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Ask the Trainer: Building Confidence in a Fearful Dog

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Dear Kevin,
We just adopted Macy about a month ago. She was a stray for 10 months. She barks horribly when someone comes to the house. The cable guy came, she went ballistic and he asked me to put her outside. I did and after he left, she didn’t want to come in. She is afraid of everything, and even barks horribly at one of us when we come into a room. What can we do to stop the barking?

Hey Bette,

I want to start off by thanking you for adopting.

Fear can be a tough one to conquer. The best way to conquer this is to help Macy build some confidence. Building confidence in the instance means being reassured that no one is going to hurt her. In this example, when someone walks in the door she starts barking. I assume this is fear related as you mentioned in your question that she is a fearful dog. What I recommend doing is having people toss her things she enjoys when they walk in. With repetition, she will start to view guests as things she enjoys instead of fears. It should look something like this:

-People knock on door.
-Macy starts barking.
-You place her on leash and hold her, or tether her to something. (The further away she is from the door the more comfortable she should feel.)
-Invite the guests in and have them toss the treats directly at her and then walk away. The guests should not linger or stare at her! (If you know people are coming have a note on the door and a basket that has a couple of her favorite things in it. I recommend telling them what to expect prior to their arrival.)

*Have them toss the treats regardless of how she is acting. (Even if she is barking.) We are building an association, not training a behavior. With repetition the barking should start to fade out on its own because we are taking away the cause of the barking.

In regards to her barking at you guys, I would do the exact same thing. With repetition she will start to associate you guys coming in the room with wonderful things. In general with her, it is important that she gets out to explore the world. When doing this pair it with things she loves and let her move at her own pace. If you come across something that really startles her take baby steps to get through it. Forcing her through it will most likely just make the fear even worse.

Stay patient and consistent. It will take some time to work through this but it is very possible.

Thank you for the question!
Kevin Duggan CPDT-KA

Kevin is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer through the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT.org)  and is a Canine Good Citizen Evaluator through the American Kennel Club. He currently resides in Ohio with his dog, V, a six-year-old Shepherd/Lab mix, where he operates All Dogs Go To Kevin, LLC, specializing in helping build positive relationships between humans and their canine companions using clear communication, not pain and fear. For more training tips and tricks, and to meet his amazing dog, V,  follow him on Facebook by clicking here.

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  1. Avatar Of Jen Gordon

    Jen Gordon


    Do you have any suggestions for re-directing a dog who does not respond to treats or toys and goes from docile and passive to fearful, anxious and aggressive in a split second? My little buddy, Indy, LOVES physical affection and praise and this works well with training but is completely ineffective in helping him overcome his fear of people. He enters the extreme phase almost instantly and once there, too late. We have a long driveway and Indy will start the second he hears a car turn into the driveway from the road. By the time the person arrives at the house, he is in a full blown tizzy. I would love for him to be able to enjoy people, or at least, be comfortable with them in his presence.

  2. Avatar Of Marcy Gehr

    Marcy gehr


    Hi, I got a dog at 1. Yr. old that was going to be euthanized by its owners because it bit their 14 yr. old son. The son had been scaring the dog for awhile, when it would fall asleep.owners fault, not dogs, so I took him in.so, I let him sleep in my bed, with my 2 other dogs. If anyone even moved in the bed at night, he would get startled, and go ballistic,biting the closet thing. He nailed my dog a couple of times, me Also,then, he was up by my face,and nailed my lip ,and I had to get 10 stitches,in my lip. So, he sleeps in a crate or on the floor.he will wake out of a deep sleep, and just go bananas snapping at nothing. I think he has night terrors.am I correct?he is now 5. Do you think this will ever go away or has hat kid damaged him for life? Any advice is appreciated. Marcy

  3. Avatar Of Teresa Clauson

    Teresa Clauson


    This is helpful; but my dog is becoming more nervous as she gets older than she was when she was younger (she is 13). Not sure why–vet says there are no major health issues. Any suggestions?

  4. Avatar Of Valerie Crissman

    Valerie Crissman


    Two years ago we took home our boy Simba from the local humane society. He came highly recommended and we were ready since losing our first baby to kidney failure just one year earlier. Not long after getting him home, we realized he was fearful of my husband, and pretty much fearful of all men. It took some time for him to come around, but after awhile with reassurance and a lot of love, he came to realize that his dad wasn’t someone he needed to fear at all. We socialized him around other men friends who came to visit, and with time and patience, it was no time before he let them into his space. What used to be him going off in the other direction, is now a warm, loving boy who lets others pat and touch him without any fear. I am really proud of the progress that he made, he really has turned out to be a wonderful dog in so many ways. I know he has my back as we spend each and every day together and I hope and pray he is around for many more years to come. He’s a precious soul and what I call my “earth angel”.

  5. Avatar Of Coleen Casey

    Coleen Casey


    This can be a long and heartbreaking process, but well worth the effort.

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