Helping My Dog Face Her Fears

Dogs barking through the fence? No problem. Elevator rides? A piece of cake.

A broom leaning against the wall? That’s the scariest thing ever to my dog.

I need to help my dog face her fears. Or stop sweeping the floor.

Honey the golden retriever on the grass.

I’m afraid that by the time all the snow melts I won’t know what this green stuff is.

Just A Little Fearful

My dog Honey is not a fearful dog. She has no serious issues.

But she’s a little on the timid side.

Honey will never be the dog who spots an open gate and takes off on a puppy adventure. Which is a good thing since our back gate has been frozen open for weeks.

She is not going to be one of those dogs who leaps off the boat in excitement. Or who climbs half way up a tree chasing a squirrel before she realizes she can’t get down.

All of this is fine with us.

But she’s also cautious around things that could move unexpectedly around the house.

  • A mop leaning against the wall that could fall to the ground if you bump it
  • That kitchen door that shuts quickly if you nudge the doorstop holding it open
  • The pile of pillows stacked  haphazardly in the closet

Cautious enough that she’ll refuse to walk by one of these scary objects. Or she’ll allow food that falls out of her Kong to collect behind that scary door.

How can I help my dog face her fears?

Honey the golden retriever licks her lips.

Well you could stop putting that camera in my face for one thing.

Honey’s Fear Busters

We’ve actually been successful at calming some of Honey’s worst fears. Here’s what works for us.

Training

Learning new things boosts Honey’s confidence. It doesn’t matter what it is. It’s the learning itself that seems to build her up.

Not only has Honey become more confident from clicker training her to do simple tasks, but training has helped her cope with scary things in the moment.

Honey is not usually frightened of thunderstorms or fireworks (hallelujah!). But we did have an early morning thunder boomer last summer that put her uncharacteristically on edge.

After letting her up on the bed to sleep was not enough to relax her, I took her downstairs to work on the trick we were learning at the time—shutting the kitchen cupboards with her nose. Once the clicker came out, Honey was able to ignore the pyrotechnics outside and involve herself in trying to get that click that announced a coming treat.

With the storm still raging, Honey was happy to return to her crate and sleep peacefully the rest of the night.

Honey the golden retriever is cold in Fall Creek.

You think I’m afraid of swimming. But I don’t want to get my ears wet. They take forever to dry.

Food Toys

Honey saw her first food toy when she was eight weeks old.

It was a small soda bottle I filled with kibble and balanced on the opening. She has to knock it over to get some food to spill out.

She’s eaten nearly every meal from a food toy since then.

Honey is not food motivated enough to ignore any scary thing to eat. But she will become so involved in picking up her Kong and tossing it around the room to get her meal out that her stress levels around scary things go way down.

Family Ties

As we get closer to moving aboard a sailboat with Honey, I worry about how she’ll cope with the big change. But we’ve already seen one hopeful sign that she’ll do just fine. And it has to do with the way she reacted to a boarding ramp.

Besides things that move, Honey also doesn’t like walking on ramps, at least not if they’re lying flat on the ground. (What is I don’t understand is why she’s fine walking over street grates, which freaks most dogs out to no end—but that’s another post for another day.)

Honey hated the ramp we got to help her board the boat so much she’d leave liver treats sitting on it rather than take one little step. Liver treats, people!

But once Honey realized that we were going on the boat, and the ramp was what would help her be with us, she had no problem with it. Here’s video proof:

I’ve also been able to coax her past precariously leaning brooms and stacks of boxes while making sure to give her a big cuddle for coming to me past such scary things.

The Less Scary Boat

For a dog with Honey’s particular set of fears, a boat is a great place. Everything is bolted down. Doors latch shut.

If something falls over (like your mast), you have a much bigger problem than a frightened dog.

But even more importantly, I think that the work we’ve done over the past five years with training, food toys, and good old affection has gone a long way to making our timid girl a little more brave.

She’ll never be Rin Tin Tin. But I think she’ll be happy by our sides no matter where we are. And we’ll continue to help our dog face her fears like she comforts us when we’re facing our own.

Honey the golden retriever in snow.

I’m afraid that if it snows any more I won’t be able to walk.

Your Turn: What’s your dog afraid of? Have you found any good ways to help him or her be less afraid?

 

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Comments

  1. So happy for Honey (and you!) that was amazing. Harley had a great fear of sewer drains. Those that are under the sidewalks. He would pull so hard, he’d choke himself. Yet he’d try really hard to inch himself closer at times to see what was down there. I have spent many a rainy or snowy chilly morning allowing him all the time he needed to get comfortable inching closer each time. It’s taken years, but we can now walk past without making a scene!

