Help for Fearful, Shy & Anxious Dogs

Alice and Olive (Right)

By Alice Crick

Firstly, thanks to Mark for giving me the opportunity to contribute to his wonderful blog. Like Mark, I too am a student studying for KCAI accreditation. I am very lucky to own five wonderful dogs, all of whom have their very own unique little characters and all of whom keep me on my toes – there is never a dull moment in our house!  Over at my Dog Blog, I write about various dog training and behavioural techniques review the latest canine products on the market and share the latest news from the dog world. I use my blog as outlet for my writing and as a place to explore my learning.

It is fair to say that all dogs are individuals. Throughout their life they will have different experiences that will shape how they interact with their owners, other people, dogs and other animals. If you have been lucky enough to own a dog from a puppy, then you will, I am sure, be aware of the importance of socialisation and habituation – they ways in which you assist your new four-legged friend to get accustomed to the big wide world. If, like me, you fall hopelessly head over heels in love with a rescue dog that has had absolutely no socialisation, no guidance and no real human interaction for the first seven years of its life; then you realize that you have a bit of a problem on your hands.

The Effects of Social Isolation

This brings me on to talk about Olive the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, the very rescue dog that caused me to totally re-think what I thought I knew about canine behaviour.

Social isolation had left Olive in a constant state of fear and anxiety.  As soon as we brought her home, it became very apparent that we had a very displaced little dog. To begin with, every possible normal everyday activity scared the living daylights out of her; the clink of keys being placed on the kitchen table sent her scooting off behind the sofa, the sound of the post being put through the letterbox was enough to send her into a state of shock as she shot ten-feet up into the air with fright. On top of all of this, the main concern for me was that I wasn’t able to give Olive the exercise she needed and take her for a walk because the second the lead was clipped to her collar she hit the deck. This really was a sorry state of affairs and it really broke my heart to see such a beautiful little dog suffer in such a way.

Identifying the Problem

Determined to help her overcome this, I decided to research ‘Help for Fearful Shy and Anxious dogs’. Here’s a little summary of my findings and the subsequent steps I took to rehabilitate my dog.

When a dog feels scared or threatened, it will usually do at least one of four things:

  • Freeze (become motionless and hope that the threat goes away)
  • Flee (run away from the threat to safety)
  • Fidget about (show inappropriate, strange or appeasement behaviours for  that situation, in an attempt to distract the threat, or show it that they mean  no harm)
  • Fight (show aggressive behaviour, starting from aggressive displays such  as growling, teeth baring and snapping, to actually attacking to make the  threat go away).

In Olive’s case she suffered from ‘Freeze’ or as I called it – the ‘hedgehog syndrome’. This occurred when she saw or heard something that really spooked her, causing her to automatically curl up into a tight little ball.  Thank goodness Olive didn’t display any aggressive behaviour you may say, but I still had my concerns.

In Olive’s case she suffered from ‘Freeze’ or as I called it – the ‘hedgehog syndrome’

Despite fighting being something that dogs will always try to avoid,  there are certain circumstances that will enable a dog to learn that aggressive behaviour is the best way to eliminate the threat. This occurs because appeasement behaviours haven’t worked in the past.

An additional problem I faced was that once a dog has learned to be scared of something, the fear that he feels can affect the brain and memory formation and actually displace new learning. This meant that it was near impossible to teach Olive not to be scared of that something while she was still being exposed to it.

For Example…

The mechanisms within a dog’s body that cope with stress and fear are only meant to be activated over really short periods of time. To explain this I shall give an example; If a wild animal is attacked and subsequently killed then that’s the end of it – no more fear. If a wild animal is attacked but manages to escape – then it has simply escaped the fear and that’s the end of that. However, dogs like Olive have to cope with fear and stress over long periods of time and a dog’s body just wasn’t built to cope with this. It is here that we see all sorts of problems developing such as depression and aggression, as well as chronic health problems. A dog who is suffering from chronic fear is likely to be ‘set off’ by the slightest thing, so that the owner may not even notice what has triggered the attack, or problem behaviour, from the dog.

So how on earth did we do it? How did we rehabilitate this dog with such a nervous disposition? Well, we started with habituation (learning about which things won’t harm you). This was rather tricky because to a habituate a dog to something new, you need to expose the dog to it, but there must never be any fear present – which we believed to be near impossible with Olive as her fears and phobias of objects and sounds had already developed.  In this scenario, it was essential to avoid encountering the fear object or situation until we changed her perception of the ‘scary thing’ using ‘desensitisation’ and ‘counter-conditioning’ (CC&D) techniques.

An example of this would be desensitising Olive to the strange long piece of material, the scary lead. We had established that the fear set in when the lead was clipped to her collar. It was at this time that the lead became the object of fear that caused the ‘hedgehog syndrome’. The goal was to expose Olive to a low level ‘trigger’ which evoked the unwanted response, and then to decrease the distance and the amount of stimulus gradually to where Olive can ‘control’ the situation emotionally. So, to put it simply, rather than rush in and clip the lead straight onto her collar causing a mini-heart attack, we simply left the un-clipped lead on the floor and began to associate it with a positive experience.  I can’t tell you how many hours were spent on the kitchen floor praising Olive with chicken or cheese every time she approached the lead! I found food to be the best indicator to read Olive’s level of stress, fear and anxiety. I knew that if I went too fast through the levels of desensitising, and Olive was not ready, she would stop taking treats if the level of stimulus (trigger) was too high for her.

Success! Olive soon became accustomed to the lead’s presence and she didn’t shy away from it. The next small step was placing the lead closer to her and then after this it was clipping the lead to her collar making sure that by this time, the lead was no longer a threat to her– again same methods used – always with lots of positivity and praise.  

So, to put it simply, rather than rush in and clip the lead straight onto her collar causing a mini-heart attack, we simply left the un-clipped lead on the floor and began to associate it with a positive experience

After this huge hurdle we let Olive wander about the garden with the lead dragging behind her. This helped her to further get accustomed to it and over the period of about four months (I am afraid if really did take that long), we were then able to pick the lead up and gradually, step by step – hold it at walking height. Because there was no fear, Olive got used to the lead (or the new thing) over a period of time. Patience, time and positive reinforcement methods helped Olive overcome her fear and she now associates the lead with a positive experience – “walkies”!

Adapting to Everyday Environment

Dogs need to be habituated to all sorts of things in the environment around them such as moving traffic, fire-alarms, car exhausts, vacuum cleaners etc. The more things a dog is habituated to, the less fear he will have in his life and the safer he will generally feel. The more often you allow the dog to be scared of something, the more scared the dog will become and the more ingrained the fear. Ultimately though, any dog with a behaviour problem causing concern must first be seen by a vet to rule out possible physical causes, before being referred to a reputable dog behaviourist.

Now nearly three years on we are absolutely thrilled to say that Olive is how a healthy, happy little dog. I can’t tell you what a joy it is to her tail furiously wagging with excitement and not waging low to the ground with nervous apprehension or permanently tucked between her legs. I am sure the calm input of our other dogs helped her with her progress as she and the gang are now inseparable. Olive and I are now at the intermediate stage of our training and we hope to complete the Kennel Club’s Good Citizen Dog Scheme very soon.

Alice Crick, Working towards Accreditation in the Kennel Club Scheme for Instructors in Dog Training and Canine Behaviour

Visit Alice at: or follow her on Twitter @DogBlogsUK / @Alice_Crick

The gang -  Olive is far right


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