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A survivor’s guide to life with a fearful dog

Updated: Dec 16, 2023

A personal take on navigating the highs and lows from Nina, the non-pro trainer in the Sociable Dog household.

No two fearful dogs are exactly alike. Each one is fearful in their own way. Some hide behind sofas or under tables, others rage against the world to make it retreat. But from the human perspective, life with a very fearful dog has, I suspect, some common threads. There’s love and hope, for sure, but also worry, frustration and self-doubt with the odd burst of resentment or regret thrown in. This is my entirely personal take on learning about life with an extremely fearful dog and the small strategies that can help save sanity and keep success in sight.

To begin: the story of one dog.

When I first met Si, he had adopted a ‘last chance’ dog: a rescue Rottweiler who had been returned by potential adopters more than once and was on the point of being labelled unsuitable for rehoming. By the time I came on the scene, the hard yards had already been done by Si and his remarkable Mum (5ft 2ins and unfazed by this damaged giant of a dog). Nevertheless, for someone whose dog experience was pretty much confined to an irrepressibly cheerful cocker spaniel, Si’s Rottweiler, Thomson, was, shall we say, a challenging prospect. But I was prepared to woman up and give it a go. In theory, at least.

The reality was something else. He was big, broad-chested and powerful with a stump of a tail, a slightly wonky jaw and a tongue that didn’t quite fit into his mouth. Terrified of anyone new, his response to fear was as likely to be fight as flight. His bark was loud. And it didn’t sound all that welcoming.

When it came to the first meeting, Si gave clear instructions: “Don’t look him directly in the eye, don’t talk to him. Just let him get used to you. Above all, don’t try to hug him or pet him.” Right - there was zero chance of me trying to do that.

I’m not always the best at carefully following instructions. There is no flat pack assembly leaflet or tech set up manual that I haven’t scanned, skimmed and ‘reimagined’ with fewer steps, different steps or all the right steps, just not in the right order. But in this case, instructions? Oh, yes. I am so on board with those. Give me more.

At the beginning, introductions to Big T were very brief: the sensory equivalent of a Victorian lady leaving her calling card. Then we progressed to longer visits where I perched on the sofa, nervously clutching a mug of coffee. Thomson sat in his favourite armchair, wearing a muzzle for safety (mine, obviously), watching my every move. There was just a hint of Hannibal Lector about that gaze. We continued this way for visit after visit, letting him get used to the sight, sound and smell of me. Sometimes the mug of coffee was a mug of tea, sometimes a glass of wine. But mainly it was just waiting and more waiting while he looked and considered. It was hard to tell what he was thinking. I hoped it wasn’t how well I’d go with fava beans and a nice chianti.

After a while, we moved operations outside. I came as a package deal, too, and we wanted to be sure Thomson and Woody, my super-sociable spaniel, were comfortable with each other. We went on walks with wide pathways where we could keep a respectful distance. Thomson plodded along peaceably enough, keeping very close to Si, barely seeming to register me or Woody. That, in itself, was a small, quiet victory, though I didn’t realise at the time.

But then on a walk, he moved alongside me and his side brushed my leg. At first, I thought it was accidental - maybe I’d just drifted a step or two across the path. But it happened again. The next time, I let my hand fall and tentatively touched the fur on his back. I had been assessed and provisionally approved. It was too early to say that Thomson and I were going to be friends, but I had earned my way through to the next stage of the interview process. This was the first real win to celebrate.

Visits became muzzle-free and I could start on a serious charm offensive - ball play. Thomson loved this and he was skilled. He could catch a tennis ball, flick it around his muzzle and bat it back. So, we played ball. Endlessly. Sitting for an afternoon, working on my laptop - ball play. Watching TV - ball play. Listening to the radio or reading a book - ball play. There was almost no human activity that could not be adapted to include a game of ball. At first, he kept a wary distance, batting the ball back to me. Then he started putting it on the arm of the sofa or the corner of my chair. Cue for another celebration. I was on the team now.