  2. Blueberry still has fear from loud noises – but she’s so much better than she used to be. She has her safe place and as long as I am with her in that place, she’ll actually fall asleep. She’s come a long way from her first days with me. I think it has helped that I have never forced her to approach something that is scary to her – often I’ll try to treat her to get closer to it to check it out, but if she doesn’t want to, we move on. Usually, she ends up approaching the scary object on her own and finding out it’s no big deal.

    I remember the second time I had a foster dog – that dog was over the top fearful of a LOT of stuff. One day, my neighbor was working on his roof and she was petrified. Not knowing any better, and getting really bad advice and then stupidly heeding that advice, I forced her to stay outside. Of course, that method totally didn’t work in helping her overcome the scary thing, and I ended up putting her back several steps in her training. I felt just horrible and after that, found better, kinder, more effective ways to help her overcome her fears. Live and learn, I guess.

  3. Torrey is like Honey, she is much happier hanging out in the house than running down a critter. She can be a bit timid with weird stuff that moves suddenly, but we don’t have a lot of that going on. She has a comfort zone, and she likes it there.

  4. Zach, our younger dog, is fearful of men. He was that way when we got him at 4.5 months. We’re rural, so he doesn’t get many opportunities to work on his fear (and it’s a 40 min drive into town where such opportunities would be more frequent). There aren’t many men in our lives, so it’s not a big issue, and we always give him room to avoid the men that do visit.

  5. Rumpy is fearful of the smell of gasoline, which isn’t a problem usually. But I have come across it before when I left the mower out to cool in the summer or we were passed by a car with a gas line leak.

  6. That’s awesome that Honey is getting over her fears! She is too cute!

    Both of my girls were rescued as adults. With Zoe we have no idea about her past history and with Phoenix all we know is that firefighters took her out of a burning house and her people never came back for her. Phoenix is afraid of strangers, kids and the smoke alarm. She is also dog selective. Zoe is afraid of loud noises and it’s actually getting worse over the years. It started out as her being afraid of fireworks and now it’s progressed to her even being afraid when the upstairs neighbors bang around their apartment.

    With Phoenix, the first year was pretty rough because she was extremely skittish but hyper. I never let anyone try to pet her and never pushed her into doing anything scary. We also work really hard to make sure our smoke detector does not go off. We place a fan underneath it when we cook so if there is any smoke it gets blown away from it. With her people fear, I’ve taken her to grocery store type places and clicked and treated every time someone passed by us. We will have had her 3 years this coming October and she’s just now starting to great people on outings.

    Zoe’s fear is much tougher. You just can’t predict every little noise. Most of the time I just have to manage it because her fear is so severe. We are actually starting to look into anxiety medication because living with so much anxiety is not good. We do use herbel remedies, too. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t it just depends on what’s going on. I used to be able to do the same thing with her as you do with Honey, get her interested in trick training or food toys but it no longer works. Sometimes having Phoenix around helps, though. She can see that Phoenix is fine and not worried so sometimes she will snap out of it quicker. A lot of the time, I just have to crate her until she feels better.

  7. Not sweeping would be nice. :-) I love how you worked with Honey on the doggy ramp!
    Dante is only scared when daddy shoots his bow, I think the woosh and thwack noises are what bother him.
    Ziva? She’ll startle at a sudden loud noise but nothing major.

  8. She definitely seems brave, and you’ve given her quite a confidence boost with all that training. The one thing Laika feared was the vacuum, but we got her desensitized to it with treats and just relaxing by it. Now she doesn’t even seem to notice when it’s turned on. My last dog was terrified of thunderstorms and I had a hard time calming him down.

  9. Still working on that one. the only dog that were dealing with new fears (besides Brut of course) is Silver. As she has aged, she’s become scared of thunder storms, snow blowers, and raising voices (even if they are in excitement). I started playing treat games with her to keep her mind busy and that works the most. We haven’t had a thunderstorm in some time, so I have yet to encounter that again. God forbid we fight or get excited, she runs out of the room. Haven’t figure that one out yet.

    I think what you’re doing with Honey is great! I can’t imagine having a dog that was timid. Our dogs are so strong willed.

    Can’t wait to hear your adventures on the water! That’s going to be so cool! Good luck!

  10. So wonderful how you’ve been working through all that with Honey. Cooper is pretty much afraid of everything, but his “broom” is a baby gate. Even if it’s just leaning against the wall, he doesn’t want to walk past it. We have gates on three doors, and he gets rattled when we open and close them. To help him overcome it – and since he already knew “open” and “shut” with our cabinet doors – I’ve been teaching him how to nose open and nose closed the gate that separates Newt’s litterbox. We’ve made huge progress. He went from fleeing the room if I opened the gate to running over to shut it for me! I’m going to try to film him doing it soon, but it’s been huge. (It did not, however, generalize to the other two gates…)