Fearful dogs

Adopting a fearful dog is perhaps the most rewarding aspect of rescue, but also the most challenging. From the very first moment you set eyes on them, you may be drawn to help them. However, much of what we want to do – comfort and protect the dog – can be overwhelming and frightening for the animal. Frightened animals are more likely to attack than any other emotional state if they feel they have no way out. Helping them cope with the first few days and keeping them safe are your only priorities. Sadly, far too many fearful dogs run away in the first moments of life in a new home, and a percentage of those dogs are found dead or are never found.


Debbie Jones is a dog trainer who works with fearful dogs and has written an excellent book that will help you understand the rehabilitation process. Best of all, Debbie will give you lots of hope that you can turn your nervous Nelly into a dog that can enjoy life without medication or without fear.

Whilst you won’t find any answers here, there are a couple of aspects to be mindful of when adopting a fearful dog. The first aspect is that any dog can be fearful given a change in circumstances. You think of your home and your love as a wonderful gift for a dog: you are rescuing it and it seems bizarre to think that for many dogs, this is a terrifying experience. The shelter has often been a constant, where routines stay the same and where they have little interaction. Believe it or not, interaction can be the most fearful thing. Hands are no comfort. The house is a corner that they can’t escape from. For this reason, a gentle hand, a kind heart and a warm home might not be what you think it should be.

The second thing to bear in mind is the new collar. Most people don’t like their dog’s collar to be too tight. Even if you do the ‘two finger test’ to ensure the collar is tight but not too tight, many dogs can get out of it. Many dogs are fine in a collar or with a lead on it if they pull forward, but if they back up, they can easily get out of it. The same is true of a harness. A slip lead may seem like a cruel choice, but a lead that maintains pressure is the best thing for a fearful dog at the beginning. Fearful dogs can take advantage of a slackening off, so two leads – a harness lead and a slip lead – will ensure that you don’t lose your dog. Catching a fearful dog is virtually impossible and many will take to the hills to find a place they consider space.

The third thing to consider is transport. Many fearful dogs are on super-alert in a car. It may be the way they were dumped, the way they were picked up. It’s a tiny, enclosed space where they cannot escape. Not surprisingly, some new owners open a car door and the dog is off before they can grab the lead. A secure harness is absolutely vital.

Bearing these last two aspect in mind can certainly help keep your dog from escaping. When it comes to fight or flight, flight is a huge risk for fearful dogs. Fight is the other. Be very conscious that you are more likely to get bitten by a dog who is cornered, so picking up a fearful dog, closing in on them or otherwise making it impossible for them to run away can end badly. Space and security once in the home are vital.

If the journey goes well and you manage to keep hold of your fearful dog until you get them home, many people assume the worst is over and find their dogs have absconded in the first twenty-four hours. Don’t ever assume your dog won’t climb or dig, or even just plough through a fence. The garden is their exit point and if you leave them unsupervised, you may find they find a way out. This is especially true if something happens whilst they are in the garden: unexpected sounds can set off a flight-or-fight response.

On average, it can take up to eight weeks for cortisol levels to drop back down to normal after a stressful event like moving home or getting in a car, so patience and watchfulness are vital.

Many dogs form quick bonds once they understand their new routines and new owners, but two things can bring old feeling to a head: being alone and being out on a walk. We think walks are great fun and that dogs enjoy them. We tell ourselves that we all need exercise and that we enjoy the change of scenery. This is not especially true of a fearful dog. Every noise is a potential threat and every movement brings fear. And although your fearful dog might not be bonding with you easily, it does not mean that they are happy to be left on their own. This can set off feelings of abject panic for those left confined in a house from which they cannot escape. Many dogs will injure themselves in their attempts to save themselves.  Be prepared for a long journey to overcoming separation anxiety, especially if your dog is an only dog.

If your dog is incredibly fearful, please enlist the help of a behaviourist or your vet. Medication and behaviour modification can make a huge difference. Most dogs will make good progress with calm, patient and gentle guidance. Indeed, one of our most scared hounds managed to get away from her owner recently, following a scare out on a walk. With two frantic days of searching, we feared the worst. Yet one day, Illia came walking back down the road to her home. It is massive progress when a fearful dog will do this, although we are lucky she wasn’t hit by a car or injured in any other way. Many fearful dogs just disappear and are never seen again. That’s the sad reality of not being quite vigilant enough and thinking love is enough to cure their ills. For Shanna, Nutella, Jordan, Indy and many other ex-refuge dogs, sometimes they get lucky and we find them again. Sometimes they don’t and we are left with the sinking feeling that they have been killed in one way or another.