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.
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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

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

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  8. I adopted Molly, a Jack Russell mix, in November. She was rescued from a hoarding situation. She was obviously very over-bred and will always appear as though she’s just had puppies. Her neck and part of her chest are completely bald, the result of a nasty critter infestation she had in the hoard that caused her to scratch incessantly. She has a few physical scars, but more psychological ones.

    She trusted me pretty quickly, but remained afraid of nearly everything. Loud noises, unfamiliar or unexpected things, people (especially men). We had experiences like the author described. I set some papers on the floor in front of the couch where I was working. When I was done, I shut off the computer and told Molly we were going for a walk. I got her leash and treats and realized she hadn’t followed me. I returned to the living room to see her shaking in fear, leaning up against the back of the couch. Those papers on the floor didn’t belong there. They were scary. It wasn’t the first or last time something out of place struck terror into her little heart.

    She’s been with me for seven months. Rather than cower, she now barks at unfamiliar people or animals. Not sure her new-found aggressive stance is really an improvement. But she’s getting VERY gradually more calm. I live alone, so the house is an oasis for her. It’s familiar and calm. (Unless I leave something where she feels it shouldn’t be or tear off a piece of aluminum foil.)

    I hope that she’ll someday be able to accept people other than myself. There are people she’s familiar with who she will tolerate, but she remains guarded and reacts to any sudden moves.

    I love her with all my heart and I’m so happy to have been able to provide her with a safe and loving environment. She’s very loving with me – a true Velcro dog.

  9. Michael D Smith

    I recently adopted a 6 month old puppy. He and his siblings were abandoned and later found. He was the “best adjusted” out of the puppies, but I was still surprised to see his anxiety. I never seen anxiety in pets before so I still have a lot to learn. He has been with me for a month and he has had really good days, especially recently, but today he saw the pest control guy coming to spray the yard and he completely shifted. He barked and paced the house. He was on edge the rest of the day, didn’t want to eat or drink and he doesn’t want to play at all. All noises startles him as well. The last time he was like this it was worse, but it took a few days to get him back to “normal” i am not sure what I can do to reduce this. I am also interested in training him, but when he is like this he doesn’t respond to me very well…

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  14. I rescued my dog 7 weeks ago. She won’t let me do anything to her body, like grooming or ear drops. She curls her lips up and snaps at me. What do I do?

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  17. I rescued a 2 year old chihuahua named Dino. Had him for 3 weeks now. The 1st day I brought him home he bit me several times until I finally got his harness on. He is a very shy dog. He will run when I approach him for walks. I know he had training in the past as he walks excellent on a leash. But he just doesn’t want me to get real close or he’ll snap at me. Every once in awhile he will let me pet him for a very short period, then the aggression starts. First rescue I ever owned. All of my other Chi’s I had from being a pup and were easy to train. I love animals and trying so hard with Dino. The only thing he will eat is pressure cooker steak. I do put water in the same bowl as he doesn’t drink very often. Before the steak he would go days without food and water. I have to feed him on the couch. I must walk away before he will eat. I am so exhausted but I continue to tell myself he will come around.

  18. We adopted a rescued Alaska Husky sled dog three years ago. The first 1.5 years she spent in the corner of the kitchen, then discovered mama and papa’s bedroom downstairs and has thrived since then. She is still afraid of everything, but is happily a totally different dog these days. I’ve been religiously taking her outside every morning for two years (rain, snow, freezing cold, sun, etc.) at her favorite time of day between 3:00-4:00 AM. I learned to truly enjoy this time with her. However, about two weeks ago, she all of sudden stopped for no apparent reason. I used to go upstairs, rattle her leash, and she’d trot upstairs. I noticed I was having to go downstairs with the leash more often to bring her outside, then she just quit altogether, an immovable force. This really depressed me and I cried every time she rejected me. I missed our time together. Yet, she will let my son hook the leash on her and take her outside, and she’s definitely not as close to him as she is to my husband and I. After about a week of this, I got upset with her; now she won’t look me in the eye when I ask her if she wants to go outside. I don’t know what to do. I can’t rewind and take back when I got upset (by the way, it was the first time EVER I’ve used a stern voice with her). I need help. I just want things to go back to normal. She only goes out about three to four times a day now, and my son doesn’t play with her like I did, so she’s not getting the exercise she needs. She doesn’t leave the bedroom unless it’s to go outside. That’s her safe place, so she doesn’t ever roam the house. This time we had was important for her health and just plain bonding time. I’m very sad and miss it.

  19. Thank you for sharing your experience with your dog and how it changed over time. My nephew adopted a dog that is a little afraid of the vet. He’ll have to try to match her up with a veterinarian that won’t make her so scared!

