Fearful Dogs – seeing the world in detail

Fearful Dogs are not bad dogs.

Fearful Dogs are not difficult dogs.

Fearful Dogs are not damaged dogs.

Fearful Dogs are not dangerous dogs.

Fearful Dogs are not defiant dogs.

Fearful Dogs are not cowards.

Fearful Dogs ARE dogs that see life in great detail. They see, hear, smell, and feel everything like any dog, but Fearful  Dogs go a step beyond and scour their environment meticulously using all of their senses, to get the best possible information that will let them know if they are safe or not.

Fearful Dogs want to know who, what, why, when, how, how much, how often, and how many, in all new environments, or in familiar environments that may have had a change of some sort.

Why? Why does a Fearful Dog want all of this information, why such detail to the environment?

Dogs only act well when they feel safe. Truth.

A Fearful Dog needs to understand and know each and every environment they go into, to determine if they will be safe or not. While some dogs are genetically predisposed with this temperament, other dogs become fearful through life experiences, or the lack there of. Either way, imagine how exhausting, how daunting, and how unpredictable their life must feel at times? For some Fearful Dogs, their sky is in fact falling almost every single day.

MISUNDERSTOOD – A Fearful Dog that is misunderstood, and treated with corrections, humiliation, or intimidation, is a dog who will become reactive, will usually cause harm, and will become more fearful in varying ways over time. The instability in temperament becomes more evident with each passing week, month, or year. It simply cannot get better, as the misunderstood Fearful Dog is generally over faced with the vary things that cause fear.

You cannot punish fearfulness out of a living being. Truth.

Fearful Dogs are not bad, difficult, damaged, dangerous, defiant, or cowards. People create those problems, people create these behaviors. Fearful Dogs have fears, it is truly that simple. And if those fears are not recognized, acknowledged, and treated with care and attention, then you build the dog of your choosing.

UNDERSTANDING – A Fearful Dog that is understood, and in the right hands, is a dog that most likely will remain fearful to some degree, of certain things, but will also learn how to trust the Handlers choices for new environments.

If a Fearful Dog indicates that something is over their skill level, or makes them feel unsafe, the understanding Handler usually says, THANK YOU, out loud or mentally, because they know dogs don’t lie. And then changes are made, in the environment, with work, or the people or dogs present.

An understanding and knowledgeable Handler of a Fearful Dog starts to build trust in a known and safe environment. Trust is the foundation, and this needs to be worked on with care and attention.

Helping the Fearful Dog with confidence generally comes from work, or skill building. This can happen in the family room, kitchen, yard, a training center, but work and skill building are a must. A Fearful Dog wants to think and solve concepts just like any dog, so they have to be given this opportunity.

It isn’t so much about ‘basic behaviors’, it’s about work, skills, building vocabulary, building hand cues, body cues, and allowing the Fearful Dog to be successful.

Circus Tricks, Instability Body Awareness, ground work for Agility, Treibball, Herding, and scent tracking are all great activities for any dog, but uber important for the Fearful Dog.

But here’s the hitch. With a Fearful Dog, while you are teaching and introducing new skills, you are working on ‘dog time’ not ‘human time’. You will find that ‘sweet spot’ where there is enough social pressure to peak your dogs interest and engage your dog, but not too much where it makes your dog fold. And you can only work if your dog is enjoying the work, and has body language that is engaged, eager, and somewhat relaxed.

This is referred too as building a ‘Positive Conditioned Emotional Response’ or +CER. With Fearful Dogs this goes hand in hand with work and skill building. If a Fearful Dog feels safe, enjoys the work, feels empowered by their skills, then we start to shape a more positive emotional response, a ‘lift’ so to speak. And the more you work on this, the more this starts to transfer to things you might suggest, or places that you go, or people you introduce, etc.

CONSISTENCY – Fearful Dogs need a consistent, and understanding Handler. A person that chooses environments with care, understands ‘dog time’, and creates an emotionally stable home environment.


MY OCEAN – Besides working with Fearful Dogs on a weekly basis, and slowly integrating them into new activities or environments, watching them blossom slowly, build confidence, and feel safe, I had the privilege to live with one for twelve and a half years. My Ocean was cautious, spooky, and fearful, and most likely this was genetic as she showed extreme fear when we met her at six weeks of age.

