Knowing When

One of the most important aspects of helping a fearful dog is knowing when your dog can handle more.

Change is good for your fearful dog, just like it’s good for a “regular” dog. It may even be better. Dogs like Silas are intense about their environment. New sounds, new smells, new people, new surfaces, new sights; those things are all extremely present to a fearful dog. Everything gets noticed. One of the frustrations of a fearful dog, in fact, is that your dog notices a hundred things that you couldn’t possibly notice, and will sometimes react in a seemingly random way.

It’s easiest by far with a fearful dog to use a rigidly controlled routine. We turn left at the corner, and nothing bad happens, and then we turn right at the next corner, and nothing bad happens. We eat breakfast at 8:30, and nothing bad happens. You can trust the people in this room at this store. There are no dogs in the good park at 3:30 on Tuesdays.

What I’ve noticed with Silas, though, is that the more we lock into a routine, the more suspicious he gets of anything that is not a part of that routine. Going a different route at the park, for instance, gets harder and harder for him the more times we go the same way.

While you might think that there isn’t any harm in something like going the same way at the park every time, we’ve seen some bad fallout from it. Sometimes trails are closed. Sometimes the park changes. The formerly “best” park is now the “scariest” park, because some trees got cut down.

The balance between familiar-enough and horizon-expanding is, for me, the hardest thing about life with a fearful dog. Too much, too soon, and you reinforce the idea that the world is really scary. To a certain point, the comfort that comes from routine is a confidence booster. Not enough, and you get increased fear of anything out of the ordinary.

Here’s what I’m discovering: you are going to mess it up sometimes, but your dog is more resilient than you think. As long as we’re on the scale of minor infractions–being wrong about going to a new park, for instance, or taking a too-large step while counterconditioning against reactivity, you’ll both be fine. You’ll also get some good feedback about what not to do next time.

One thought on “Knowing When

  1. I learn so much from your experiences with Silas…Though I don’t have a reactive dog, some day I might…meanwhile, your lessons often translate to behaviors I see in my “average” dog…thank you


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