The ONLY Way To Break Through Fear Is…

I’m getting a Master’s Degree in fear.

First, we worked with a trainer to decrease Honey’s fear of the bike cart. Then we fostered the extremely fearful Cherie. And now, I’m months away from terrifyingly transforming my life by setting out for a life at sea.

I won't fear storms because I'm learning to sail my ship.

I haven’t written my thesis yet. But I’ve learned a lot. And one thing I do know is there is only two ways to break through fear.

Do you want me to tell you what they are?

Food Won’t Break Through Fear

One of my neighbors has adopted a beautiful dog. This dog is so lucky. She has landed in such a loving home.

It’s a good thing because she’s pretty fearful.

Her person tells me that loud trucks, flashing lights, and thunderstorms are particularly scary. But even in our backyard, with Honey doing her best flirting, this pup was frightened.

What was lovely to see was that she responded to her fear by getting closer to her person. It looks like she’s already found someone she can trust.

But her person said something to me that got me thinking. “We’re still looking for that treat that’s so delicious she can’t resist it. When she’s really scared, she won’t take a treat.”

I remember our foster dog Cherie being too fearful to eat. But it’s not because I didn’t have yummy treats.

It’s because food doesn’t break through fear. No matter how yummy it is.

And I know from personal experience.

What Fear Feels Like

The first time I felt fearful on the water was the first season I learned to sail, just a few years ago.

We were one of the few boats out on a cold and gloomy October day when the winds started gusting.

Although inexperienced, we knew we should try to depower the boat by taking down some sail. So I crawled up on the cabin top, clung to the mast, and tried to figure out how to bring the sail down on a boat we had sailed only a few times.

No, I wasn’t scared then. I knew that I would slide right off the slippery deck if I didn’t hold on. So I kept a death grip with one hand while working and wrapped both my arms around the mast when a big gust heeled us over more.

But Mike was scared for me.

I didn’t become really scared until I gave up trying to lower the sail and realized we’d have to return to the dock in high winds. It felt like the next gusty wind was going to turn the boat on its side.

I love cheesecake. But if someone had offered me a huge slice of Lindy’s cheesecake in the cockpit of that heeling sailboat I would have smashed it in their face. So I understand why a dog who won’t take a treat when scared.

I love cheesecake.

Cheesecake is the food of the gods. But not when I’m scared.

Luckily, with me back in the cockpit, Mike recovered his courage and got us home safely.

I still remember it as one of the scariest moments of my life.

And yet I recall being out on the water under similar weather conditions a few years earlier in a kayak and feeling absolutely fearless. If anything, my kayaking trip was more dangerous.

But paddling a plastic boat in a lake roiled with whitecaps and working to cross the waves at the right angle so I wouldn’t swamp my cockpit felt more relaxing than a wet ride on a sailboat built with a heavy keel to resist tipping over.

There are two reason the kayak trip was less scary. And they are the only two ways to break through fear, whether it’s human or canine.

Two Things Break Through Fear

So what was different about kayaking in a storm compared to sailing in a storm? And what does this mean for helping a fearful dog?

I can sum up the difference in two words: control and experience.

Although the wind and waves were doing their thing, I paddled and steered the kayak myself. I felt the movement of the waves and responded to them. I felt in control.

And although I didn’t have thousands of hours of kayaking experience, I grew up in the water and understood the feeling of floating close to the surface. My past (safe) experiences taught me not to be afraid.

On the sailboat, I only felt under control when I was working on the sail. Although that was much more dangerous than riding in the cockpit, the sense of being in control made me feel better. And seeing me slipping and sliding on the wet deck made my husband feel worse.

woman at sailboat tiller

Sailing is a relaxing sport on a low wind day. See how calm the water is?

Gaining more experience sailing, particularly spending time on the tiller, has also lessened my fear. And it’s a good thing. Because 98% of the people who hear I want to live aboard a sailboat tell me how scary it will be.

So how can we help our fearful dogs gain a sense of control and experience to lessen their fear?

BAT Helps Dogs Feel In Control

Grisha Stewart, a Seattle dog trainer, answered for me the question: “What is the best reward for a frightened dog?”

Why it’s getting to move away from whatever is frightening her. Duh!