Progress picked up the pace. When I turned up at Si’s place, Woody would lead the way and be greeted with slobbery Rottweiler kisses because in the finest tradition of ‘A predicts B’ Pavlovian conditioning, Woody (A) predicted me (B), the most reliable, human-powered ball launcher a dog could hope to acquire. Woody was less enthusiastic about the greeting, but accepted with good grace.

Over time, we gently introduced the dogs to travelling in the car together so that we could go out for day trips. A long weekend to Cornwall was a huge milestone. These would all be normal activities for many dog lovers, but they were break-out-the-champagne wins for us and T.

We had setbacks along the way. A stupidly thoughtless, random chuck of a tennis ball between the two dogs ended in a heart-stopping scuffle. Woody and I retreated home, confidence battered. Fortunately, there were no injuries. Woody shook off the incident and showed no fear or wariness towards Big T at the next meeting. I learned not to get complacent.

Gradually and slowly, we came to understand each other, Big T and I. With hindsight, I’d reflect that we weren’t all that different in some ways: both inclined to over-angst and to try to cover it up it by talking tough and puffing ourselves up to look bigger than we felt.

He was never destined to be a snuggle-up-on-the-sofa kind of dog (unlike his successor, Murphy, who, at 40 kgs, was convinced he made an ideal lapdog). But he’d go into a happy frenzy of stumpy-tail-wagging greetings, found ear scratches entirely acceptable and even, on special occasions, would offer me his belly for a rub.

One survivor's guide

That is the story of one very fearful dog. And here is one survivor’s guide to getting through the glacial process of building confidence and out the other side to a life together.

First and probably most important: Ignore all the ‘shoulds’ and the ‘should haves’, both those in your own head and those dispensed by more or less well-meaning advice-givers. There is no neat formula to predict the speed of progress with a fearful dog. Even the ‘rule of three’ often offered by rescues (three days to decompress, three weeks to learn new routines, three months to feel at home) should be treated as no more than general guidance to the stages of settling in, rather than a series of categorical development milestones. Using it as an absolute measure of the length of time that progress should take with an anxious dog is setting yourself up for worry and disappointment. Forget the ‘shoulds’ and the ‘should haves’ and focus on the ‘cans’ and ‘coulds’. What can we do today that we couldn’t do last week or last month? What does this mean for what we could do tomorrow?

Find the joy in small things. There’s an awful lot of oh-so-tedious incremental interaction you have to do to build confidence with a fearful dog. It can be boring as hell. Admittedly, I didn’t have to do all that much of this. What I did was largely accompanied by caffeine so no great hardship. All the slow, steady work on lead, harness, muzzle had already been done. For some dogs, the key to engaging them might not be ball play, it could be other toys or treats. But if there is any way to make it a game or even just a zone-out, mind-clearing break in the day, it can keep tedium at bay.

Widen the circle. Having a fearful dog can, at least in the early stages, dominate your life and disrupt social and work routines. As soon as your dog starts to become more settled with you, extend the circle of acquaintances, but do it slowly. Keep it safe and allow your dog to make the approaches. Make sure no-one (human or canine) feels under pressure. If you plan for this at an early stage, you’ll have people your dog knows and trusts who can step in and help when you need it most.

And finally, celebrate the wins, however small. Progress with very fearful dogs often has to be measured in micro steps. If you make it a mission to tune in to every mini success, you’ll get better at recognising what works best to build your dog’s confidence. And it will keep spirits up when the happy, relaxed relationship you’d hoped for still seems a long way away.

Thomson died many years ago. Canine-in-Charge at Sociable Dog HQ now is small, busy and bossy. She couldn’t be more of a contrast to Big T - except in one respect. There is no human activity that she feels cannot be adapted to include a game of ball. Fortunately, in this, I have been trained by a master.

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