We Talk with Expert Debbie Jacobs About Fearful Dogs

After the trainer adopted a dog left behind by Katrina, she learned all she could about dealing with fearful dogs -- she even wrote the book on it.


Editor’s note: Enjoy our interview with Debbie Jacobs and then read on to find out how to win a signed copy of her book, A Guide To Living With & Training A Fearful Dog.

It seemed straightforward enough to dog trainer Debbie Jacobs, CDPT-KA, CAP2 — she didn’t hesitate when she got the call that knowledgeable dog volunteers were needed in New Orleans to help now homeless dogs left behind by hurricane Katrina.

What was waiting for her there changed the course of her career: an extremely fearful dog named Sunny that Jacobs had intended to take home with her to Vermont as a foster dog. She still has Sunny, and dog owners with fearful dogs around the globe are grateful for the bond between this trainer and her dog because it resulted in a book, seminars, and worldwide support for dogs in need.

Jacobs’ book, A Guide To Living With & Training A Fearful Dog, a finalist in the Dog Writers of America Writer’s Competition, has been popular internationally, both with trainers and dog owners alike. Jacobs offers a monthly webinar on the book material.

Dogster: Tell us a little about Sunny.

Jacobs: Sunny is fearful of people and has a great sensitivity to sudden changes in his environment or novelty. He was living in a kennel run with other dogs at a hoarder’s property. Rescuers found 477 dogs at this so-called “sanctuary,” many of which had been displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Some of the dogs found at the site had never been removed from travel crates they arrived in; for some that was up to five weeks.

This video tells Sunny’s story.

I met Sunny when I was volunteering at a site set up by the Humane Society of LA to house animals after the storms. At Camp Katrina, I could see that he was “shy” but at the time didn’t fully understand that implications of his behavior.

What creates a fearful dog?

Dogs may be sick or injured, genetically predisposed to being fearful, or have experienced something scary. The most common reason dogs end up fearful is because they were not appropriately socialized during early puppyhood.

When we get a dog, we don’t have a crystal ball to inform us what’s going on, or did go on, for them, so we work with fearful dogs in the same way, regardless of why we think they are fearful. We create an environment in which the dog feels safe, we countercondition to the things that scare them, and we teach them skills to behave appropriately in the world we have put them in.

Can you give some examples of what fear looks like in a dog?

Most people can identify fear in a dog who cowers or runs away. But fear can cause a dog to behave aggressively, growling, lunging, or biting. Dogs who are afraid might freeze, which can look like tolerance to some people who think that a dog is okay being handled because they’re not moving. Many of the behaviors that people think indicate that a dog is experiencing guilt may also be fear-based.

Studies show that nearly all canine aggression starts in anxiety or fear, yet it seems hard for so many dog owners to accept that their snarling, lunging, barking, or growling dog is fearful. How are these behaviors related to fear?

Research has shown that the same part of the brain “lights up” when an animal is displaying behaviors we would identify as fear or aggression. From an evolutionary perspective, if you’re scared for your life and not sure if you’re going to get out of the situation alive if you do nothing — or pleading hasn’t worked — fighting to protect yourself might just save your life. Aggression is a normal and predictable response to fear.

How can dog owners help their fearful dogs learn to concentrate enough to be taught good manners?

The first step is to help the dog feel safe and lower the stress and anxiety they are experiencing. If management alone can’t achieve this, owners can talk to a veterinary behaviorist about medications that can help.

Unfortunately many owners continue to subscribe to the “suck it up and deal” approach and think that by continually exposing their dog to the things that scare them, the dog will learn it was not a threat because nothing bad happened to them. This is not how the fear response system works. Repeated exposure to things that scare a dog just reaffirm that it’s a threat because the “bad” that is happening is the fear itself.

At what point do you suggest a dog be put on anti-anxiety medications? Isn’t that merely covering up the problem?

Few dog owners would deprive their dog a painkiller for a broken leg because it “covered up” the pain, yet dogs who are afraid to go outside or hide in their homes for weeks or months are often ignored when it comes to the medical interventions. These dogs are suffering.

When a dog is afraid, he can find it difficult or impossible to perform new behaviors. If a dog is too scared to move and experiment with behavior, medications can help with this. If we can lower the anxiety a dog is experiencing we may see a decrease in the intensity of the behavior associated with that anxiety. Medications are not a cure, but neither are they a cop-out. In combination with creating a safe environment, counterconditioning, and teaching a dog new skills, they may be many dogs’ best chance of life free of fear.

Should we comfort dogs when they are afraid — for example, a dog with thunder phobia?

Dogs are social animals, and as social animals we can see a decrease in stress levels when they are able to be with someone they trust. It’s hard to imagine ignoring an animal you consider a “best friend” while they are afraid.

In some cases an animal may be so afraid that comforting, even if it might actually be something the dog does feel comforted by, may not be enough to make them feel better. Kick me out of a plane and comfort me all the way down, I’m likely to still feel fear.

Why is it not advised to punish fearful behavior?

Punishing a dog who is afraid and behaving however they are behaving because they are afraid is like punishing someone for sneezing. Fear and aggression are responses that animals have very little cognitive control over.

And this makes sense: If you spend too much time wondering about how long before a car careening toward you is going to hit you, based on its rate of speed, model of car, the driver’s reactions, etc., you may be squashed before you come to the right conclusion. It is better to just leap out of the way.

Learn more about Debbie at her website, Fearful Dogs, and by following her on Twitter.

How to win a copy of A Guide to Living with and Training a Fearful Dog

Would you like the chance to win an autographed copy of Debbie’s book? If so, please do the following:

1. Create a Disqus account, if you haven’t already, and include a valid email. It takes just a minute and allows you to better participate in Dogster’s community of people who are passionate about dogs. If you already have a Disqus account, check it to ensure the account includes a valid email.

2. Comment below using your Disqus account, telling us about your experience with fearful dogs, and how you think Debbie’s book can help. Our favorite comment wins. You must be a U.S. resident to win.

3. Check your email for a “You’ve Won!” message from us after noon PST on Friday, Feb. 14. We’ll give the winner two days to respond before moving on to our next favorite comment. Good luck!

Learn more about dogs with Dogster:

About Annie Phenix: Positive-reinforcement dog trainer and author Annie Phenix lives in sunny southwestern Colorado with her husband and their five dogs, six donkeys and two quarter horses. Phenix is a member of the Pet Professional Guild and the National Association of Canine Scent Work.

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