Monday, January 17, 2011

Taking a Question From the Audience: Why is my dog scared of me?

"...We have 2 dogs. 1 is a female puppy. She's 2 years old. My wife got her while I was deployed to Iraq...I've never had a dog act like she's scared of me. I haven't done one bad thing to that dog, and all I have to do is walk towards her, and she runs under the bed...I can pet her when she's laying on the couch, but if I approach her in what she feels a threatening way, you can tell that she's nervous. I've been back from deployment over a year now, and that dog still doesn't want to warm up to me. I'm at a loss of trying to be friends with that dog. I thought dogs were MAN's best friend..." -- J.T.

Dear J.T.,

Such a great question and thank you for letting me answer it in this forum; you are not alone.

There are several key players in your dog's behavior, the most prominent being genetics, physiological abnormalities, and inadequate early socialization. We will discuss the latter because really, it's the only one you can "change" or make right.

What is canine socialization?
We discussed in a previous post that properly socializing your dog is defined as "exposing them to as much different stuff as you possibly can and doing so in a controlled and positive manner."

The socialization window
The critical socialization window closes around 4 months.
After that, it is in your dog's nature to become wary of new things. Think about it: the mother is taking care of her young pups, showing them the world of being a dog. After that, they're on their own.

In the wild, a scared dog lives to see another day.
My guess, without knowing your dog's history or their past and only knowing what you've presented in your question, is that your dog has not been properly socialized to you.

What you've done correctly:
You mention that if you move towards her in "what she feels [is] a threatening way, you can tell that she's nervous" - those words are very important. I commend you for noticing that she's nervous and give you even more points for understanding that it's her perception that counts most and not yours.

What next?
Now you want to convince her through action that you are no threat. But first...

Imagine you are afraid of spiders. The very sight of them makes you nervous and sweaty. Would having someone place a spider directly in your hand make you get over this fear immediately? What if they repeatedly, day after day, put a spider in your hand? Would you be "cured"? Or would you begin to dread this every day...knowing the routine, expecting that someone will be approaching you any minute now with that icky, creepy spider?

The point: forcing your dog to "face her fears" doesn't help. It can make things worse.

Go from here...
When you enter the room, toss treats to her and:
- always look the other way. Direct eye contact is intimidating.
- let your wife do the handling for now. Putting the leash on, holding, petting - that's all going to have to be on your dog's terms. For now, let your wife handle it.

Your original question was "Why" - I started to answer the underlying "how do I fix it" question. ;) It's important to take it slow. I strongly encourage you to read up on fearful dogs and how to train them through positive reinforcement. Your dog will need to learn to trust you and positive associations will help with that.

There are many training behaviors you can learn as well that will increase her confidence, such as targeting. I encourage you to post any questions or progress you have right here on the blog - many skilled and talented trainers stop by here on the regular and can provide intelligent input as well!

Good luck to you!

Happy training!


  1. Hello there! Thanks for reconnecting through the pet blogger challenge. Before I get too much into it, I wanted to post the following link:

    Patricia McConnell discusses a study in which the stance and strides of men and women were compared, which adds to your explanation of why "J.T." may be seen as aggressive to the new pup. Being aware of the visual that your pup sees is the first step towards changing the way you are around your dog. And... the thing is... "J.T." will probably need to make a few adjustments if he's truly interested in a relationship with this dog. I'm with you on the socialization period, but I have a feeling that the two will need to work together to come to a "compromise" on this one.

    You already let him know that he'll need to change a few of his tactics. If he's asking this pup to work to overcome her own fears and give him the gift of her trust, he should probably work to make himself the most appeasing human out there! :)

    Lip licking, head turning, approaching from an arch, laying on the ground, keeping calm, and perhaps based on the study in the link above he'll even begin to walk a little more "Feminine-like" by doing "figure 8's" with his shoulders and hips as he walks. *It's hard for guys to do, I know! But it's also really funny... I tested it on my boyfriend and he was hilarious... the dogs even thought so and followed him around with huge grins on their faces, as if they were saying, "Okay, what's the game here? I want in!"

    I'm not saying he has to go out in public like that! :) Just in his home, just to help his pup. Eventually, when she trusts him, he can give up his "womanly ways."

  2. See, J.T., I told you smart and talented folks stop by!

    Thanks Natalie, your comments were spot on and well put!!

    That's exactly right - body language (having an understanding of ours AND the dog's) is critical when working with a fearful...heck,

    Thanks again Natalie!

  3. Sadly, we missed the 4-month window with Gus. Thanks for sharing this Q&A. We need all the help we can get!

  4. Lori, we made the same mistake with Bizz! But I think you're doing a fabulous job with your Gus ;)