Fearful, Nervous, Anxious Submissive dog by Stan Rawlinson
Socialisation is Critical
Socialisation is so vitally important that it almost outweighs all other considerations. Lack of early socialisation is the most important and common contributing factor causing fearful, anxious and timid dogs
The fear of infections has led breeders and owners alike to make the tragic mistake of keeping their puppies isolated until they have completed their vaccinations. Your dogs can mix with people and other vaccinated dogs from the day they are born.
The two most important timeframes are 0-12 weeks Human Socialisation Period and 0-16 weeks Canine Socialisation Period. Your puppy should have been handled by a minimum of a 100 people by the time it is 12 weeks of age. This should include children adults and pensioners.
The breeder can play a vital part in this by inviting people to handle their puppies at a very young age. The canine socialisation period up to 16 weeks means they should be mixed with other dogs but more importantly other PUPPYS.
Pups learn communication and body language mainly from the boisterous play that happens with other young puppies. Older dogs do not play like pups, therefore puppy classes that allow the pups to play together are absolutely crucial to the puppies future confidence and mental health,
In my are their are lots of trainers and behaviourists that hold puppy classes. Quite a few do not have a clue about how puppies learn and do not allow the puppies to play off lead. Walk out of the classes if they do not allow this interaction. Why do they imagine it is called Puppy Socialisation Classes
By taking this stance they risk ending up with a fearful, timid dog that may become aggressive in later life, (FACT)“95% of all reported dog bites are fear related”. Owners should try and strike a commonsense balance.
The First Weeks are Critical
Puppies, especially from birth through to 16 weeks must be exposed to a variety of experiences including people, places, and meeting other vaccinated dogs (this is perfectly safe). There are many activities and places to take dogs, without endangering their health or their lives, it is vital that you take the time to expose your new pup to as many of these situations as possible.
This is especially true for one’s second or third dog; it is too easy to keep the new pup in the company of the older dogs, depriving him of the opportunity to develop self-confidence of his own, without relying totally on the older dog/s and their protection. There is a vaccination that has been available for years, where the full course can be administered by ten weeks rather than the normal twelve, therefore allowing two extra vital weeks of socialisation. The vaccine is made by Intervet and is called Nobivac D.H.P.P.I/L. I would discuss this with your Vet, if they don’t supply it ask why?
Is your dog pulling on the Lead, Unruly, Bad Recall, Aggressive on Lead, Jumping Up?
See my article and Video Clips on how to stop this. The Jingler
Charlie Was Seriously Abused and Fearful DogGenetics
Having said all that, genetics as well as socialisation ie Nature and Nurture has a major impact on your dog’s ability to cope successfully with life. Some are so solid genetically that whatever life throws at them they just bounce back.
I had a little rescue Jack Russell/Dachshund cross (A Stretch limo Jack) called Charlie, whose early experiences were so horrific, that he should have every hang up in the book. See picture left The abuse and injuries suffered by this poor little dog, includes his legs being fractured and snapped out of the hip socket, Front shoulder plate broken.
He has plates and pins all over him. Each one of his ribs were systematically broken at least three times over a period of 5 months. This abuse started when he was 8 weeks old. He also has many other injuries,.including a fractured skull. At one point he had black eyes and blood coming out of almost every orifice. His head was swollen too almost twice the normal size. Above is a picture of him now, he even looks as if he is smiling.
He was so traumatised he would defecate and urinate and sometimes vomit if people approached him. His brother did not make it. he sadly died of head injuries at the hands of the sadist that then turned his full attention on Charlie. This dog had been treated and put back together on numerous occasions, and each time the family had claimed it was an accident. It was fairly clear this was not the case, especially after taking an X-ray of his ribs. Yet it appears the Vet was prepared to put this poor little dog back together and hand him back for more torture.
I was asked to look at his temperament after a brilliant senior veterinary nurse called Helen managed to convince the owners to give the dog up, with a view to re-homing. She looked after him personally and nursed him back to health. There were no prosecutions!. After meeting him and hearing his awful story, I decided to treat and re-home him with me. He has now made a total and full recovery, his confidence has soared, once again he loves and trusts people, his tail a constant blur is testament to his ability to cope with everything life has thrown at him.
