Have a Fearful Dog? These Training Tips Will Help

Dealing with a fearful dog is a challenge. Here are six great tips on how to cope with a nervous dog from a dog mom who parents a truly scared dog.


My dog Mayzie was rescued by Second Chance Animal Rescue in Colorado. At the time, she was approximately two years old and had spent her entire life at the end of a rope in someone’s backyard. She had little food and water and only the frame of a drawer for shelter. To our knowledge, she had never lived in a house until she went to live with her foster mom. When we adopted her two months later, we knew her history and that she was a “sensitive” dog. But beyond that, we really had no idea what we were getting into. Truth be told, I’m not sure we could ever have been prepared for the enormous project we were undertaking. Mayzie was a truly fearful dog. She was quite literally afraid of everything.

A list of “Items That Terrified Mayzie” included: hardwood floors, stairs, the oven, the dishwasher, the BBQ grill, the umbrella on our patio set, the wind, ceiling fans, walks, getting in the car, getting out of the car … Well, you get the idea.

Today, though, with a lot of hard work, patience and cheese therapy, Mayzie is a happy, funny, confident dog. Sure, there are things that still scare her, but she now has the tools she needs to deal with most things that come her way.

But, oh, I remember how challenging those first few days, weeks and years were. And I realize now that while there are many resources out there on how to help a fearful dog, they generally don’t prepare the human for the unique challenges and rewards that come along with it.

So if you’re just starting your journey or have been at it for a while, here are some tips to help your fearful dog.

Scared Dalmatian with wide eyes, whale eyes.
Parenting a scared dog is a challenging but rewarding experience. Photography ©Image Source | Photodisc via Getty Images.

1. A fearful dog’s journey isn’t a straight line — don’t expect it to be

Humans seem to be hardwired to want to get someplace by the shortest, most direct path. When it comes to working with a fearful dog, however, it’s best to accept that you’re going to be taking the scenic route. You should prepare for setbacks and breakdowns, and you may have to take an alternate route every once in awhile.

The fact is, setbacks are going to happen and they’re perfectly normal when it comes to a fearful dog. But that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Even in the worst case scenario, you’re likely not going to go back to the place you started. If you stay the course, you’ll be gaining ground and moving forward toward your goal. So when detours happen, acknowledge them but don’t let yourself be discouraged by them.

2. Learn to enjoy the perspective

After adopting Mayzie, I became hypervigilant about everything around us. What were the potential triggers on our walks? What might cause her to fly into a panic in the house? Frankly, it was stressful because it seemed that Mayzie’s many boogeymen were always lurking just around the corner.

But then I slowly began to realize something: I was seeing things in a way I never had before. Maybe the flowers in one of my neighbor’s gardens had begun to bloom. Or maybe another put up a new fence. And, wow, I never noticed that beautiful weeping willow down the street before. Once I began looking at the world through Mayzie’s eyes, I not only helped her, I received the gift of appreciating the world around me in a whole new way.

3. Revel in small victories when it comes to scared dogs

One morning on our walk, Mayzie stopped dead in her tracks and backed up several steps, her body low to the ground. I immediately became extra alert. What threat had I missed? Then I saw it. After a hard rain the night before, a large dahlia bloom had dropped onto the sidewalk and into our path. Any other dog wouldn’t have even noticed. Not Mayzie. This was new and different, and in the past it might have sent her into a panic to get away. I stood still, studying her for clues on the best course of action.

Not sure how to tell when your dog is scared? These are some signs of a scared dog >>

As I watched, she slowly crept her front legs forward, her neck outstretched, while somehow keeping her back legs poised for flight. Closer and closer she inched until she was finally nose-to-bud with the flower. As soon as she sniffed it, all tension released from her body. “Duh, mom, it’s a flower! And you were so scared,” she seemed to say as she trotted happily away. To anyone else, it might have seemed inconsequential. But to me it was another example of how far this fearful dog had come. I smiled all the way home.

4. There will be tough days and you might want to give up

About two weeks after we adopted Mayzie, we had a really, really bad day. Everything that could go wrong, did. I was at my wit’s end and felt completely in over my head. As my husband and I climbed into bed, I broke into sobs and blurted out, “I don’t know if we can do this! Maybe we should give her back to the rescue.” I shocked even myself by saying that. I was raised to believe that an animal, like a child, is a lifetime commitment, but I was tired and frustrated and simply didn’t know what to do.

My husband looked me in the eye and said, “She’s ours now and we’re not giving up on her. You’ll feel better after you’ve slept.” And you know what? He was right. I woke with a better outlook and renewed determination to help my dog. That wasn’t our last bad day, by any means, but I was better prepared for them in the future.

5. Just remember — a fearful dog does get better

Five years ago, I never would have believed where Mayzie is today. Never. I couldn’t have conceived of a reality where she would love to go for walks or that I could flip on the ceiling fan without a second thought. Yet here we are. Some days/weeks/months, it felt like we were making no progress at all. But looking back on it, I realize that things were getting better even if it was hard to see at the time.

