Living with, working with and loving a scared dog can be hard. Fear can be learned, or it can even be inherited, but either way it’s hard to witness and we just want our dogs to be OK and enjoy life. It’s in some ways easy to get things slightly wrong when trying to help a scared dog though. Let’s take a look at what we can do to make a big difference in little, easy steps.
Staring in dog language means paying attention, attention when they are scared can convince your dog they might be in danger. When a dog stares at another dog it can often mean confrontation. When a well-mannered dog meets another dog, they always look away, glancing away regularly to break any growing tension. So even though you love your dog very much, drop the stare and take the pressure off.
Give Them Space
Giving your dog space means that you don’t continually try to soothe your dog. We humans tend to be very touchy, feely, checky if we think someone we care about is struggling. Dogs are different to that and any direct attention can be intimidating. When I bring a new scared dog home, I tend to let them do their own thing at least for the first few days. Being able to have authority over their body and the space around them helps them to feel secure much sooner.
Give Them Somewhere To Be
A space of their own which won’t be invaded is crucial for feeling secure. It doesn’t need to be a crate, a bed with space around them could be enough. Somewhere near you but somewhere they can truly call their own. A space and time to decompress when they want to.
Don’t Prioritise Walks
I once saw a video online where a scared dog was being forced out on a walk by someone with a tennis bat and determination. The poor dog was terrified. And I have to admit I was outraged. Walks don’t have to be taken and a walk break can work wonders for a dog who is starting to destress at home. Going out into the scary world can cause stress levels to rise, so insisting a scared dog goes for walks can cause a stress and fear yoyo response in the dog’s body. First they must feel secure, then walking can come later.
Give Them Relaxing Choices
An opportunity to really relax might be to spend half an hour with a snuffle mat, sniffing out tiny bits of food in their safe space. It might be to find food on the lawn outside if they feel their garden is safe. Or it could be to spend half an hour with a well stuffed food toy, knowing that no-one will disturb them.
Assess What They Eat
This is surprisingly important. A dog who eats highly coloured and flavoured dog food may have an emotional reaction the anti-nutrients within it. You know when we eat awful food, and it leaves us feeling a bit jittery or low? The same happens with our dogs if they only eat commercial or additive laden food. Fresh, real food is much better for a dog than commercial long life processed dog food that’s well-marketed but not well made.
Don’t Rush Them
Scared dogs need time and space more than anything. They will never improve if they are rushed and forced into situations or decisions, and if they never improve they will never feel better. So more than anything, allow them agency over their bodies, space and choices. Let them live alongside you and instead of looking directly at them, look in the same direction as your scared dog. They will take tentative steps towards bravery, but they must be given the time and space to do so.
Helping a couple of really scared dogs to cope is one of my greatest achievements, and it will be one of yours too. Good luck.