  20. I have a very fearful shiba inu. She use to not be this way when my pit bull was still alive. As a puppy she was fearless. The fear escalated when I moved from a quiet neighborhood with a fenced back yard to a noisy apartment building in the city. She freaks out when I walk her, or even if she sees someone walking by the windows. She is extremely scared of loud noises ie fireworks, children screaming and hollering, loud trucks and strangers. Do I hold her when she’s scared or do i let her just run and hide? Treats do not work, playing with her favorite toy works inside. What leash and collar should I be using on walks? She is such a sweetheart and super funny. Shes got a great personality and a tad stubborn. I love her with my whole heart i just want her to be happy and love life. Maybe its my behavior? Maybe i baby her too much? Maybe I shouldn’t have moved? I’m so worried about her, please help. Thanks so much.

  21. Hi Amber, It’s so nice to hear that you own rescued pets. We need more people like you to help save some of these animals that have been through difficult situations.

    Great article on helping a fearful or shy dog. Look forward to reading more of your blog articles.

  22. It was so nice to read this blog and comments this morning. I recently adopted a 1.5 yr old chi/papillon mix. He isn’t afraid of “everything” but has a fair amount of anxiety and has latched onto me. I can’t even get off the couch or walk away without him right under me. He doesn’t eat unless i’m sitting with him. Last night he wailed and barked and screeched when I put him in his crate for bed. It was heartbreaking but we really want him to sleep in a crate at night mostly because he isn’t potty trained yet. He was fine the night before.

    It was encouraging to hear that with time he will bond with my husband. I struggle with anxiety and panic attacks myself and last night was rough wondering if we made the right choice in adopting him. He is the sweetest thing but it stresses me out worrying about him and then I feel guilty cause my 2 cats haven’t been getting as much attention lately.

    I made a commitment to keep and love this dog. I’ve just never had a dog with these issues before. I can’t imagine giving him up ever but I am struggling.

    1. Hi Bonnie! I recently adopted a 3 year old hound that is having a hard time adjusting to her new home. Every day it gets better. The first few nights I had to sleep next to her our she would stress really bad. 2 nights ago we started crating her. First night she whined and howled but eventually stopped and went to sleep. Last night she didn’t whine at all. I worked with her all day showing her the crate is her safe space. She has a problem peeing when she first wakes up, she’s afraid of going out in the yard to pee at night. She wasn’t housetrained so I’m working on potty training her. I suffer from anxiety and I too have struggled with my decision to adopt her. Did I make the right decision? Am I doing it right? I’ve watched countless videos on You Tube for all the anxiety and fearful behavior she has exhibited (highly recommend), posted on different FB sites really struggling. I just keep reminding myself, it’s only been 5 days. She’s doing great considering it’s only been 5 days. I see her pretty face and every step forward I’m so proud of her and myself and every step backwards I look at it as a teachable moment and move on. I’m sorry you are feeling this way but know you are not alone. Try to stay positive. Dogs love routine and structure oh and of course treats! Make his crate a safe place. Throw a treat in there say “(his name) crate” and when he goes in give him lots of praise like “Good Boy!!!” Sit next to the crate, don’t close the door. If he leaves the crate, that’s ok. Don’t force him in there. Do it several times a day. Let him know the crate is his safe place. Start teaching him basic commands like sit and stay. Try a treat toy, something that will keep him busy while he’s in his crate. Dogs do so much better with structure and routine. His anxiety will get better. There are a lot of helpful videos and articles our there. Good Luck! You are not alone!

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  24. My dog is anxious or unsettled about car rides. He also is very scared of thunderstorms, fireworks, etc. Where to buy the best quality calming CBD treats for my dog?

    1. I have an extremely anxious, reactive dog I’m working a lot with. I use CBD calming treats and I’m working with a trainer who is good with reactive, anxious dogs. I’m hoping one day I’ll be able to walk Winston without him barking, lunging and things that frighten him. The only place where I was able to purchase high-quality CBD treats They are selling CBD products for humans too, so quality is very high. Great price on hard to find treats that my dog loves, plus very quick shipping.

  25. It’s sad to hear Mayzie’s story, glad you guys adopted her! Thanks for sharing your experience, this is some sort of education for us. I have never adopted a rescue dog but we’re planning to have one in the future. Will certainly look back to this post for reference.

  26. My son and 3 year old yellow lab is staying with us. She had never seen ceiling fans til yesterday, when I turned one on, it frightened her. I tried fans in every room and she had the same reactions. I tried spinning the blade by hand . Same scared reactions. Not sure what to do. Thanks.