She taught me how important work and skill building were, what feeling safe meant to her, and how to keep her emotions supple and flexible.

She taught me that environments count for everything. Choose carefully.

She taught me that while she was gaining confidence in certain areas, she had fears that were so great in other areas that we just had to accept that, and work around it. That was part of who she was.

Because life is too short, and we all need to be more understanding ~ Nancy

20 Comments Add yours

  1. mtwaggin says:

    BRAVO (can you see me clapping my hands and jumping up and down)! I hope even those that do not have fearful dogs read this and comprehend what it says – for they all will likely come into contact with an owner with a fearful dog someday! Louie and Dot send their love for this article especially as do the rest of the pack (as they all have little fears of something somewhere, sometime in their lives). ❤

    1. Nancy Tanner says:

      love right back at ya! ❤

  2. Vicki says:

    Yep – scent work was the door that opened the world up for Maggie. Thanks to your classes we channeled her natural instincts that led her to new adventures. When she knows we are at a new venue for a Sniff-off, the environment doesn’t really phase her – she knows we are there to work. But when we just go in to a new store, for example, she is still quite cautious.
    And working on all those other skills – Tricks, Agility, RallyFrEe and Body Awareness – just adds to her confidence in all the other parts of her everyday life. It’s so great for me to see how she has grown and become less fearful over these last two years. Thank you, Nancy.

    1. Nancy Tanner says:

      I am so glad that Maggie is in your hands, your care. Vicki you have given her such an awesome life and her talents amaze everyone. She is most certainly the poster child for ‘I act well if I feel safe’ ,,, and I think her growing fan club would agree!

  3. Janett Byrne says:

    Tippet is a fearful and tender WFT. We watch her environment so close but once in awhile we are caught off guard . Thanksgiving evening a neighbor set off huge fireworks! Big rockets that had no business exploding in a quiet subdivision. Scared us all. Tip was asleep. She hid under my desk and has continued to do so since when it gets dark. Just starting to trust again. Any and all info would be so much welcomed.

    1. Nancy Tanner says:

      Janett, Tippet is a tender one for sure. What I would do for her is BEFORE the time that she usually goes and hides, I would get a KONG and stuff it with a bunch of super delicious everything, and I would give it to her.

      If she takes it under your desk to eat it that is fine, if she eats it where she is that is fine as well. But you are changing the expectation of the hour, and giving her something awesome to focus on, besides a possible BOOM!

      Here is my article on sound sensitive, I would add these other suggestions as well. https://nancytanner.com/2012/07/02/tips-for-thunderfirework-sound-sensitive-dogs/

  4. Jan says:

    Thank You! I will follow your advice for sure.

  5. Jan and Tippet says:

    I remembered you telling me that during a class. I did use a thunder shirt and your lavender spray!

  6. Andrea M. Schnapp says:

    I am hoping you can help me with my 7 year old yellow lab who, only at times, is afraid to go outside. It started when we left her with a sitter at our home for 12 days. She will not go outside unless she is being fed breakfast, but won’t go out for her dinner. She will happily go outside if we have a visitor. She will happily go for a ride in the car to somewhere else, matter of fact, that is the only way, most of the time, that I can get her to do her business. I think she was left outside during a thunderstorm while we were gone. Her thyroid was 1.6 (t4) and the vet agreed to put her on synthyroid. I also have her on Zyklene for the past 10 days. I’ve seen no change. I’m beginning to think she needs a different home. I am talking to a behavioral specialist. She seemed to have gotten over all of this for about six weeks, then suddenly, she went back to being fearful. The house and the car are sanctuaries. If she sees them while I have her out, she wants to be in. She plays with her friend dog, a Rhodesian Ridgeback, but she has started to resist that. I’m beginning to think she is unhappy here and may need a new owner. I love Annie and just want her to be happy. She is a great dog that deserves a great life but her fears prevent her. Will she ever get over this? She used to be fearless.

  7. Valerie says:

    “Dogs only act well when they feel safe. Truth.”

