Maybe Your Dog Doesn’t Have To Be Fearless

There’s always someone willing to make you feel bad if your dog is afraid to do something.

But are they right? Maybe your dog doesn’t have to be fearless.

Honey the golden retriever is afraid of getting her picture taken.

I’m a little scared of having my picture taken. But that doesn’t seem to stop my human.

A Happy Dog

Few things will tug at a dog lover’s heart strings like video of a puppy mill rescue cowering in a corner.

Even dogs that had a better start in life may be fearful in new situations or around dogs or people if they weren’t gently exposed to them as puppies.

Hound Mix and Golden Retriever

My foster-sister Cherie was afraid of everything. Except for my bike cart. Maybe it’s not so scary after all.

As you work with a fearful dog, you’ll probably meet folks who tell you to stop coddling your pup. I suspect they’re the same people who think tossing a child into the deep end of a swimming pool is the best way to teach them to swim.

Even if you know they’re jerks, it’s hard not to be affected by their words. And to sometimes wish your dog wasn’t so fearful.

What if we saw fearfulness in dogs as part of a spectrum of personality traits that makes them who they are instead of problems to be corrected?

I’m NOT saying that we shouldn’t work to help seriously fearful dogs feel more comfortable in this world. A dog can’t live a normal, healthy life if she can’t walk across a street without her tail tucked between her legs or erupts in defensive barking every time he meets a stranger.

But after addressing our dog’s worst fears, is it so bad to just manage their lives to keep them comfortable?

Honey the golden retriever takes the ramp to the dock.

Walking my ramp is a lot less scary than jumping off the boat.

The Dog Who Hated To Be Alone

Honey had some fabulous playmates at our last marina. One was a sweet beagle mix who lived on a boat on the same dock.

There wasn’t a thing wrong with G. She loved everybody she met. She had great dog manners and a friendly play style. She listened well to her people and she rarely barked.

It wasn’t until her people tried to attend a party in the boater’s lounge that we discovered G’s only fear. She hated to be left alone.

As we left our boat, we heard G barking and saw her scrambling to get under the netting on the boat so she could jump off and find her people. Afraid she’d find herself in the water being swept away by the current, we found her people at the party.

For the rest of the evening, they took turns staying with G.

Later we heard about the many things G’s family had tried: behavioral modification, comforting scents, Thundershirts. But nothing made her happy except for having someone nearby.

Luckily, they had found an excellent in-home dog sitter for those times they just couldn’t have G with them. But for the most part, where her people went, G went too.

And living on a boat, that was an easy choice to make.

They had plenty of outdoor dining options. When you live on a boat and can enjoy the best scenery life has to offer, where else would you go?

While I know her people hated to know G was afraid when they left, they created a life that worked for all of them. And one that kept G happy.

Honey the golden retriever with her cushion o the boat.

I’m not afraid to be left alone. But if I can keep my humans close by sitting on them, I’m happy to do it.

People Aren’t Fearless

Are you fearless?

I bet not.

I’m certainly not.

I’m afraid of heights, small spaces, and cars. I’m not crazy about flying.

I cope with these fears if I have to. But much of the time, I work around them.

I don’t tour tall buildings for fun. I avoid caves and being buried alive. I got rid of my car years ago and only drive if I have to.

And flying? Well, you know I live on a boat, right?

I’ve never had anyone tell me I’m coddling myself because I avoid doing stuff I don’t enjoy. It’s our human right. Right?

So why do some people insist that dogs have to do everything we want them to do regardless of their own preferences or fears?

Honey the golden retriever rolls in the sand.

Riding to the beach in the little boat is not my favorite thing to do. But it’s okay if it gives me a chance to roll in the sand.

Dogs Who Choose

Insisting dogs do what we tell them to do at all times is an outdated notion.

It stems from the belief that our pets are only property. And it shows no understanding that they are sentient beings with desires of their own.

I often choose for Honey. After all, I have higher reasoning power. And I can.

But having a dog who chooses for herself strengthens our relationship. It respects her sentience and autonomy in certain areas.

If Honey doesn’t want to meet a dog, I tell the owner who claims their stalking dog is friendly, “No.”

If Honey wants to cuddle during rocky seas, I make room for her.

If Honey fears a moving grate on a sidewalk and there’s room to walk around it, we do.