So despite a traumatic start “the abuse started at eight weeks of age ” he managed overcome this and became one of the nicest and most loving dogs I have ever owned. He even became a PAT dog and was the only dog that was allowed into “Shooting “Star” The children’s Hospice in Greater London. Charlie died of heart failure aged 13 years old in 2014 he is sorely missed.
Many thanks go to Helen who impressed me so much that I decided to help her in her quest for more knowledge and understanding of the behaviour of dogs She shadowed me in my work for many many months. Helen is now a behaviourist and trainer in her own right.
A Staffie I asseessed under the dangerous dogs ActUnfortunately not all dogs are so genetically sound. Even with an ideal environment, early socialisation and the perfect owner.
This may not be enough to help these hereditary unstable dogs. Their genetic temperament can and will determine how much improvement in personality and social skills the dog can achieve.
It is about time that some breeders came to the realisation that temperament not looks or conformity, should be the main reason for breeding. Not money or accolades!
I have written an article about the impact Breeders have on our dogs. The dog pictured above is a young staffie i assessed under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991.
Her owner was apprehended by the police in the street. They wrestled the man to the ground and arrested him. She panicked so much she barked and threatened the police and went to nip them.
She was six months old when taken into custody and put in solitary confinement for her actions. I assessed this poor dog for temperament and aggression. Because of that report she was returned to her owner.
However her life and fears will probably be with her until she dies. Just sometimes our police and the law should take into consideration the age and circumstances of the dog when deciding to prosecute.
Is There a Cure?
With fear behaviour, don’t expect a 100% cure. There is no miracle word or magic wand that miraculously changes the dog. do not underestimate the amount of work involved. Yes you can create a less fearful and anxiety ridden dog, but only to the level that the dog can sustain.
The type of owner or trainer that believes that the fearful dog should be thrust headlong into every situation, and that will desensitise and cure them is sadly disillusioned. The old trick of throwing a child into a swimming pool in the hope it would quickly learn to swim, is now hopefully outdated and outmoded.
It achieved nothing except possibly leaving the victim with a lifelong fear of water. Crashing headlong into circumstances the dog cannot cope with will normally produce similar results. You should also give careful consideration as the whether you want, or indeed have the time the stamina and the patience to treat and work with a dog that has irrational fears and phobias.
If you do not possess the above traits, it may be better for both of you to separate, and the dog be re homed with someone that is hopefully experienced with this type of problem, and who has the necessary temperament to deal with a dog that can at the best of times exasperating, and at the worst infuriating.
To gain and improve a dog’s confidence and reduce the level of anxiety and timidity you need to use a consistent, gentle, positive, and measured approach. If you try to speed up the process beyond the capability of the dog, then you will go backwards and your dog’s new found confidence will plummet.
Firstly you must work out the distance where your dog feels fearful of a given situation, let’s say it is another dog, then you need to approach the dog with yours on a lead, do not tighten the lead as this will convey your own anxiety to your dog. Watch your dog’s body language as soon as you see any submissive, aggressive or fearful reaction then stop and back up until the dog is relaxed again.
Once you have found the distance that allows the dog to relax then either treat or play with your dog using a favoured toy. What we are looking for is a positive association whereby the dog sees the feared object which could be anything from a vacuum cleaner to a bus. As a matter of interest dogs will not take food when they are fearful or stressed. This is instinctual as the flight mode kicks in, your dog does not want a full stomach when it may need to run away. This can also be used as an indicator of the dog’s state of mind even if there are no outward signs of distress.
Move in stages a little closer to whatever is causing the aggression or fear keep talking and reassuring the dog, you should be aiming to stay at a distance that allows the dog to feel reasonably relaxed. Gradually, over what could be many sessions you should reach the point where the dog will be comfortable, even though he is near to the object that caused the initial fear/reaction. Irrespective of whether it is another dog, place, or object gradual desensitisation should work for all.
