Welcome to Empowerment for Fearful Dogs

Welcome! Having a fearful dog isn't easy. In fact it is exhausting. But there are solutions that can help you lessen your dog's fears and help turn them into a brave and balanced companion.

This section is to acquaint you with what fear is, how untreated fear effects your dog and your relationship, give you suggestions for supplemental tools to use in your everyday life, and more. 

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
— Frank Herbert, Dune

What is Fear?

Fear is the body's natural response to a perceived threat. There is no arguing with fear. You can't tell your pet they they do or do not need to feel fear. You also can't reinforce it by supporting or comforting your pet.  What we can do is understand that what causes fear is a combination of brain chemistry, previous experiences, and trauma. Once we understand what is causing our pet's fear, we can carefully adjust their experiences until there feel more secure and eventually confident and brave.

Understanding Untreated Fear

Untreated fear tends to escalate. If a dog perceives a threat as something they need to control, they will usually control it with aggression. This is especially the case when escape is prevented. Examples might be when you're holding your dog, on leash, under a table, at the vet, etc. Fear does not evaporate on its own. "Socialization" a hot topic in pet ownership, ends at 16 weeks. So unless your dog is younger than that, you have to consider other avenues. You also cannot be eliminated through force. 

Supplemental Tools to Help Your Pup

There are many supplemental tools when dealing with fear. They include:

Thunder Shirts

DAP Collar

Calming Cap


How to Understand How Your Dog Is Feeling


How We Use Food and Movement 

We use food in conjunction with a trigger to create a positive association. Exposure alone does little to affect fear response but the chemical association food causes can slowly change a dog's opinion of something scarey. Movement is used to slow the dog down, give them some control of approach and escape and in general, empower the dog to make brave choices. 

What to Expect

Conquering fear takes time. This is especially the case in older dogs and dogs have are recovering from trauma. But dogs are resilient creatures and when given the right tools, will usually choose the path of conjuring rather than cowering. Be patient and apply what you learn in this class. You will be pleasantly surprised at your dog's process.

Week 1 - The Lay of the Land

The first step in Empowerment is teaching your dog how to feel safe in the location they are presently in at any given time. We do this through food, comfort, and escape. 


Food is used to create a positive association with a scary or stressful stimuli. When applied to a new location, we sprinkle food on the ground and allow the dog to eat it, while taking in the environment almost subconsciously. If the dog will not eat the treats sprinkled on the ground, they are likely too stressed and anxious already. Under these circumstances, sprinkle the treats in a corner behind a chair or other object far away from stimuli or if outside, sprinkle treats in grass or bushes a distance away from distractions and stressors.


It is impossible to reinforce fear with comfort. If your dog is afraid, please comfort them. But make sure you are comforting them in ways that they like. Most dogs prefer to be held or clutched rather than petted. Other dogs hate to be restrained and prefer petting. Learn your dog's preferences. When your dog is anxious and looking for reassurance, support your dog with a soothing voice and comforting touch. 


If neither of the the other two things mentioned above are helping your dog, then what they need is escape to move away from the thing causing them stress. Distance allows the dog to calm down, stop the flow of stress hormones, and allow the dog to reassess the situation. Without escape dogs will freeze or worse, react aggressively to make the stressor go away. Preventing escape can also traumatize a dog to future attempts are facing the thing they are frightened of. Escape does not have to mean quitting and never returning. It can mean walking the dog away momentarily and then bringing them back to the situation. Without escape the dog has no control, and without control we can't have empowerment.

Start Slow

Don't take locations for granted. Slight changes in location, environment, and even surfaces can count as something new to conquer. "New locations" that deserve their own attention include; the car, your spouse's car, the vet, the groomer, your street, downtown, festivals, the park, that other park, the deserted park, the busy park, the dog park, your friend's house, your relative's house, two blocks down, etc. Note that basically I am mentioning every location in your pets life. That's correct. Because for a fearful dog, every location in their life is another place they will need support and training until they get the hang out how to acclimate and be brave.

See No Evil, Hear No Evil

Take sounds and sights into consideration. Loud or strange noises need to each be addressed individually and ideally in a setting familiar to the dog. When that isn't possible, treat a sound just as you would a new location and use the - food, comfort, escape method.  Note that changes to how objects in the environment are set up matter too. The relocation of a garbage can, road sign, bicycle, car, etc can change how your dog feels in that environment. The more you take for granted, the harder your dog will struggle. Consider the finer details and then support your dog through conquering them.

