My Adopted Dog Has Fear Issues, Now What?!

Walking through the shelter aisles to see what adoptable dogs were there was part of my routine.  As an Adoption Counselor at the county shelter, the first thing I did after signing in for the day was to see which dogs were still in the shelter from my prior shift, and who had been adopted.  I was elated when animals from the prior day had been adopted, but my heart would sink when I'd see the same ones week after week.

Dogs with fear issues can be helped with proper training
This is one of my favorite photos of Phoebe, my once fearful dog
I was checking the cages to see what new dogs had arrived.  That's when I first saw Phoebe.  As I walked the aisles I spotted a cage with two small dogs I hadn't seen before.  They were so adorable!  The female, whom I later named Phoebe, was white and fluffy.  The male looked similar but had some black on his ears and feet.  The kennel card said they were found together "in the field".  In the field didn't mean they were found running through a meadow of flowers somewhere, it's the term used to mean the animal was found in the streets, in the desert, or perhaps in a parking lot.  They were approximately 3-5 years old.  Like most animals that come into the shelter neither were spayed or neutered.  They had no ID tags and no microchip.   


After the required Hold Period, the shelter spayed and neutered both dogs and placed them for adoption.  As I looked through the cage and made little squeeky noises to get their attention, the male came over to me and I pet him.  Phoebe however, was out like a light, still groggy from her spay anesthesia.   

A couple of days later I was back at the shelter volunteering.  As I did my "rounds" I came upon their cage and noticed the male dog was gone.  I had a momentary flutter - he's been adopted!!  But the moment didn't last, the kennel card said there was a problem with his neuter surgery site and he had to be sent back to the clinic.  Phoebe was alone in the cage.  I tried to interact with her but she just lay in her bed, not responding.  I think she was depressed at losing her home and her friend. 

Throughout the day I'd walk by her cage and softly talk to her, trying to coax her out of her bed and over to the door of the cage.  I opened it a few times and pet her.  After a couple of hours she started to stand up and come to the cage door when I walked over and wag her tail.  This was progress!

Long story short, I fell in love with her and ended up adopting Phoebe that day.  I had no idea she would soon exhibit extreme fear issues!   I brought her home and introduced her to my Husky, Icy and my cat, Maggie.  No problem, that went just fine.  I put her in the guest room in a crate, giving her time to adjust to her new home and having her own space.  I used the crate to help her feel safe and to potty train her if needed.


Later that evening, my husband John returned from work and it was time to introduce him to little Phoebe.  John and I sat on the bed and I picked her up for him to pet her.  She seemed to stiffen and didn't interact with him at all.  I put her on the floor and John got down on the floor as well, not far from her.  Suddenly she LEAPED into the air - I swear she jumped 2 feet in the air - and immediately bolted into her crate, cowering in the corner!  My husband and I looked at each other, stunned.  What just happened??  We couldn't imagine what frightened her so much.

Over the following days and weeks we came to the realization that the dog we adopted was terrified of men.  She was even terrified of young boys!   Every time John went near her she would cower and try to hide.  If he was in the same room, she would not even eat her food!  If he walked across the room she would circle away and avoid contact with him.  She looked so wary, as though she expected him to kick her at any given moment.  The consensus among the trainers and behaviorists I talked to was that Phoebe was likely mistreated by a male in her home before she came to the shelter.  

I know many dogs have fear and anxiety issues.  I had seen fearful dogs at the shelter.  Fear issues in dogs can prevent them from being adopted, or cause people to return a fearful dog to the shelter.  If fearful dogs don't get the training and behavior modification they need, it can prevent the dog and his owner from living a full and happy life together.


After the initial shock of learning that the dog we just adopted had fear issues, I knew we had to do something to address her extreme fear of men.  I searched for articles on training fearful dogs.  I re-watched some of Victoria Stilwell's positive reinforcement dog training videos I had seen on Animal Planet.  I knew that dogs with fear issues would benefit from training geared toward creating positive associations with the object of the dog's fear.  We needed to create positive associations for Phoebe with John and get her to love him, so we got to work!

Some of the things that worked well for us to address Phoebe's fear:

> When Phoebe was in her crate, we had John walk by and toss a treat into the crate without making any eye contact with her.

> Throughout the day, John would walk by her, but not too close, and toss a treat her way.  Again without making any eye contact.

> Over time we had John get closer and closer to Phoebe as he tossed treats her way.  Slowly decreasing the distance between them was important.

Treats help create positive associations for fearful dogs
Treats played a big part in helping Phoebe overcome her fear
These actions helped her see that when John was near, good things happened - treats!  Over many weeks, John progressed to the point of being able to give her a treat when he was seated in a chair with her only inches away.  Eventually, she learned to actually come over to him and get the treat.  That was great progress!

> We had John feed her all her meals, touching her dry food to put his scent on it.  He'd put the bowl down and walk away so she would not feel intimidated by him towering over her.  

We discovered that she was more fearful with him in a standing position.  When he was in a seated position he was a lot less scary to her.  Having his scent on her food helped her see that he was the source of her food, a very positive thing!

> John and I took lots of walks with both dogs together so she would know that she was now part of our family of four.   