Play Therapy for the Nervous dogPlay or Training Therapy
There is an exception to this, if the dog has been recently frightened say by fireworks, you can actually act very blase and go immediately outside and play with toys such as balls or Frisbees, even a training session.
Praising for actions other than the fear can really help. This can be done whilst the noise is going on.You may therefore overcome a potential problem immediately.
Why this works is the same principal as for instance flying, the plane suddenly hits a lot of turbulence, watch everyone’s first reactions, they look to the Stewards or Stewardesses to see if they are showing anxiety or fear.
If they are calm and acting perfectly normally then our anxiety and fear also starts to dissipate. It is worth trying this tactic when your dog has any negative experience, even though it does not appear too affected, just in case of a potential phobia later on.
One way of getting your dog to overcome certain fear situations is to gain the dog’s attention with treats, toys or your voice as you walk past whatever is causing the problem.
This has a similar effect as using distance because the dog is thinking about something else instead. Therefore the intensity of the fear is reduced .
You will need treats or toys for this method I recommend either cheese, do not use treats to lure dogs keep them out of sight until required. Sit next to the dog and call its name, it is even better if you can get a partner or friend to help on the other side.
Sit the dog between you and your partner or friend and say the dog’s name. If he doesn’t’ look at you, give his ear a gentle touch to gain his attention so that he turns his head towards you,
As soon as this happens praise and treat enthusiastically, or play or use a toy. I always start with treats if possible. get your partner/friend to be in front or behind the dogt o do the same and keep repeating back and forth for a few minutes.
Do this regularly each day for at least a week and for the rest of the dogs life occasionaly, and he/she will always respond enthusiastically whenever its name is mentioned. Never use the dogs name in a negative situation, ie do not scold or punish using his/her name. Once you have got the dog to acknowledge his name then start these exercises:
Making Eye contact can help the timid and fearful dogTo start focused attention say the dogs name and move away from the dog when he move towards you immedietley PRAISEand TREAT/PLAY I use a target word “good” in these circumstances.
Remember do not show the treat until you are ready to give it or it will become part of the command. When you give the treat try and align it between both yours and the dog’s eyes this will make sure you are making good eye contact.
After a while you will see the dog making eye contact regularly, you can treat this action at this time so as to embed it. Do these sequences at least 4 times in a row, ie name/move/praise/treat. The repetition is what teaches the dog to maintain that attention until you give the release command.
The release command can be OK or whatever you choose to use. Practice this everywhere you go including training classes. What you are looking for by performing these exercises is to tune out outside influences including the ones that are causing a fear or aggressive response. Once you can comfortably perform this exercise use it to move gradually ever closer to the problem you are trying to overcome.
Over time you can momentarily release the dogs attention increase this as you would using the distance technique, if you get a fear response then you have moved too far too fast. And you must go back to where the dog last felt comfortable.
Spaying and castration can have a major impact on our dogs, especially if it is done before the dogs have matured. It is a fallacy that neutering cures aggression. The reality is that the vast majority of cases i deal with where either inter-dog or inter-human aggression is present is related to fear not dominance or guarding. Neutering a fearful dog will often make the aggression increase not decrease.
Read my article on Neutering and think long and hard before spaying and castration, especially if the dog has not reached maturity. there is not one dog that reaches maturity by the time it is six months of age, a miniature Yorkshire Terrier one of the smallest dogs in the world, does not mature until ten months of age, an Irish Wolfhound is 36 months.
Punishment is not an Option
It is of no use whatsoever punishing the dog for its fearful actions, this only causes more stress and therefore more fearful behaviour, therefore in the case of inter-dog aggression even more defensive behaviour. The dog had only three choices when confronted with a fearful situation these are commonly listed as the three Fs. Freeze, Flight or Fight. If the first two are found not to work the third one kicks in.
Let’s take the vacuum cleaner as an example. If you had watched your pup from the first time it was confronted by this “demon of the dark abyss” he would more than likely have crouched down as low as possible his body rigid, if the noise and the monster continued the puppy would have run away, probably under a table or a chair and if it came closer it would have growled and snarled probably making darting and biting motions especially when you playfully pushed the Hoover closer to see the pups reaction. Anything ring a bell?
