild improvement. He’s a bit more confident around me and his surroundings.

The next step is to work with him on behavior modification. The doctor recommends starting with  clicker training and getting him to hand target (i.e. touching his nose to my hand). Sounds simple enough, right? I’ve tried the clicker briefly with him already. Getting him use to the sound of the clicker in and of itself is a major challenge. One click and he’s off and running. And that happens even when pairing the click with the yummiest treat imaginable. Once that one click is done, he wants nothing more to do with me.

It breaks my heart to see him like this, and makes me wonder what kind of past he had. Personally, I’m okay with him being who he wants to be, but I’m not a normal dog owner. Most people want a sociable dog that loves attention and human interaction. I hope whoever adopts Sherman will be okay with him the way he is today. If they’re expecting more from him, they’ll be setting him up for failure right from the start. Stay tuned. I will post updates.

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