  27. I rescued two dogs. Their retriever mix. Sisters. They’ve been in foster homes for a couple months before I got them. They are now 8months old. Scared to death! Anything scares them. They both run away when I get a couple feet of them. The one sister Charley, plays rough with the other one,Chloe’.
    Charley will bite the collar off Chloe’, & when the were spayed, Charley somehow ripped off Chloe’ e-collar.
    I try to give treats but they just stare at me unless I walk closer to give it to them & then they just run.
    I bought them all kinds of chew toys but they won’t touch them. They eat my kitchen table. Right in front of me! They won’t quit till I move. Then they run.
    I’m worried that if I raise my voice I’d scare them & the’d never Like me.
    All I wanted was a sweet little puppy to love & one that would love me back. I was told that it was better to rescue one than to buy one. Well, come to find out you have to buy a rescue too.
    I love Clhoe’ & Charley. I don’t want to give them up, I’m just looking for some advice on how to raise them. I’ve had many dogs all my life & raised them well. I’m at a loss this time.
    I’m at my wits end. I need some help please!

  28. Don’t give up! I have a puppy mill girl and fortunately I am able to bring mine to work with me and she is in a carrier on my side for part of the day- and about three months in she trusted me implicitly!! Any one else for the first year I had to be holding her. Now almost two years in she will greet my co workers and even some regular customers!! Don’t give up!! Chi mom

  29. We have had a mill girl for just over two years now. She’s afraid of men. The first six or so months I would leave for work, hubs stayed home and she would cry for about an hour. She would run from him and anyone that came into the house. Around 9 months she finally let him feed her. Before that I had to sit on the floor when I got home from work and watch her eat. After 1 1/2 years she takes a treat from him and will slowly, so slowly allow people to pet her. She now allows hubs to pet her in our bed and pick her up from our bed. She will sit with my daughters or granddaughters but will only allow any man to pet her if I’m by her. Sometimes she will go to the kitchen by herself to get a drink of water but if I’m home I have to go with her. While she is drinking she will always check behind her after a few swallows, this still happens after two years. It’s a long haul, very long haul but she is worth every single minute and I would do it again in a heartbeat. She will never ever be in a cage again and I will do whatever I have to, to make her feel safe. Some call it spoiling but I see the progress. NEVER give up.

  30. Hi I rescued a mix bread at a animal shelter that came from Puerto Rico Hurricane, its been over a year since we had her. She was very timid and still is timid if anyone tries to pet her, she will go hide. She is getting better with going up to people that come to my house. The problem with her is she is very scared of my older son that lives with us and I cannot figure out why, but she pees on my bed all the time because she scared. I keep staying that I should take her back to the shelter because I am not sure what to do. My heart will not let me because I love her so much.

    1. Hi Tracy,
      Sorry to hear that you and your dog are experiencing this. These articles might provide some insight and help:

  31. I have a 5 months old Rottweiler puppy. I got her at 4 months of age. The previous owner confessed of his own willingness, without question or duress that he was severely abusing the puppy and brutally beating the puppy. He claimed the puppy was very stubborn and that the puppy’s mother was aggressive and he abused the puppy in order to break the puppy’s confidence and tame the puppy. I bought the puppy off him because I felt it would be improper to leave the puppy in such a condition. So yes, out of sympathy. This Rottweiler puppy, now five months old is scared of everything right from the day I bought her and I mean everything scares her. She is not scared of me though which means I am now her chew toy. She bites me excessively and leaves me with scars, injuries and bruises. The strange thing however is that when she sees a stranger, she bolts and goes to hide. It is frustrating to see her tenacious about biting me who is caring for her but bolt off when she sees a stranger.

  32. My husband & I adopted a two year old chi weenie from the humane society two weeks ago. They had no history on her personality as she’d been there only one day. She had been taken from a hording situation. She was taken from the home by the fire department. She was absolutely terrified when we first met her. She rode home with shaking like a leaf, she cuddled on my lap. She is happy in our home, she was afraid of all our household appliances, mirrors, & the TV. She is adjusting well to all of those things. She cuddles with both my husband & I and is very affectionate. The problem we have is that for no reason she will start braking forocusly at my husband & acting as though she will bite him, if not restrianed. She is showning the same aggression when we take her for walks. This behavior is getting worse, I’m worried she will bite my husband in one of these fits, or any man she comes in contact with. I hope there is hope with this fear she exhibits? She does not like to go for walks either, outside environment seems to scare her also. Please any suggestions will be greatly appreciated. I’m at a point of exhaustion.

  33. I adopted a dog from a local rescue about a month ago. He was very shy and withdrawn at the shelter but I figured I would give him a chance at a happy life, even after another family previously adopted him and returned him after only three weeks. When I got him home he spent the first two days laying in a spare bedroom in the dark. Then he spent about 4 days in my bathroom. He has settled on living in the dining room. He was having small breakthroughs almost everyday but lately he’s been staying in his kennel every minute that I’m home. I kind of feel bad for him like he would have a much happier life somewhere else but I don’t want to give up on him. He seems to do fine with females but he is very fearful of me. How do I get him to leave his kennel and be comfortable, and not running back there the second I make eye contact with him?

