6 Tips for Helping a Fearful Dog Open Up

We used a variety of training techniques to end behavior problems for our new dog, Maggie.


We adopted our black Lab Maggie from a local rescue in June of 2012. Our dog Becca had recently passed away, we wanted a sister for our yellow Lab, Jack, and knew we wanted to adopt a senior.

We looked for several weeks for a calm and serene dog. Jack was big (85 pounds) and while he’s a senior, he’s still pretty boisterous, so we wanted a dog that would lower the energy level. Then we found Della, who we would rename Maggie. The rescue said she was a breeder mom, a turn-in. She was used as breeding stock and now that she was eight years of age and had been spayed, they no longer wanted her. Lucky for her (and us), the breeder turned her in to the rescue rather than euthanizing her.

We went to meet Maggie at her foster home. We spent some time getting to know her, took her for a walk and tried to evaluate whether she would be a good fit. The big test of course was meeting Jack, so we took her home to introduce them. Jack gave her the once over and then promptly ignored her — he still does. We took the two of them for a walk and then brought Maggie into the house, let her sniff around a bit and put her in her crate. We knew from her background that she was crated and figured this would give her a sense of security and comfort -– a safe place. She crawled in and fell asleep. To us, that was a sign she was comfortable and we congratulated ourselves on a good choice, a perfect fit.

Ha! Way too soon. Maggie had decided within the first 24 hours that my husband was not to be trusted. It actually extended to all males, but he lived here and she was deathly afraid of him. She took up residence in the bed in my office and apparently wanted nothing else but to live out her days right there. She resisted any interaction with us, had no interest in outside activity, walks, treats, toys — she was shut down. If you have dogs, you may be familiar with the “ears back” behavior -– if a dog is uncertain or afraid, they will pull their ears back and tuck their tails. Maggie’s ears were back 100 percent of the time and her tail was always tucked, never wagging. She didn’t look like a Lab, she looked like a seal.

We struggled with her for a few weeks, trying various training methods we read or heard about. We even considered returning her to the rescue. She seemed so fearful and so unhappy, I thought maybe she would find a better more suitable home –- maybe one without men. But I realized that wherever she went she would still carry this fear and what she really needed was a fair and loving chance to work through it.

Since she had such fear for men, we sought out a female trainer for some alternative training approaches, since what we were doing wasn’t working. We uncovered a few new techniques that worked well with Maggie:

1. Find a “leader dog”

Maggie worships her big brother Jack and we realized if Jack was doing something, she would do it, too. If we called Jack, she would follow; if we walked Jack, she would go along. She would follow his lead in everything. We leveraged this as much as possible to get her to do new things.

2. Food is a good motivator

Maggie was very food motivated. Like using Jack, we could use food to get her to do new things. Steve started to keep treats in his office. He’d call Jack, she would follow and then discover there were treats! She now wanders down there on her own multiple times during the day for a snack.

3. Sometimes trickery works

She never liked going anywhere with Steve. We tried forcing her or tricking her but that just seemed mean. One day, we took the two of them to the dog park and discovered that she loved it. She came out of her shell and went up to the other dogs and even to men to say hello. This was a huge step for her and we decided to have Steve take her there frequently. It was a real breakthrough. She learned to trust Steve because Jack and I weren’t there -– it was either go to him or a stranger for a “safe” zone, so she opted to trust him.

4. Introduce toys or games they can excel at

At first Maggie wanted nothing to do with the various Kongs or other food-related toys that we use with Jack. She quickly saw food came from them and now she’s an addict. I give her the more simple toys — ones that she can succeed at to build her confidence.

5. Work slowly and work consistently

Maggie would prefer it if she had eyes in the back of her head because she’s always watching for someone or something coming up behind her. She startles very easily and she always wants to know where Steve is in relation to her location. We learned to move slowly and always make our presence known.

6. Try calming tools

These include Through a Dog’s Ear: Music to Calm your Canine or a Thundershirt. We have several of the Dog’s Ear albums and I play them regularly. It soothes all of us. I’ve never used the Thundershirt but have friends who swear by it.

I know if you have a fearful dog, you wonder how long will it take. It will take as long as it takes. We’ve had Maggie for almost 18 months now and while she is much better, there are still times when a fear kicks up. We’ve learned to celebrate the triumphs, no matter how small. Each milestone becomes special: The first time she takes food from Steve’s hand, the first time she comes all the way into the kitchen behind the island, the first time she goes out into the backyard by herself. All of these seemingly simple, everyday behaviors take on a whole new significance when you have a fearful dog who is shut down.

Nowadays, Maggie actively seeks our company, is inquisitive about what’s going on in the house and her tail wags instead of being tucked. Best of all, her ears are forward (most of the time) and she looks like the beautiful Lab that she is. I know this will be a never-ending work-in-progress with her, but at least now we feel that she is happy and content with us and enjoys just being a dog.

Other stories by Kate O’Brien:

1 thought on “6 Tips for Helping a Fearful Dog Open Up”

  1. Thank you oh so much for this article. I adopted 4 year old golden retriever who spent the first 3 years of her life as breeding stock in a puppy mill. And her 4th year on the run before she was rescued by a wonderful rescue organization where I adopted her from. I’ve had her for 4 months and I’ve been so discouraged- she seems so unhappy. After reading your story of having Maggie for 18 months I understand that it will take a lot longer and she may never be a happy go lucky doggie but I love her with all my heart and you have given me hope. Thank you.

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