Some pups will be SO traumatised by the noise and the movement of the cleaner that they go into total freeze mode, our initial instinct would be to pick up and cuddle and comfort the frightened puppy. Perfectly natural human behaviour, something is frightened then nurture it. Unfortunately to a dogs mind this indicates that it is being praised for the fear, confirming his need to be fearful. If this happens when to pup is between 8 to 11.5 week old, which is the first of several fear periods throughout the dog’s life, then that fear could be so deep rooted as to be almost impossible to eradicate completely.
General obedience and socialisation can help a fearful timid dog
Some dogs that are fearful or timid may benefit from a training class especially one that uses positive methods. In the case of a rescue dog or any adult dog that you have re-homed. I would wait at least six weeks before embarking on this method. Some very fearful dogs may be too nervous for class work until you’ve done some remedial work first.
A private trainer or better still a behaviourist should be able to help structure a positive approach, to help build up confidence in your dog, and also help determine when the dog is capable of class work. Do not make your dog jump into the deep end at classes or you can undo all the good work so far. Initially keep the dog on the outer edge of the class and at a distance from anything the dog fears.
If you’ve developed focused attention before starting class, then this will be extremely useful for helping the dog relax in these situations. Some dogs may need several visits starting with very short periods at a time before actually participating in the classes.
Unfortunately some dogs may never be able to function well enough for this type of remedial work. If the dog has any tendency to snap at dogs or people or to bark inappropriately or lunge, then the Jingler can be an excellent training aid, that helps to eliminate this habit without introducing new problems. Use your focused attention exercise to keep the dog’s mind off the person or dog he is reacting against. Be sure to remove the Jingler except when you are actively working the dog.
What Other Treatments Could Help?
Change of Diet: A good quality food helps in many cases, most cheap food has cereal as filler, this can lead to a lack of serotonin, and low serotonin has been linked to aggression and anxiety. Many of the most common supermarket brands of dog food like Bakers and Pedigree, have poor quality ingredients that can cause some behavioural problems.
Read my articles on Food and Behaviour and Bakers and Pedigree. It will open your eyes to ingredients that goes into the UKs two most popular dog foods A nervous dog who eats a food overly-high in poor quality protein or sugar can experience even higher levels of anxiety.
Therefore consider switching to a food with quality protein, it is not the level of protein that is the problem it is normally the quality of that protein. To check on the quality and level of protein of your dog’s food, look on the back or side of the dog food bag or can, where the percentage of protein will be listed. Levels usually vary from 14% (for aged dogs) all the way up to 25% (for puppies and working dogs). I find a quality dry all in one food and perhaps the occasional can of quality tinned food is good for the nervous phobic dog.
I feed my dogs Fish4Dogs Dry (Kibble) . Doing so may help calm down the nervous and fearful dog. There are no additives that can affect behaviour. If done in conjunction with regular exercise and desensitisation program this can really help.Below are a number of mild herbal remedies. I am against mainstream drugs that were created for humans, other than the following that can be used in situations of stress, fear, aggression, barking, and noise aversion etc, the ones I tend to recommend are:
Dr Bach’s Flower Remedies: They are made from wild flowers. These gentle remedies are used to help relieve emotional and stress related disturbances in people and animals. The most common one used is Dr Bach’s Rescue Remedy.
Available Chemist, Me, health food shop or Internet
Skullcap and Valerian: A traditional herbal remedy for the symptomatic relief of anxiety, nervousness, excitability and travel sickness, and an adjunct in the treatment of epilepsy in dogs and cats. Normally supplied in a sugar coated tablet, it helps to calm and relax dogs and cats suffering from, apprehension, phobias or hyperactivity.
Available Me, chemist, health food shop or Internet. I am afraid I have not seen any major improvements in DAP products
I am trialing a lactose based anti- anxiety called Zylkene and will report on my findings shortly. With all the above it is always prudent to discuss any medication herbal or otherwise with your Vet before embarking on any treatment program
Dr Bachs for the nervous dog a treatment
Scullcap & Valarian for anxiety dogs
Stan Rawlinson. 2006
Updated regularly last update 2015