One of the best pieces of advice I got was to start a journal to keep track of progress. I started a blog. You might prefer a notebook. But whatever you do, write it down. It’s so helpful on the difficult days to read about how far you’ve come, how much progress you’ve made and how it really has gotten better.

6. Parenting a fearful dog is one of most rewarding things you’ll ever do

I can’t even begin to count all the hours and money I’ve invested in helping Mayzie become the dog she is today: happy, healthy and with a full, rich life. Is she “normal” (whatever that means)? Well, no, I guess not and probably never will be. She was too far behind the eight ball to ever catch up completely. But every minute and every dollar I’ve spent have been worth it. All the work we’ve done together has created a trust and a bond that is rare and unbreakable. It’s been an amazing, challenging, crazy roller-coaster of a ride, and I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.

Your turn: Do you have a fearful dog? What has been your biggest challenge or reward? Tell us in the comments!

Thumbnail: Photography ©hidako | Thinkstock.

Originally published in 2014. 

Read Next: How to Help a Nervous Dog Overcome His Fears

158 thoughts on “Have a Fearful Dog? These Training Tips Will Help”

  1. Maria Fernandez

    Our little guy is such a sweet sweet boy. He's been doing great but in the last couple of days has started acting afraid of my husband and not coming up to him for head pats and cuddles like he has been doing. We've had him now for 2 months and my husband, who is a giant animal lover (literally, he's 6"5"), is heartbroken. IT seems we do so well with building him up and then every week or two he regresses a bit and we build him back up again. It's never back to his original starting line, so we're trying to remain positive that this is all forward progress.

  2. I can deal with most of my rescue dog's fears and many of them are the same as those included in the post above. Day by day I see tiny improvements (except with the ceiling fan) such as being able to cuddle with him, being less fearful of people we encounter on our walks and moving a bit more in the house. My guy was kept tied outside and really is only comfortable outside. But I can deal with all except for his fear of my mother who lives with me. She did nothing to him except try to hold him as best she could in the back seat of the car on our 1-hour drive from the SPCA. She and I both went to visit him 3 times before bringing him home. She has tried to love him and interact with him but he won't respond. He turns away or walks away at any attempt. This saddens her as he has bonded beautifully with me. He will take treats from her, he has licked her face, hands, and arms, but in the next few minutes turns his back. I have had her sit with me and the dog, but he tends to push up against me. At times he seems frightened of her and has barked when she suddenly appears in a room. There is no other woman he has acted this way with, even a woman close to my mother's age. While the article above made me feel better and that I am on the right path, it is 5 weeks now and NO improvement with him and mom. Any suggestions?

  3. This is a fabulous article. Would you be willing to share this on my blog? I am just starting out a blog about dog training and this article spoke to me. Very well written and has given me new insight too

    1. Hi Kareen,
      I adopted a dog that is terrified of EVERYTHING! My biggest concern is her nails need clipped and I can't even get a hold of her or even get a harness on her. She almost always runs away from me. And I can't catch her! Advice or any ideas PLEASE!

  4. I just wanted to say that this article has helped me a lot. I adopted my 2 year old pup about a week ago and I’ve experienced all the feelings you write about here. I’ve cried and cried and I never usually cry. I’ve had full blown panic attacks and wanted someone to come pick my new pup up immediately. He’s a very sweet dog but since coming from the shelter he has become afraid of everything and everyone. He was not a fearful dog at the shelter but the roadtrip across europe and the transition has affected him a lot. Yesterday a trainer from the adoption agency came over and checked on him and me and she doesn’t think it’s all that bad. She thinks he’ll be ok in a few weeks and I’ll be able to bring him places and have people over without any issues. Today he growls at people who come in the house because he’s scared. When the trainer came in she just walked right in and sat down on the couch and he stopped growling. I’m trying to have hope that it’ll get better and work out. I was so not prepared for feeling this way, nor for him to be scared of everything.

    1. Phillippa Taylor

      I believe your panic attacks affect your new dog. When we bring a Rescue home they’re so grateful for our love.
      Unlike us, dogs emote freely. They smell our feelings and react to protect us – or in trauma – emote in confusion.
      Get yourself grounded and safe. Make it a priority.
      Your dog has survived so much. He’ll show his relief and relax when you finally can.

    2. Phillippa Taylor

      I believe your panic attacks affect your new dog. When we bring a Rescue home they’re so grateful for our love.
      Dogs emote freely. They smell our feelings and react to protect us – or in trauma – emote confusion.
      Get yourself grounded and safe. Make it a priority.
      Your dog has survived so much. He’ll show his relief and relax when you finally can.

  5. I got a little doxie at 8 weeks old. The breeder had another litter 6 months later so we had got him a brother the two were inseparable. Although I fed them cooked there meals,did everything for them the first one became to me what you describe your husband and dogs relationship is like,but the second one is very close to my husband. 13 years has past and mine just past away in September 2020. The second d dog has grown very close to me now. I would suggest to you if you can find one you can spoil,and give love and a good home to. I am now waiting for a litter of doxie pups to be born and my husband and are planning to adopt 2 new baby boys. Please just enjoy the fact that you are giving your guy a great home and loving parents,be patient.

