If Your Dog is Afraid, Avoid These Two Mistakes

Pay attention to emotions and timing when training a fearful dog.

A scared Labrador-type dog hides under a table looking out
Photo: Patrick H/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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When working with fearful dogs, an effective and commonly-used technique is desensitization and counter-conditioning. It’s a very powerful technique, but there are some technical aspects that you need to get right in order for it to work. This post looks at two common mistakes that people make, and how you can fix them.

The process is about emotions, not behaviour

In a lot of dog training, our aim is to change the dog’s behaviour, typically by using positive reinforcement to make the behaviours we like happen more often. This is not the case in desensitization and counter-conditioning. Here, the aim is to change the dog’s emotions so that they become okay with and even like the thing they were previously scared of.

Suppose you have a dog that is afraid of people they don’t know. One thing that might make a nice outcome is if your dog saw a stranger and previously they would have been afraid, but they now look to  you happily because they know you will give them tasty treats like a piece of roast beef or cheese. In some cases, this might be all you need; in other cases, you might keep working with them until they are happy to be approached by and maybe even petted by strangers. 

But even the best thought-out plans can go wrong, and the nature of training is that you will have mishaps along the way. Maybe someone suddenly steps out from behind a truck, and you weren’t expecting it; maybe, horror of horrors, you are clearly trying to move away from someone but they come marching up spouting dog ‘wisdom’ and thinking they will ‘help’. 

In these circumstances, it can be too much for your dog, who may start barking and lunging, or trying to run away. At this point, many people have a common misunderstanding – and it’s easy to see why, but it’s still a misunderstanding – and say they don’t want to feed their dog for going off like that. 

But remember, the process is about emotions, not behaviour. You are trying to teach your dog that strange people are nothing to be feared – and if you do nothing, you will undermine your training. Even if your dog was reactive and went off, you still have to feed them those tasty snacks. Sure, you might need to get away from that person first (run if you have to), but still offer those treats. And still offer the treats even if the dog is too scared to take them.

When the dog goes off in this kind of situation, they are telling you they are uncomfortable. What this means is that you want to try and make sure you don’t put your dog in such an uncomfortable position again, if at all possible. For you, this is information about where your dog is at in their training plan that you can use to make better progress, because you can only work at the dog’s pace, and the progress will be faster if your dog is always ‘under threshold’ as we call it.

Even when you have the best-designed plan that aims to gradually get your dog to like the thing they are afraid of, there will still be occasions when something happens that’s not-to-plan, because that’s real life. It could be that person stepping out from behind a truck, a car backfiring, a kid zooming past on a skateboard, or the sudden appearance of a growling dog behind a fence. In these moments when you aren’t doing desensitization and the thing your dog is afraid of just happened, it’s important to remember that you can still do counter-conditioning.

When working with a fearful dog in the real world, we need to be very focussed on spotting the thing they are afraid of and keeping it at a distance. And that vigilance can lead to another common mistake.


The timing needs to be right

Timing is so important in dog training. In operant conditioning, you want to deliver the treat (positive reinforcement) as fast as you can once the dog has done the behaviour you want. If using a clicker, you want that click to be precisely timed. 

Although you’re not looking for a behaviour in counter-conditioning, the timing of giving food is still crucial. It needs to come after the scary thing – very soon after the scary thing, but definitely after it.

A common mistake that people make, especially when they know the scary thing will or might happen, is to give the food first. Or maybe even not to give it, but still to reach for it or to move the hand a little closer to the bait bag. If you do that, unfortunately it won’t work. 

Dogs are very observant, and they notice that treat or that reach. You know you’re making this mistake if your hand moves to get a treat from your bait bag and your dog looks around as if to say, “Where is it? Where’s the scary thing?”

Instead, you must wait until the potentially-scary thing has happened, and then reach for the treats and deliver them quickly. 

Here’s what your dog learns during counter-conditioning: The scary thing predicts treats. And because it predicts treats, it’s not so scary after all.

Notice that I said treats plural, because you don’t want to be stingy in counter-conditioning. You want to give out lots of really great treats in order to make a big impression on your dog. If you’re looking for treat ideas, check out my post on the best dog training treats.  

There are of course other mistakes that people can make. Counter-conditioning (with or without desensitization) takes skill and expertise. If you’re finding it difficult, find a good dog trainer with expertise in working with fearful dogs, because it can really help to have someone guide you through the process and cheer your successes along the way. And in some cases – and always for a new behaviour change – be sure to get your dog checked at the vet in case of an underlying medical cause or in case your vet thinks psychoactive medications might be helpful.

If you want to learn more about this technique, you can find more information in my post on desensitization and counter-conditioning in dog training. You might also like eight tips to help fearful dogs feel safe

If you liked this post, you will love my book, Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy Gregory Berns, NYT-bestselling author of How Dogs Love Us says of Wag,  “Using the latest canine science, Zazie Todd gives us a clear and compassionate guide to bringing out the best in your dog.”

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Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

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