Sometimes Honey doesn’t get to choose. Then I work with her to make a scary situation more comfortable for her.

It’s not so different from how I meditate while I’m waiting for my flight to take off. Or practice deep breathing to stay calm around cars.

So keep working with your dog to help her feel comfortable in scary situations. It’s good for both of you.

But once you get to a level where your dog’s anxieties are manageable for the life you expect her to live, relax. Figure out if you’ve met your goals for giving her a happy life. And enjoy your quirky anxious pup.

If I don’t have to become a hang glider just because some idiot thinks I shouldn’t be afraid of heights, maybe your dog is doing okay too.

Maybe being fearless isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. After all, anxiety has been around for thousands of years keeping the human species from doing dangerous things. Maybe it’s not so bad for dogs either.

Honey the golden retriever gets her life jacket on.

We wear life jackets because of thousands of years of evolution? Who knew?

Your Turn: What is a reasonable amount of anxiety to manage with your dog? And when should you keep working to cure it?


  1. Really nice post. I’m used to managing worry with Lilo. The little guy is has a much simpler temperament at baseline — but like many dogs, doesn’t like having a tall stranger reach over his head. So I’m being surprised al over again by how many people, when they see a dog spook away from them, keep reaching. So weird! Why do we do that?

    (I’m managing his greetings more like Lilo’s now; he’ll only meet people who can take direction and ignore him until he’s ready to approach…which is about five seconds. But it’s an important five seconds!)

  2. You are very right. Dogs like people have feelings and fears. It is part of being a living creature. Dogs have a right to have some fears.

  3. I never thought much about a dog’s fear or anxiety until we got Maggie – probably because none of my other dogs were fearful. We’ve worked hard to give her enough self-confidence so that she can enjoy her life.

  4. Ducky’s fears – quite frankly – are strangers in and around her home or our vehicles. We’ve been working with her – or, more accurately, I’ve been working with her – and now I feel that a muzzle will be a greater help. So, I’m ordering one from Amazon today. Then I’ll watch a few videos for guidance on getting her accustomed to it. Other than that, Ducky is pretty fearless.

    Callie developed a fear of thunderstorms as she got older. I was sad for her, but I found ways to calm her. Now Shadow is a bit uncomfortable during storms, but not fearful yet. So I just work around it. Otherwise, she’s pretty much fearless, as was Callie.

  5. I have a dog that is scared of thunder and any other very loud noise (the 4th of July is not a fun night for him!). I don’t mind at all that he is scared and I let him know that it is ok. He was a rescue and I have no idea what he went through as a puppy. He doesn’t like being alone, he doesn’t like seeing boxes in the house. He has quite the personality. But, after letting him know everything is ok every time the thunder comes, he has gotten a lot better about it. He doesn’t cower when he hears it anymore – just lays in his safe place or comes to cuddle.

  6. I find that sometimes fears can get better by facing them, but they don’t always. I don’t like social situations, and few people understand why I avoid them as much as I can. Why? Because I found in that case it didn’t get better the more I tried it. I finally accepted that for myself, even though I still felt pressure to keep trying.
    So I try to give the dogs the same chances. The girls don’t like riding in the car, so I didn’t make them do it more than we needed to in order to go to fun places. When we were showing our house, we had to get them out more, and I did find that Cricket got more comfortable with it, but Sheba didn’t. So I don’t take her for joy rides for no reason. I will take her to go swimming though.
    Luke seems to be getting a bit better with strangers coming to the house. But when it gets to be too much, I put him somewhere by himself to chill out. I imagine there are some people he will never like, and that’s OK.
    So I think it’s worth trying to face those fears, but if there’s not much improvement then maybe it’s time to just accept it.

  7. Cautious but confident…I always say. ღ

  8. http://Patricia%20Dareneau says

    My miniature Aussie barks at unknown dogs. If she senses danger, my large Aussie will cut him off and bark at him like “are you crazy? He’ll eat you for dinner. stop it!”

    • Haha! I hope your mini listens.

      Sometimes dogs are the best teachers of other dogs. The foster dog, Cherie, in the picture taught Honey the bike cart wasn’t so scary. And Cherie relied on Honey to help her go for a walk when a storm was starting.