  6. I adopted a hoarder rescue dog in June 2020. I named him Buster, and he is beautiful. He is so soft. WHEN I CAN ROUCH HIM! Right now, he is at the trainers, and has been there for 7 weeks. He is just starting to walk on the leash to go to the bathroom. I have a doggie door which he uses when he is home. He started getting aggressive with my Chihuahua, that’s when he went to the trainer. The trainer is very good, but this dog was so shut down, it was pitiful. He goes to his kennel on command. He comes near when I call him. He plays with doggie games I have. He loves food and treats. He is just now playing with toys, but only on his own. Not with me. The only way I can touch him, is to have him go to his kennel, reach in and put the leash on. Put the kennel on my lap, and let him come out. He will lay on my lap and let me pet him, scratch him without holding the leash. He will even take a nap. The second I unsnap the leash he is gone. The trainer brings him over for visits, and I see progress, but oh how slow. The trainer is going out of town this weekend, so I have him home. Got a few ideas to try. He is a Chi mix, and is about 2 years old. So far, I have paid well over $1,500.00 on neutering, shots, teeth cleaning and trainer. I guess you can tell I am in this for the long haul. I have thought about giving him back, but my heart says no. Reading these articles has given me hope and ideas. I would like to thank everyone for their posts. Please know that they help others coping.

  7. My girl Lacey was a pup my sons dog had. My problem is she is afraid of everything including my boyfriend who she has known since birth. If he gets out of his chair she freaks out, if he walks by her she freaks out. He gives her treats tries to sit by her and pet her but it doeasn’t help however if he is in bed she will jump up in the bed and want him to pet her. All and any help would be appreciated please I’m at my witts end and causing a problem between me and my boyfriend.

  8. I rescued a dog from a local shelter a week ago. Because of covid we were not allowed to go in the shelter but they brought him outside so I could meet him and he was shaking when I first saw him and continued to shake the whole way home. He runs for cover when anybody comes in the room. He does not like to walk/go outrside. I finally made him a hiding place that I can get to if I need to get to him instead of him just bolting and hiding wherever he can run to. I’ve never had an experience with a dog like this…so scared of everything. When I picked him up from the shelter I thought he was just scared because of the shelter and the noise there. Turns out he’s scared of everything. I googled it trying to find some help as to what to do and how I can help him and yours is the first article that I found. He is part beagle He looks like a beagle but he has got a little of something else in him also. He is the sweetest dog I’ve ever seen in my life when it’s just he and I. He will sleep on my pillow with me I mean he’s just the opposite though when there’s anybody else around or if we go outside.

  9. I have a mixed breed dog, produced by a male boxer and a female pitbull.
    No solution for this demon dog he escapes from all currents, if he lets go of any place he gets totally hurt. With rain, thunder and even sometimes with strong winds he starts to go crazy and wants to go inside the house. If only he were quiet, he is very fearful and does not stop and if you try to repudiate him he threatens to bite you. This dog is really weird he predicted a rain 10 hours early to happen and in that time he is unbearable.
    He has been with us for 7 years and is driving everyone crazy.
    I’ll kill him.

  10. Fearful dogs are some of the hardest candidates to rehabilitate, often because a lot of their reprogramming required involves overcoming negative reinforcement. Check this list of some competent dog trainers https://bit.ly/best-dog-trainers

  11. Jessica Cambridge

    I had a lot of problems with my 7 months Clara , she’s a belgian malinois , she had bad behaviour like barking on people in the street and even tried to attack some , luckily a friend recommended a unique training for me wich helped A LOT ! After weeks of home training in my backyard Clara is now obedient , behaves in the street and lovely as never before.
    This is the training that helped me : https://bit.ly/3ggKxGN

  12. I have a 5yr old dog that I adopted (not sure of her previous life and how she was cared for) and I am struggling with her fearfulness. Our walks are cut short because either a sound or the surrounding area scares her and she gets close to the ground and pulls me all the way home. I’m not sure how to help her and overcome her fear. I want her to be comfortable on walks and have fun. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

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  15. I have been rescuing abused And fearful animals for over 25 years. The horror stories I could tell you would blow your minds of what these animals suffered with. They all came with their own unique set of fear baggage and I was truly in awe with each one of them for giving me a chance to show them that not everyone is mean. The day one turned on me, two days after he arrived, I was malled…never in my wildest dreams had I expected that to happen. My neighbor took me to the hospital 36 puncture marks from neck to finger tips. Took 2 years before I could use my hand normally. And another 2 before I started over; after working through my own fear. My current guy is a Westie he was left in a garage with his siblings. We worked through a lot of his fears, except, To this day he will not drink fluids out of a bowl, I give him 5ml ever two hours or he just gets to dehydrated, and he pees when he sees men

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