Helping a Fearful Dog

Michael Baugh, CPDT-KA, CDBC

(from All Things Dog blog)

Dear Michael:

My wife and I have a very sweet, intelligent, food-loving, 2 year old female Rough Collie.  She is great on a leash, eager to please, and generally very good in public.  I grew up with Collies and am familiar with the common tendencies of the Herding Breeds, but am having trouble succeeding with some of her training.

Lady gets very nervous when guests come to the house, especially strangers.  She does the typical barking and herding, but also has trouble relaxing for hours when other people are in the home.  She will nip at our guest incessantly when they walk around the house.  I know that she has watchdog qualities, but I worry that she will snap when we have guests (especially children) over to the home.

We have had her since she was 12 weeks old, and we have always had visitors.  She does not seem to be adapting at all.  How can we exorcise this nervous energy and enjoy having people over again.  Thank you for your help!
Bill H.


Dear Bill:

First, I commend you for asking good and thoughtful questions on Lady’s behalf.  I work with a lot of fearful dogs here in Texas.  I also know a lot of my training colleagues work similar cases around the world.  You are not alone; and yes there is hope for Lady.

Despite our best efforts socializing our dogs and familiarizing them with the quirky ins and outs of the human world, sometimes it’s just not enough.  As our dogs grow up, we begin to notice their developing sensitivities and phobias.  It’s important that we address these fears intelligently and immediately, but also gently.  You are correct to be concerned that fearful behavior can sometimes develop into offensive (aggressive) behavior.  That doesn’t always happen.  Nevertheless, the time to act is now.

I often recommend hiring a qualified behavior consultant at the end of my blog posts.  This time, I’m recommending it up front.  You don’t have to do this alone, and you probably shouldn’t.  Use the link above to find a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant in your area.  I also recommend you visit and download the e-book, Guide to Living with and Training a Fearful Dog.

Certainly, my response here will not take the place of working with a qualified dog trainer / behavior consultant in person.  Still, I want to offer my thoughts and input.  Your goals with Lady when it comes to interacting with visitors are twofold.  1) Teach her how to behave when people come over.  Which skills you teach are up to you.  Sit, coming when called and stay all play a role in proper greetings.  I exclusively recommend reward-based training, and with good reason.  I’ll expand on that below.  2) Teach Lady that new people in general, especially in her home, are good news for her.  Something amazingly good should happen for Lady every time a person comes to your home.  The way to a dog’s heart really is through her stomach.  I often suggest visitors give my clients’ dogs “welcome gifts” when they arrive (New person = cheese or chicken).  Giving her a delicious stuffed Kong Toy when visitors are in the house is a nice approach as well.  Here is where your reward-based training comes in as well.  If you are using food to teach your dog basic manners when people come over, then she is also learning that it’s good news for her when people come over.  Training starts and the treat bar opens.  Win – Win!  The dog knows how to behave and loves every second of it.

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