  9. Separation Anxiety (SA) in a dog can be helped with the help of a knowledgeable trainer or behaviorist. An excellent book and fascinating is Animal Madness. ( And Malena de Martini-Price is now accrediting trainers with knowledge of helping dogs with SA and has a lovely book out, Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs with a wealth of information.

    This is a wonderful blog that puts it all in perspective and is hopeful. I love Pamela’s writing style and content, always so helpful to dogs and their people, too.

  10. I used to be the sort of person who thought that the dog must get over whatever freaked her out. It did help in most of Phee’s initial fears because I treated Phoenix like she was a normal dog (whatever Zoe did, Phoenix did too) and she overcame a lot of the stuff pretty quickly. She learned that it was okay to be touched, that she liked wearing sweaters and that getting her teeth brushed was awesome. She learned that she could trust me.

    I think there definitely needs to be some sort of balance because I know people who will not do stuff to their dogs because they feel like it’s forceful and they are “force free trainers”. I knew someone who refused to give her dog a bath after he peed himself and I honestly just think there’s a fine line between helping them to overcome their problems or helping them to continue to be helpless. We all have to do stuff we don’t like sometimes and it’s the same for our pups.

    That being said, there are things our dogs don’t have to do and I’m slowly accepting the fact that Phoenix just doesn’t really enjoy being around other dogs. I’m not really sure it’s something I can change because she has a long history of not liking dogs. Zoe is terrified of noises and I’m not sure I can “fix” that either. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m actually tired of trying and some days I’m just like whatever “it is what it is”. We will be making an appointment soon for Zoe so I can get sedatives for the 4th of July and with Phoenix I’ve been avoiding places with lots of dogs.

  11. I learned early on that dogs are like people in the sense that they are unique in personality and make-up even if they’re the same breed. Harley, Leo and Jaxson are similar but couldn’t be more different. What bothered Leo, never phased Harley and Jaxson could care less about anything! LOL Harley’s anxiety towards the 4th of July is his alone, and I embrace it with him. Like my fear of squirrels, it’s real and I acknowledge that with him and the fire works. We’re okay with the little quirks… We’ve all got them.

  12. I definitely have fears – like you said, some I don’t feel a need to get over (“no, I don’t want to hold your pet tarantula, thank you”), but others I sometimes have to work around (flying – ugh. But sometimes if you wanna go certain places you just gotta deal – and take the human Rescue Remedy stuff!). So we do the same with Rita. She’s afraid of the ocean (although she loves other bodies of water) so when we go to the beach, even if she’s hot I don’t try to make her go in – it’s her choice. I don’t feel any need to help her work on that fear. Unfortunately she’s also started having anxiety about long car rides, but since we like to take her along on road trips with us, we’re working on that one. (Trying to anyway…) One fear we’ve made great progress with is the broom. She used to be terrified of it and would slink away as fast as possible whenever I got it out. She’s still a tiny bit afraid of it, but just this morning she was following me around while I was sleeping and I was praising her like crazy. It is nice to see them get over some of their fears, but like you said – they don’t need to get over all of them! (Besides, I think having a completely fearless dog might be a little worrisome! They might get themselves into some trouble if they didn’t have *any* fears.)

  13. Excellent post Pamela! This is exactly how I think about our dogs and myself when it comes to fears. There’s nothing wrong with a little anxiety, in fact its natural. I hate when dog owners feel there is a problem and must fix it. We used this philosophy with Brut all the time. I couldn’t control his fears, but I stood right by him as he went through them and vice versa. Best thing I’ve ever done with Brut and the other dogs. And I’m sure Honey appreciates you for letting her be Honey just as well.

    Hope you are having safe travels. Give that girl a squeeze from all of us!

    You can’t have a perfect dog.

  14. Bravo! Sometimes we need to take a look at ourselves when it comes to fear, and then take a look at how our dogs are handling it. One of my biggest pet peeves is the notion that we’re just ‘coddling’ our dogs if we help them manage their fears. If you just throw a fearful dog outside in the middle of a thunderstorm I can’t imagine that the results would be anything other than just adding way more stress & anxiety to the dog.

  15. I think this is great; too many people expect their dogs to be brave when they get scared of things too. I know my cat gets scared here and there as well, but maybe being a “scaredy cat” isn’t so bad in either cats or dogs.