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5 Mistakes People Make With Fearful Dogs

Let’s continue our discussion about fearful dogs from a broader perspective. It’ll be VERY clear next week why I’m revisiting some of these key points. I promise, but for now, let’s talk mistakes.

1. Assuming that kindness and intention are enough.

Truly, clinically, abnormally fearful dogs don’t “get” our brand of compassion. They’re so scared 99% of the time that they cannot even think straight, let alone interpret our “good” intentions that to them just look like scary @#$@# threats.

2. Not giving fearful dogs enough time to adjust, build bonds, or relax.

I’m always amazed and saddened by how many people assume a new-to-them dog can be trusted off leash or in intense situation in a matter of weeks or months.

Many fearful dogs have extreme FLEE responses. They will run … away from you … and not come back for love or money.

For many, many months after we first adopted Lilly in 2004, she wore TWO collars and TWO leashes when we were out in public, just in case she slipped out of one. My friends in the rescue community have MANY tales of newly adopted dogs getting loose, lost, injured not long after going “home.”

3. Not recognizing and honoring a dog’s fear cues and behaviors.

These are not crazy dogs. These are not stubborn dogs. These are not willful dogs.

Sometimes they cannot respond to our requests — even for a simple SIT — because they are too scared.

4. Punishing fear-based behaviors.

Trust me. I know it can be frustrating to work with a fearful dog, but hollering at them or punishing them only makes things worse.

5. Pushing dogs too far, too fast.

Because I didn’t realize just how fearful Lilly is, I indeed spent the better part of a couple years thinking we could work out way through it with action.

The Big Picture

If you learn ANYTHING from us, please let it be this:

You cannot change how a dog behaves, until you change how she feels.

And the best way to do that is through classical conditioning. Our behaviorist told me that I’d done FAR too much operant conditioning with Lilly and not enough classical to get her over the fear hump.


For much more info on fearful dogs, please visit our friends at

Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related. I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.

kate - July 28, 2010

Happy to have come across your site!

I have been blessed with dogs who are challenged socially 😛

I love Dr. Overall’s and Leslie McDevitt’s work and can so relate to your points.


kate and my rebels

    Roxanne Hawn - July 29, 2010

    We’re happy you found us too, Kate. We’ve used many of Dr. Overall’s and Leslie’s ideas over the years.

Barbara and Daisy - July 8, 2010

Daisy spent the first 8 yrs of her life as a breeder dog in a puppy mill. She was so frightened when she came here that she ran blindly off the porch and basement stairs, and was in danger of seriously injuring or killing herself. She will never be outside our fenced yard without a leash. What you said about giving time to adjust and relax is so important. I’d add, protect the dog from well meaning people who want to pick her up, hug her, etc. Well meaning people, but terrifying for the dog.

Karen Workman - July 8, 2010

I’d like to add that some dogs won’t flee, they’ll fight. As the owner of a very conflicted pit bull/lab mix, my fearful boy fights. It’s a reaction that is as much if not more dangerous than a flee-er. He gives tons of subtle signs of fear that I’ve become quite adept at reading, but when the situation becomes overwhelming, he goes right to the bite (never directed at me or people he knows, but he is very fearful of new people). Fear aggression is often misinterpreted and it took us a long time to figure out what was behind his behaviors. Now that we know, it’s incredible the things we’ve overcome.

Sheryl - July 7, 2010

I’m glad I read this. You are so right…a fearful dog will run and keep running. I had to learn that the hard way one time when we had our dog outside during fireworks. Luckily, we retrieved her, but the mad dash she made really took us by surprise.

Living Large in Our Little House - July 7, 2010

Glad you got on your high horse, Roxanne. 🙂 Thank you for these reminders. We will be picking up our new baby, a 2-year-old black lab rescued from the kill shelter in our nearest city this weekend. As you know, we live way, way out in the country and our large dogs are allowed outside off leash. I was just wondering yesterday how long I should keep the new one on-leash before giving the off leash thing a try. Of course, your post reminded me that I will not know that until I assess her and her fears. It could be a week, as it was with our foster boy, or it could be more like a few months, or never.

Carol Bryant - July 6, 2010

The big picture indeed. Very good tips!

Laura, Lance, and Vito - July 6, 2010

Very well said. And I absolutely LOVE your big picture statement.

    Roxanne Hawn - July 6, 2010

    Thanks, Laura … and everybody. I got a bit on my high-horse, but there you go.

MarthaAndMe - July 6, 2010

These are good tips. I think sometimes we are tempted to treat dogs like people in these situations – as if we can reason with them and be kind to them and it will get them through it.

    Roxanne Hawn - July 6, 2010

    It’s so true … we think, oh, they’ll understand, but a truly fearful dog is working from the oldest part of the brain and simply cannot even think straight. They only feel the fear and react. That’s it.

Alisa Bowman - July 6, 2010

So true about not having a new dog off leash, even a non fearful one. You never know when a dog is going to go after a bunny or a deer or something. Then, with a new dog, he doesn’t know where “home” is.

This was a really enlightening post. I enjoyed reading it.

Susan - July 6, 2010

Very well said, Roxanne!

Sam - July 6, 2010

Even as someone who, like you, knows a lot of these things already, it’s really good to hear them again. Sometimes I do have to stop myself and say, “you’re approaching this situation the wrong way. Let’s do things differently.”

I’m SUPER interested to hear the reason all of these ideas are being revisited. Can’t wait ’til next week.

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