My 1-year old Golden Retriever, Noah, is afraid of everything! Noises, sudden movements, a branch on the sidewalk during our walks… he even gets scared if you look at him funny. I’ve had him since he was 10 weeks old, he’s never been abused, only pampered and loved. He’s such a sweet boy with a silly personality, but so afraid. His fear is now causing him to be aggressive toward other dogs. What can I do to make him more confident and less fearful so his true personality can shine?
Having a fearful dog can definitely be tough. Fortunately I have some ways to help Noah build some confidence. Building confidence is very important. The more confident a dog gets, usually the less fearful it is. One thing I want to mention first is to never use punishment if your dog is scared of something. For instance, if he is scared of a branch on the sidewalk when you are trying to walk, I do not recommend, “collar correcting” him through it. The majority of the time forcing a dog through something makes the dog more fearful. Even if it looks like the dog is not as fearful, there is something that is referred to as Learned Helplessness. Basically the dog learns that no matter what, it’s going to have to go through the unpleasant experience so it stops fighting it. The dog is still miserable, but just doesn’t act like it is.
I like to start off with some basic things like an umbrella, a ladder, and a broom. These ordinary objects are great tools to help Noah build confidence. The ultimate goal with the umbrella is to be able to open is as quick as you can without Noah reacting. In order to achieve a result like this it needs to be done in baby steps. Depending on his level of fear you may have to start off just presenting the umbrella to him and then follow it with a treat. From there you will open it a tiny bit very slowly, followed by a treat. Do that a few times. When he is comfortable with that start to open it even more. Get to the point where you can slowly open and close the umbrella all the way and it isn’t fazing him. When that is going smoothly start to open the umbrella a little quicker, and so on. The final product will be you opening the umbrella full speed and him confidently awaiting his treat. If you try to rush this you will just make things worse. It is very important when working with fearful dogs to let them move at their own pace.
Using a ladder as a tool is fun too. Lay the ladder down on the ground. The ultimate goal is to have the dog walk down the middle of it. The rungs are the obstacles. The cool thing about this is it helps the dog understand where it is placing its back feet. In the beginning, just place some treats around the ladder so Noah gets comfortable just being around it. When he is getting more comfortable place some treats in between the rungs. Noah will then have to summon his inner confidence to go grab the treats from within the ladder. When he is doing that try to get him to step over the ladder. Finally, when he is confidently doing that, try to guide him down the middle of the ladder with a treat. This is easier with two people. You can have one person on each side of him to kind of be like bumpers in bowling. If he starts to freak out, allow him to get out of there. If he is just a little nervous, try to get him to follow the treat. You can also place treats in the rungs in front of him as he is walking.
You can use a broom in a similar way as the ladder. In the beginning try to get him to step over it as it lays flat on the ground. I would do this by tossing treats over it. If he goes around to get them in the beginning it isn’t the end of the world. Though as he gets more confident, make it impossible for him to get the treat unless he steps over the boom etc. When he is doing really well stepping over the broom confidently, take the broom and put it on the bottom of two kitchen chairs. (This should be approximately 4-6 inches off the ground. The lower the better to start.) Start to toss treats over and tell him to “jump.” (Make sure your dog is roughly 9 months old before you start to cue him to jump.)
These are just a couple of examples, but by doing things like this, overall Noah’s confidence should start to go up, resulting in less fearful responses. In the link below I am going to provide a little video I’ve made with my dog V to show another example of building a dogs confidence.
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.
Do you have a tough training question of your own? Click HERE to “Ask the Trainer!”