Honestly, I thought I had already posted this here, but then realized that I haven’t.  I probably keep shying away from it because it is a big topic to cover in a simple blog post.  I work with fearful show dogs constantly and have some solid methods and advice to offer on helping them.  This post won’t cover everything, but will give you some tools to help your fearful dog or your client’s fearful dog.

One thing I want to say is that I hope that people look for help because they are genuinely concerned for the well being of their dogs and want them to feel comfortable and safe, not just so that they will be successful in the show ring.  Many dogs suffer from fear and anxiety.  One of my most successful classes is my Confidence Building for Marshmallows which was designed to help fearful dogs gain confidence.  A large percentage of my dog and bird training and behavior consulting business is helpling people with fearful dogs and birds.  I see show dogs, pet dogs and dogs that do many other dog sports and activities as well.  It is our responsibility as their caretakers to find ways to help them so that they can live a life that allows them to feel safe, comfortable and trust in someone or hopefully, many people.

In addition to my client dogs, I also live with several fearful animals that have all made spectacular progress.  I have dogs that used to bark and lunge at people on the street, who would try to flee in a panic over vehicles and even parrots who would lunge at the side of the cage bars with their beaks trying to bite, all who have improved so much that you would not believe that they had those issues.  It took some time and it took work, but they got there.  On this point, there is something that I need to be very clear and honest about.  All animals are individuals and will have varying limitations.  There are a handful of dogs that I honestly do not feel will progress enough that putting them in the show ring is humane.  Imagine being terrified of people yet forced to be touched by strangers on a regular basis.  Much of the time we can modify the behavior to the point where the dog can be shown, but sometimes not and people need to be accepting of that.  It is heartbreaking to see people showing dogs that hate it, are terrified but are forced to keep doing it because there owners can’t seem to accept the dog without a CH before his name.  And, don’t even get me started on using those dogs in a breeding program, but I digress.  Let me just say that being structurally correct or “pretty” is NOT enough to justify putting a dog in the show ring, or in a breeding program for that matter, whose head won’t allow him to be okay there.  This is an ethical responsibility we have.  We must put the animal’s well being ahead of our need or desire or ego to show the dog.  Work on helping the dog, learn how to modify the behavior, but always listen to the dog and accept it if the dog you had hoped would be your next big special (or agility champion or therapy dog or obedience dog or whatever) cannot do the job you are asking of him or her.  The animal simply MUST come first.

What Not To Do
There are some things that I do not do that pretty much apply to any and all fearful animals that I work with.