    Yes…and you can say the same thing about people…

  8. LizAnne Kubicki says:

    I’m not sure if our Jack is fearful or dominant. Sounds crazy, but he is the dominant dog in our pack of 3 neutered males. He acts protective of me in New situations and growls at strangers. He did wonderful in obedience classes as a puppy, but after surgery for knee replacement from an injury, he began to act dominant and aggressive in strange situations. We had to do physical therapy after surgery and that’s when things turned bad. He’s been back to two different obedience schools, but fails his canine good citizen test when strangers touch him by growling or snapping. The teachers say I catch it quick and that I read him well. All suggest continuing on with socialization, but he is now three and I’m getting tired. Suggestions?

    1. Nancy Tanner says:

      Hi LizAnne,
      if he has had surgery, and that is when you saw a behavior change there are a few things i would do as part of finding the ‘pieces to the puzzle’ behaviorally speaking.

      List of drugs used before, during, and after surgery. Were they all compatible with your dogs health and gene type? MDR1 from WSU Pullan Veterinary School is worth digging into if your dogs breed is high on that list. Also look at the side effects of each drug, you might be surprised what you find, especially int he pre-anesthesia cocktail.

      Then I would investigate if he hurts or is uncomfortable. Dogs that don’t feel well don’t act well, especially with strangers, and I would ask is he guarding you or guarding his leg against you?

      So ask yourself a ton of super specific questions and write them down, and you might find your answer.

      The protective or not wanting to be touched behaviors are symptoms, you need to find the cause.


  9. codemanbc says:

    3 year old Magic failed his TDI test on Saturday. “Greeting a friendly stranger” was his only ding. Ears back, body lowered, pushing into me, “don’t touch me” was the message. Although not aggressive, no growling or showing of teeth, he was not comfortable with the situation. I take him everywhere and he is exposed to a lot of people. At O’Hare Airport in baggage claim, soccer games, walking in town centers. But he is also focused on me and what I want of him. Typical BC focus, well perhaps VERY focused. He watches everything, but is also Mr. Mind-your-own-business. Wonderful with dogs and convincing dogs to play with him. Never retaliatory, never pushy. With people he knows, he is VERY affectionate and happy. A bit reserved with strangers….and I know that reserved nature can be a trait of Border collies. But, strange enough, they passed him for CGC. Your writing is SMART. (compliment)
    Tom and Magic

    1. Nancy Tanner says:

      Hi Tom and Magic, sometimes work becomes the ‘safe place’ for a working dog that has concerns with the outside world.

      So sometimes what we see in their work, brilliance and confidence, comes when they feel safe, have a purpose, and don’t have to guess.

      Then work stops and they can be at a loss for what to do and how to handle things int he human world.

      All the best to you and Magic, Nancy

  10. Natalie says:

    Thank you. Spot on, and timing perfect. I have been loosing hope with my pup. This year I vowed to just show him love and understanding. And it was met with a great turnaround. Now I find this in my in – box! Timing is everything. Thank you again. We will “get to work”!

    1. Nancy Tanner says:

      you are welcome – Nancy

  11. Lisa Fraser says:

    I am fostering ( 1 Year now) a large , 60 pound female. She was a mess when I got her, it took me two months before she would let me pet her. Now she is doing well and is a normal do in the house/ yard. She has gotten use to people i our house and will bark once or twice at new people and then she stops. My problem is being out in public where it’s is busy ie soccer games , Home Depot, pet smart – she is in full flight mode. Last winter/ spring I took her out 4-5 days a week to expose her but hasn’t seemed to help – not sure what to do now.

    1. Nancy Tanner says:

      you might want to take smaller steps out into the bigger world, with less BIG energy, and choose times of day that are a bit more calm … Nancy

  12. Patty says:

    This really spoke to me! I have a 3 year old rescue who is afraid of A LOT. We live in a city, and even though we’ve been here with him for 2 years now, he’s still terrified to go on walks and trembles the whole time. He’s afraid of the noise, trucks, etc. I am patient with him but will this ever get better? Do you have any tips?

    1. Nancy Tanner says:

      sometimes when all the senses are so overwhelmed it is helpful to just drive a bit to an area that has less ‘noise’ and business – Even where we live in the mountains, some dogs are overwhelmed by human noise, so learning to drive for a walk where they can just take a deep breath and learn to enjoy outings is helpful. Nancy

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