  34. I love the story of Mazie because that is exactly how my Lexie was when I got her. Lexie was an 18 month old Miniature Poodle who was ceased from a hoarding situation. She only weighed 8 pounds and should have been 12 pounds and looked imatiated. When I adopted her, she had just been spay the day before so she was still pretty lethargic. The rescue share with me that she was a bit timid. Once the anesthesia had completely worn off, I discovered that timid was the understatement of the world. Lexie feared everything that she saw. Taking her for a walk was a challenge because there was not a leaf, a tree, a stick, a person, a dog that didn’t petrify her. I had wondered if I had made a big mistake. She allowed me to touch her but no one else could come near her as she went into a panic. Today, 2 1/2 years later, she is the sweetest most loving little girl. She is not the perfect little girl that was well socialized when she was a puppy but she will go up to people now without fear and even allows some to pet her if they approach her quietly and calmly. She wants to say hello though by licking and wagging her tail at them. She still panics when she sees something new but will now tentatively try to go up to it rather than run in fear. She has come such a long way and is such a loving little girl now. I wouldn’t trade her for the world. Patience, time and a lot of love was just the right recipe to help Lexie become as normal as she possibly can be.

  35. We have a five-year-old catahoula/lab mix who has always been somewhat timid since we got him at four months old. He loves us, loves car rides, is super smart, but if we try to travel with him, he turns into the most terrified dog you’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, we can’t afford to board him every time and there are no pet-sitters where we live. On this last trip, he developed a fear of everything to the point where he refused to go outside. He would happily step into his harness, but as soon as you opened the door, he flattened himself on the floor and nothing short of force would get him outside. Since we were staying in motels, he had to go out to potty. He would pull so hard on the way back to the room that he actually scared me. I’m almost 65 and he pulls like a freight train. And rest stops. Oh, man, so much there to be terrified about. He went 5 days without eating. How can we help him overcome this? He’s perfectly fine at home, but not anywhere outside his own domain. We tried Rescue Remedy (huge waste of money) and CBD oil, but neither helped.

    1. Hi Pam,

      Sorry to hear that you and your pup are experiencing this. We suggest working with a professional behaviorist to address your dog’s specific needs.
      These articles might provide some insights, too:

  36. by the way, I have tried being really patient, and not being threatening, and that’s when she will come out and run around me, but never close enough to touch or pet.

  37. we have a donated dog–the couple had to move. as soon as we got this beautiful Australian Shepard, it avoided us. our daughter brought her home and was able to touch it, but since then, she will not get close to us at all. the daughter has moved out, but the dog remains elusive. it will not come to me or my wife or other kids at home even if we have a fresh piece of steak. if it runs out of food, it just waits until we give it more food, waiting behind our palm tree. at times we can coax it out of her spot, and she acts like she wants to play, but she will not let us touch her, and run around me but never close enough to touch. I cannot even get close enough to put a leash on her. should i get some to help and put a leash on her to go for walk? what can we do?

  38. I went with my mom to adopt a dog for her and my dad they are elderly, and wanted a small calm serene dog for companionship. We went to look at a poodle mix at the shelter, very friendly but my mom was used to bigger dogs and wanted a less energetic dog. So… we took home a very docile dog, who was just lying in the kennel when all the other dogs around were barking. She thought he looked very calm I was thinking he was terrified. She has him home now since yesterday. He wont come out of his cage. He was a stray found in a different state and probably been abused. He had had a couple different surgeries on his mouth, had been fixed, mo doubt is in a state of shock. I live a mile down the road and am trying to help release the animal from some deep rooted fears. They said he is only 2 has had his tail cropped, possibly a mountain cur dog, looks just like the pictures. He is completely completely and utterly terrified of my husband. He has never snapped or growled or shown any type of aggression which is a good sign I suppose, any thoughts on how to approach training? We named him Jack so far is not really responsive to any name.

  39. Thank you so much for this! I just adopted a 1 yr old lab 3 days ago, who was kept in a backyard breeders backyard with no social action for 10 months until they learned they could not bred her because of a genetic trait. They gave her up to a rescue. She is afraid of everything (not people or dogs thankfully) but a fountain in the neighborhood turning on, garden hose, dishwasher etc. she growls and literally will pull the leash out of your hand to bolt. I haven’t met with a behaviorist or trainer yet. I am scared she may bite someone, I hope their is help for her.

    1. Michaela Conlon

      Hi Laura,

      Thanks for reaching out! So glad to hear you enjoyed our article. We suggest seeing the behaviorist or trainer if this behavior continues. Best of luck!

  40. Gail Tyndell
    Have you tried a raw food diet? Our German Shepherd had very little interest in food and had to be coaxed to eat . . . until we transitioned him onto a raw food diet (also known as BARF – Bones and Raw Food Diet). Now he absolutely adores his food and gets really excited at mealtimes!!

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