  • No pressure or force.  We must allow the fearful animal to set the pace.  There is a difference between slow, steady, honest progression and pushing or forcing.  Don’t do it.  You will not only slow the dog’s progress, but you will damage the relationship with the animal.  Of course there are sometimes things we must do such as take them to the vet or groom them, but these are things we can condition them for.  Getting into the show ring or into some type of dog sport competition is NOT a necessity and is something that can wait until the dog can do it without being afraid.
  • Use only methods that protect the dog’s comfort level such as classical conditioning, desensitization and counter conditioning and stay away from methods that force or overwhelm such as flooding.
  • Even if things are going well, do not enter your dog in any shows until you are VERY sure that he is ready for it.  Doing so can cause major setbacks.  Depending on the level of fear, I usually have my clients attend some shows but not enter at first.
  • Do not taking behavior modification advice from non-professionals.  Dealing with fearful dogs is not simply “dog training”, it is a whole other level of behavior modification that requires a strong and in depth understanding of animal learning theory as well as applied behavior analysis.  I find it extremely frustrating to be working with a client only to have their friend or breeder or handler or someone else pressuring them that they need to just “make him do it” or “correct him” when we have a solid training plan in place.
  • Depending on the level of fear and the specific triggers, I sometimes recommend that a fearful or shy dog only be handled by his owner.  Handing a fearful dog off to a stranger or even someone that the dog does not trust very strongly is a bad idea and again a trust breaker.
  • Do not buy into the idea that a dog is being willful, lazy, dominant, stubborn or anything else.  Believe it or not, I have had longtime breeders, I am talking about someone with decades in a breed and “in dogs” tell me that their fearful dog’s behavior was a “ploy” and that she knows these dogs and they “do this”.  Newsflash, no animal behaves afraid on purpose, they just don’t, so get over that one.
  • Do not punish a dog for being fearful.  Fear can look like a lot of different things while still being a fearful response.  You cannot punish someone for being afraid or guess what you get?  If you guessed more fear and anxiety you’re right.  Don’t do it.
  • Do not allow yourself to be pressured into entering your dog before he is ready because someone told you he “needs to get over it” or because your breeder wants the dog in the ring or because your dog is needed to build majors.
  • Do not have other people offer food to your dog if he is afraid of them.  Many people try to force dogs by using food and when this happens you can see that the dog is trying to get the food without getting near the person.  This is dangerous and a very bad idea because it puts the dog in conflict.  Best case scenario is that the dog panics and tries to escape once the food is gone, worst case scenario is that he bites the person once the food is gone, in either case, he didn’t learn anything we wanted him to learn.  Whenever I meet a dog that I know is fearful or aggressive I start out with no food.  I need to see if the dog has any interest in people, in interacting or even just “checking me out” before I start using food.  Let me be clear that we do use food, a lot of food in this training, but it doesn’t come from scary strangers.
  • Do not put anything above your dog’s well being or your relationship with your dog.
What You Should Do
  • Learn about canine body language.  I teach my clients to learn to read their dog’s body language starting with the most relaxed and comfortable body language which is at home.  Once they can do this easily, they can learn stress signals which allows them to see the earliest shifts in comfort level.  This is critical because it allows you to monitor the dog and get him out of situations while he can still function, not after he has had a complete meltdown.
  • Use desensitization and counter conditioning to teach the dog to be comfortable with the triggers that frighten him.  More on that later.
  • Move slowly and allow the dog to set the pace.  This is the only way to get honest progress.
  • Have the goal of the dog loving the show ring, not just accepting it.  Tolerating something is different from loving or enjoying something.  We need show dogs to really like it if they are going to be successful.
  • Wait to show the dog until he is more than ready for it.
Desensitization and Counter Conditioning
Desensitization and counter conditioning is the best way to treat a dog that is shy, fearful or unsure.  Desensitization is the process of systematically exposing the dog to the “trigger”, which is the thing that scares him at controlled levels so that he is aware of the trigger, but at a distance or level where he still feels comfortable.  This level of exposure is called “sub threshold”.
Again, “sub threshold” is the point where the dog is aware of the trigger, but is not worried or upset.  This is where understanding body language is important.  If your dog’s behavior is changing once he becomes aware of the trigger, he may be starting to become anxious and that is when you need to start making decisions about what to do next.  This is certainly not a complete list, but here are some stress signals that would indicate that your dog is become anxious or that his arousal level is rising.
  • Unable to eat
  • Unable to hear you
  • Unable to focus
  • Scanning the environment or hypervigilance
  • Taking food harder, harder mouth
  • Less blinking, hard eyes
  • Changes in breathing
  • Hard muscles in the face, ridges
  • Curved topline
  • Circling, spinning, trying to escape
  • Avoidance of any kind including avoiding eye contact
  • Sniffing the ground
  • Panting when it isn’t warm out
  • Yawning
Most of the time when I start to go over this list with clients with fearful dogs, they start to notice that their dogs do a lot of these things.  The time to increase distance from the trigger, change the value of the food you are offering or make whatever decision is necessary is when you notice small changes in the behavior, not after the dog has come completely unglued.  Once the dog has had a full blown reaction, you are not likely to get him back.
Counter conditioning is the process of adding something that the animal likes with the presence of the trigger.  It’s pretty simple, it looks like this:  >scary thing = choice for the animal + the animal’s favorite thing< and >scary thing is gone = favorite thing is gone<