And yet until I read about Behavior Adjustment Training (or BAT), I never thought of this.

Modern dogs have very little control over their lives. To keep them safe (and from irritating others), we walk them on a leash. Where we want to go. And when we want to go.

One of the main principles of BAT is to reward your dog for calm behavior near something scary by walking them away from it. Eventually your dog learns that a calm response means she can move away.

But to get that calm response, you have to start with the scary object (or person, other dog, truck etc.) far enough away that your dog is below her reacting threshold. (To see an example of this training method in action, check out this video.)

One of the best things about BAT is that you can practice it on any walk. As long as you spot the scary item far enough away that your dog doesn’t react fearfully toward it before you realize what’s happening.

If rewarding our dogs for reacting calmly to a fearful situation means we’re allowing them to walk away from it, how do they gain experience with scary things?

Gain Experience Slowly

Honey’s trainer Russ taught me to figure out the slowest possible progression to help Honey do something scary. And then slow it down even more.

I’ve learned that it’s impossible to go too slowly when you’re working with fear.

Mixed breed foster dog from Tompkins County SPCA

One thing Cherie was not afraid of? Looking cute.

Russ taught us a clever technique for giving our foster dog Cherie a safe spot while letting her gain more experience with scary things. And it only took a clicker, a towel, and some liverwurst.

We were lucky that Cherie felt totally comfortable in the house. So it was easy to teach her to “go to bed” on a towel using the method shown in this video. (Tip: some dogs get scared from the noise of the clicker. Putting the clicker in your pocket may help. Or if they’re really freaked, just quietly say “yes” as your cue that she’s done what you wanted.)

Once she was rock solid in the kitchen, we moved the towel to other parts of the house. And then the back porch. And then the yard.

Eventually, I started tossing the towel over my shoulder when I took her for a walk. Once Cherie would “go to bed” on an early morning walk with nothing scary in sight, we started finding scary things to practice with.

On recycling day, I’d ask her to go to bed while the truck was many blocks away. Cherie never got comfortable enough to sit on her towel when the truck was right in front of us. But she was able to do it when the truck was in sight farther down the street.

By associating the towel with fun and happy times in the house, Cherie slowly began to see it as a safe spot even in a bigger and scarier world.

Eventually she gained experience reacting calmly to the things that scared her the most—strange men and noisy trucks.

Cherie taught me a lot about fear. Her lessons have helped me prepare Honey for life aboard a sailboat. And they’ve helped me deal with my own fear as well.

Hound Mix and Golden Retriever

Another thing that didn’t frighten Cherie was Honey’s bike cart.

Control and Experience

No treat in the world will break through fear. Only feeling a sense of control over our situation and gaining experience can help us deal with fear.

Cherie reacted badly to someone I didn’t expect to frighten her. I became worried that she would bite someone.

Her fear made me fearful.

I gained a sense of control by relying on expert help from Honey’s trainer. And I read books and blogs from people dealing with fearful dogs so I knew what to expect.

And finally, I gained experience by working actively with Cherie instead of ignoring her problems or sheltering her away from scary things so she never had a chance to react badly.

Golden Retriever getting treats in bike cart

I wasn’t the only one in the house who learned from Cherie.

I’m applying those lessons by dealing with my own fear today.

I spend more time at the tiller when we go sailing, gaining both experience and a sense of control.

And maybe, just maybe, I’ll end up brave enough to pursue my Ph.D. in fear.

Your Turn: Have you or your dog dealt with something that really frightened you? What helped?

Resources for the Person Living with a Fearful Dog

Here are a few resources I found helpful in working with fearful foster dogs as well as timid Honey. But nothing is better than working with an experienced and gentle trainer.


Debbie Jacobs – A Guide to Living with & Training a Fearful Dog (Good basic introduction to what to expect living with a fearful dog.)

Patricia McConnell – The Cautious Canine-How to Help Dogs Conquer Their Fears (Short, clear, and easy-to-understand ways to help a fearful dog.)

Turid Rugaas – On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals (One of the best guides to understanding dog body language, a crucial skill for helping a fearful dog.)