This helped her get comfortable with our walking routine.  Having Icy on the walks seemed to give her a lot of comfort.  Walking together as a family probably felt like a natural "pack" behavior for her.  Walks were challenging at first, she wouldn't let John walk her and she tried to stay as close to Icy as she could.  I think she felt safer with Icy close by because in her mind Icy offered some form of protection.  

> After she was comfortable with our family "pack" walks, I wanted to get her to a point where John could walk her by himself.  If I became sick, injured, or had to go on a business trip he would need to walk her without me.  One way we dealt with that was for John and I to take her on some walks with just the 3 of us.  She wasn't as comfortable with those walks at first but we kept at it.  After awhile, I started by walking Phoebe for a few minutes, and once she had her walking groove on I'd gently pass the leash to John.  

She didn't even notice the leash transition!  Phoebe soon realized that is was ok for John to be holding the leash and she enjoyed all our walks together, whether Icy was with us or not.

Helping dogs with fear issues
Phoebe is now fear free, a happy, well adjusted member of our family!
Phoebe ultimately learned that good things happened when John was around.  Purely by chance, he discovered that she had a secret love of popcorn!  Discovering that popcorn was an irresistible treat for her was very helpful.  For a long time, John was the ONLY source of popcorn for her.  Needless to say, that helped our training progress quite a bit! 

The same could probably be done with a favorite toy or a new toy, making the object of the dogs fear, be it a person, other dogs, a scary thing, place, or noise, the only opportunity the dog has to get that high value toy.  Good things come to the dog during the dog's perceived "scary" person or thing.

Fortunately, my husband was really wonderful throughout Phoebe's training.  He worked with me for months to help Phoebe get over her Man Terror.  I'd be lying if I said it was a quick & easy process.  It wasn't.  It took time and effort but it definitely paid off.  Phoebe finally came around and realized that John was her Daddy, not something to be feared!   In the morning, she loves to trot over to his side of the bed for the special neck rubs that only Daddy can give!  When he has his morning egg sandwiches, she rushes to his side knowing she will get a nice chunk of egg!

Phoebe is no longer a scared dog. Now she's a super confident, friendly dog who loves meeting new people - including those of the male gender!  She is such a joy.  I'm so glad we took the time to work on her fear issues allowing our sweet, adopted dog to become a wonderful addition to our family.

Working through her fear issues showed Phoebe that not all men are mean.  In fact, some of them will give you delicious popcorn!

DISCLAIMER:  I am not a professional dog trainer, nor do I play one online!  I share my own experiences and learnings, and what has worked for me.  Phoebe was fearful but never aggressive.  If your dog is fearful and Aggressive, I recommend working with a professional dog trainer who is trained to handle aggression in dogs.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

Want to adopting a pet?  8 Important Questions To Ask Before Adopting A Dog
Does your dog think he's a "Landscaper"? How to control your dog's digging in the yard
Moving house?  Tips for a Successful Move With Pets

Have you ever had a fearful dog?  How did you handle it?  Please leave us a comment and share, we LOVE hearing from you!


M. K. Clinton said...

It is so sad to think of anyone being mean to Phoebe. She's such an outgoing and sweet girl. Your love and patience along with John's certainly paid off! Congratulations ❤🐾❤️

Beth said...

I'm so glad that John was able to win Phoebe over. She is darling and I'm glad she got over her man terror.

Three Chatty Cats said...

Wow, what love and dedication you both showed to Phoebe. What a lucky little lady to be with such awesome and caring dog parents. This is a great post and shows that it's possible for dogs to get over man terror. I love that she loves popcorn, too. So cute!

Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them said...

I know, it really upsets me to think that someone was mean to her and may have hurt her. I lover her to pieces & spoil her rotten to make up for it!

Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them said...

Me too! I really appreciate that he worked with her so much, he's so wonderful, I'm very lucky.

Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them said...

Thanks! We definitely loved her so much and wanted to get her through it. This is exactly what I hoped, that people would view this post as a way to demonstrate that you can work with and help a fearful dog. It just takes more time & patience, but it's so worth it. They will love you and be more loyal than you can imagine!

Unknown said...

Phoebe is such a lucky dog to have found you and your patient, understanding husband. Well done for taking the time to understand Phoebe and make her a more confident dog!

bichonpawz said...

Cathy, I can't even begin to tell you how much I can relate to this post! Prior to my adopting LadyBug, I had a Big Guy...a Newf/Lab mix and I adopted him from the shelter when he was only three months old. He was picked up as a stray. He was SO very fearful of was awful! When I think of how people can hurt a harmless just breaks my heart. Zippo was the best dog and I still miss him every day. He has been gone now for several years, but...he was special. A special heart dog. Just like Phoebe. He learned to love most men...although for some stepson...he just couldn't quite get over him. I think he reminded him to much of the dog catcher. They look very similar. Thank you for sharing this heartwarming story.

MattieDog said...

You are such loving and devoted pet parents! This is what it takes when adopting a dog - some are just fine, but many have been through things that are frightening. Not to mention - they have to learn to trust us in order to survive, so are truly vulnerable. Love that you are so caring - and look what you get in a return, a glorious and beautiful dog kiddo!

Kimberly Freeman said...

Very well done. Fearfulness in dogs is never fun. Well done putting in so much work

jank1961 said...

I love to read these success stories, you and John did so great with Phoebe!
Jan, Wag 'n Woof Pets

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