With show dogs we have to desensitize and counter condition to different things or multiple things depending on the dog.  I have worked with dogs that we had to desensitize and counter condition to:
  • Table
  • Judge’s Exam
  • Other dogs
  • Testicle exam
  • Bite/mouth exam
  • Grooming
  • Indoor shows (buildings)
  • Grass
  • Vehicles
  • Crates
  • Men in suits
  • Hats
  • Eye contact
Here is an example of a good desensitization and counter conditioning program, however, keep in mind that each step is determined by the dog’s response to the prior step.  You don’t progress until the dog is ready.
Let’s say a dog is okay with the table, but doesn’t like the judge’s exam.  This is evidenced by moving back from judge, leaning away from judge, freezing when judge approaches, trying to jump off the table, turning to bite, etc.  For this example, let’s say that the dog leans away or backs away from judge when the judge reaches to touch the dog.  Note that just strongarming and holding the dog in place forcibly is NOT okay, is extremely disrespectful and relationship damaging.
  1. Owner puts dog on table, I approach to 1′ from table, stop, owner feeds chicken, I turn and walk away.  I repeat this until the dog has zero concern with my approach.
  2. I approach table, pause, owner feeds chicken, I turn and walk away.  We do this until he is comfortable.  With each step, we repeat it until the dog shows no concern AT ALL or looks excited and anticipatory with my approach.  If at any time I approach and the dog is concerned, I back up to the last step or wherever he is comfortable and work from there.  You will be AMAZED at how quickly most dogs progress once they realize that they have some control over their safety and yes, it is safety to them.  Once they realize that you hear them and are listening, the confidence goes way up.
  3. Once he is comfortable with approach and pause, I approach, raise my hand about halfway up, pause, owner feeds, I walk away.  Note that every time I walk away is critical. It is a second reinforcer to the dog, a release of pressure.  It gives the dog a moment to process it, to think about it and it shapes his future responses and decisions.
  4. Next step would usually be raising arm higher, owner feeds, I walk away, owner stops feeding.
  5. Owner will always feed, and I will always walk away, but I am just going to type in my steps now to save space.
  6. Raise hand and reach out.
  7. Raise hand and reach out and pause.
  8. Raise hand, reach out, touch dog.
  9. Touch dog for longer duration.
  10. Pet dog down body.
  11. Then, I would progress through desensitizing and counter conditioning for the entire exam.
I have worked with dogs who in the past had been just forced to stay in position and be touched even though they were terrified and those dogs, understandably, can take longer to regain the trust.  They have lost such faith in their owners that they need time and we have to give it to them.
Again, the key is always that you must stop or move back in the program if the dog gets worried.  If you have to go back several steps, it is usually MUCH faster to get there the next time.
Other Things To Understand
  • Dogs do not “act” afraid if they aren’t afraid.  Don’t buy into thinking that the dog is just doing it.  Fearful responses are not something the dog is doing, it is something that is happening to the dog.
  • Being “in dogs” does not make someone an expert in canine behavior, behavior modification or animal learning theory.  I hear some of the most dangerous, inaccurate and inhumane advice given by people who think that they know everything about dogs because they have been showing or breeding for a long time.  Again, dealing with fearful dogs is not “dog training”.
  • A dog who has a fearful episode can remain “heightened” for quite a while.  Dogs that are constantly exposed to things that cause anxiety can literally take days (or longer) to decompress from that level of anxiety.
  • Fear is very real to the individual experiencing it, even if it may seem unreasonable to you.  For instance, I am very anxious of dental visits and plane rides.  I have never had a bad experience in a plane and have not had a bad experience at the dentist in a very long time, still, my panic attacks are uncontrollable.  Because I can choose to go to the dentist or not, to cancel an appointment, to see a dentist that allows me to stop him if I need to, I have somewhat been able to desensitize myself to it so that my fear of the dentist is much better.  However, I cannot ease myself into plane rides as easily, so that panic (of taking off) remains pretty bad.
  • No matter how well trained an animal is, if they become fearful (or otherwise emotional in some way), the reliability of the training will not be as strong.  In other words, emotional state trumps training.  I have trained dogs to lift their tail on cue, however, if they become fearful and part of their physiological response when fearful is to lower their tail, that will happen and they cannot control it as they can when they are emotionally “even”.
  • Our relationship with the dog and the dogs well being comes first, always.
Relationship and Trust
It is critical to me that the dog and owner’s relationship remain strong and intact and that we work to build a lot of trust.  Trust that remains, not just until the owner really wants to win, or really wants the dog in the ring, or is really feeling pressure to show the dog.  The trust comes first, always.  Our job is to protect our dogs and to advocate for them.  If the dog doesn’t have an owner he can trust, he has nothing.
Trust in you and the relationship can be damaged easier than you think.  Handing your dog off to someone he doesn’t know, especially if that person uses force or physical corrections, forcing your dog to be touched when he is afraid, disappearing at a dog show when he isn’t used to that are all ways to breach the trust.
One of my biggest pet peeves is handlers or breeders saying that an owner “coddles” or “spoils” their dog and has no respect for the owner, blah, blah, blah.  What they are really saying is that they are going to do what they want to do with your dog, your dog is going to cope with it, they know your dog better than you and what the dog deems important isn’t.  It is extremely rude and disrespectful to the owner of the dog and the dog himself.
I hope that this post can help people to understand the process of helping fearful show dogs.



Vicki Ronchette is the founder of Show Dog Prep School and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer. Vicki has been working with dogs professionally for over 30 years as a professional dog trainer and behavior consultant, groomer and veterinary assistant. She is the author of Positive Training for Show Dogs, From Shy to Showy and Ready? Set. SHOW! Vicki presents workshops and seminars all over the country on how training show dogs.