Emma Parsons – Click to Calm: Healing the Aggressive Dog (Karen Pryor Clicker Book) (Even if your dog doesn’t react aggressively, this book is an excellent guide to using the clicker to shape new behaviors. I used its methods to teach my dog Shadow not to react to dogs on leash.)


Bringing Up Bella – A beautiful rescue dog from Puerto Rico makes tremendous strides thanks to her loving people, careful training, and help from behavioral medicine.

My Imperfect Dog – He’s scared to go on walks. And he’s scared of the car. But Silas’s person accepts her imperfect dog. And over time, they’re making great progress at dealing with his fears.

Fearful Dogs – Trainer Debbie Jacob’s blog. Excellent for its insistence on gentle training and relationship building to help a dog get past fear.

Disclosure: The book links above will take you to Amazon. If you order something after clicking this link, I will earn a few cents. But you will not pay more for the item. Thanks for supporting Something Wagging.



photo credits: (sailing my ship quote) photo credit: symphony of love via photopin cc. (cheesecake) zingyyellow…! via photopin cc. Click on images to learn more about the photographers.

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  1. Personally, I think you are hugely brave to want to live on a sail boat. The fact that you are moving that direction means you have overcome your fear.

  2. None of us are real fearful, but when a fear pops up, we work through it slowly and try to get rid of it, we don’t avoid it.

  3. Edie Chase says:

    The DINOS (dogs in need of space) website is a great resource as well.

  4. I think totally avoiding ‘scary’ things one of the hardest things to get used to. I know with BD I did a lot of totally avoiding other dogs which made it harder for him. I did get better at reading his and other dogs body languages but since moving out I find it harder. I think winter was partly to blame which meant we were walking in the dark and ran into fewer people, I want to get that skill back and I think I need to get over my fear of judging a situation wrong and put myself back out there.
    However there are still occasions where I go all out to avoid running into another dog and that’s when I know Mity is coming. If BD has had a bad experience he would be on edge around Mity and I just won’t take that chance.

    • For me, a helpful concept is to distinguish between training and management. In some situations, it’s best just to move our dogs as quickly as possibly past the scary thing.

      Training comes in when we can control the circumstances and can work toward a specific task.

      I used to walk my last dog, Shadow, at 5 a.m. to avoid eruptions at other dogs. But we’d do training by sitting on the porch with treats and rewarding her for looking at a dog and then looking at me while remaining calm. If things go overwhelming, we could go inside.

      It’s smart for you to think about BD’s relationship with Mity too.

  5. I bet you know this, but you each need a safety harness and safety line (there are many options), and you must wear them when you are on deck alone and when you are on deck together, in bad weather. We spent 16 years on board a 32 foot sailboat, enjoying 6 of those years with our CWC, Charlie. Happy adventures!

    • Yep, we’re definitely investing in good safety measures. It’s better to stay on board than to recover someone overboard.

      I’ve even found inflatable PFDs for dogs that would allow Honey to wear protection that’s less bulky than a conventional life jacket.

      I’d love to hear about your sailing adventures. We’re also looking at boats in the sub 35 feet range and people keep trying to push us larger.

  6. Control and experience is exactly right. Pierson is absolutely terrified of the vet. I did use treats in order to try to encourage him, but I used them over a period of time before his actual vet visit. We went in and sat in the lobby calmly. No one confronted him. And he got an occasional good boy and a treat just for sitting there. I also allowed him to explore some of the exam rooms when they weren’t in use. We did this for several days before his exam. As a result, he did better on his visit. But we need more BAT in order to help him long term.

    • That’s wonderful that your vet was open to your slow approach with Pierson. Excellent example for teaching a dog to associate something positive with a potentially scary place.

      I think people should do the same thing with their cats.

  7. BAT exercises worked extremely well with Harley and those sewers along the curb. He’s gotten so confident now that he’s moving towards them and looking closer and closer. We’ve come a long way with this – he used to be terrified and pulled away like crazy. It took years, but understanding what he was going through and learning how to help him overcome this (which we’re still working on) has been rewarding. Great post my friend, very informative.

    • Way to go, Harley!

      It’s great to read about your success. So many people would rather avoid fearful things but it doesn’t do anything to help our dogs. And if the scary thing is right outside Harley’s house? Oh boy!

  8. How did I miss this?! Thanks so much!