Get out and practice!

Make practice part of your routine. Try to take your dog to a new place once a week, using the food, comfort, escape method.

Week 2 - Strangers

One of the primary situations in which most owners struggle with fear is when their dog is around strangers - human or canine. It's easy to feel frustrated when your dog isn't excited to say hello, or perhaps tries to get away, or worse yet, growls, lunges, or snaps.

Importance of Escape

As mentioned last week, escape is highly important. In situations with strangers, a lack of escape can turn fear into aggression. Dog's easily feel trapped when on a leash, held by the collar or being carried in your arms. Your dog knows that they cannot flee and when confronted by a stranger who frightens them, they are have no other option to make the stranger go away than to bark, lunge, snap or even bite. Never discipline your dog for growling, snapping, or lunging. Correcting your dog will only take the warning away and leave you with a biting dog who attacks without warning. Instead respect your dog's message and get them away from the thing they are uncomfortable with and move to the next step below.

Create a Positive Association

Exposure alone, or mixed with comforting words and petting will not get your pet over their fear. A positive association needs to be created with the thing they're afraid of. This usually means food. When it comes to strangers and stranger dogs, do not feed the dog closer than 5 feet from the strangers. Also do not have human strangers food your dog. This puts too much pressure on the dog . Instead feed the dog for looking at the stranger/other dog. Repeat this until your dog loses interest. 

It's NOT Socialization Anymore

Bringing your dog into new situations and to meet new people/dogs is not socialization. It is called exposure or acclimation. "Socialization" ends when the dog is 16 weeks old. That's it. So when the dog is no longer a tiny puppy, general exposure will not solve a dog's fear problem and will instead create behavior problems like reactivity and aggression. Make sure you take the time to slowly introduce your dog to new locations and to new people/dogs using food to create a positive association. Do not force your dog to accept petting or other contact and keep visits short.

Quit While You're Ahead

Keep visits with new people and other dogs short so that success has a chance to set in. If the dog is becoming brave, don't "see where it goes". Your dog will eventually become overwhelmed and now the good association has been replaced with a bad one. Have first meetings be about 4-6 seconds and then move the dog away. You can repeat these introductions 5-10 times during the same visit as long as the dog acts happy and empowered. If the dog starts to show stressed body language - STOP! Try to end on a good note. It is fine if the person or other dog does not touch your dog. In fact that is prefered.

Week 3 - Handling

Touching a fearful dog can be challenging. Usually the attempt to dodge you, slip away, or worse, bite. Retraining a dog like this for vet care or grooming is usually even worse. It is the job of a fearful dog owner to help their dog feel better about touching and handling so that when situations arise when they must be touched, they are not frightened or deeply traumatized.

Touching the Body

Any part of a dog's body might be sensitive. Help your dog by touching them while they are licking a spoon or out of a container. Touch their ears, lips, teeth, toes, nails, base of the tail, stomach and anus. Every spot is important for health monitoring as well as grooming. Start out slow and if your dog pulls away stop feeding them and let them take a break. Then continue.

Tool Use

Make sure to practice tool use as well. Touch your dog on the body with a brush, nail clipper, Dremel (for nail grinding), thermometer, toothbrush, stethoscope, etc. Start by touching the dog in random locations while they eat. The focus on the location the tool is used. Then press the fur in the area the tool is used. Etc until the dog is comfortable with the tool touching them.


For a fearful dog, restraint is terrifying. We talk about control and empowerment in this class. Restraint takes both of those away. To counteract the loss of control we do everything we can to make restraint pay well and make the dog feel okay. Begin by reaching under the dog while they are receiving lots of treats. Then reach your arm around the front of their chest below the neck. VERY slowly increase the restraint. If the dog bucks or fights you, release them. This is not a battle of wills. This is desensitization which means we have to make it a great experience for the dog. Take it slow! And take it on the road. Practice in parking lots, at the vet, the groomer, and other parts of your house. Make it a normal but well rewarded part of your routine.

Muzzle Training

Muzzle training is beneficial for all involved. Use of a muzzle means no one can get hurt. In case of emergency or a situation that might require firmer handling than we would like, a muzzle puts everyone at ease.

Handout for muzzle training will be available soon! Hang tight!