Home > Dog Behavior, Dog Training, Interviews, Pet Safety, Pet Topics, Puppy Mills > Meet Debbie Jacobs! The Fearful Dogs’ Friend

Meet Debbie Jacobs! The Fearful Dogs’ Friend

I have been wanting to interview Debbie Jacobs (from FearfulDogs.com) for some time now. Her dedication to helping fearful dogs and their owners makes her not only an interesting person but also a great one. But, I think she is a great resource for ANY dog owner. That’s why I wanted to highlight her on my blog. Read on to learn more about Debbie Jacobs and fearful dogs.

Debbie Jacobs CPDT-KA, CAP2, is the author of “A Guide To Living With & Training A Fearful Dog”, which was a finalist in the 2008 Dog Writers Association of America’s annual writing competition. This popular Ebook is now also available in hard copy.

She lives in Vermont with her husband and 4 dogs and created the fearfuldogs.com website to help owners and trainers learn about the most effective and humane ways to work with fearful dogs. She met her fearful dog Sunny, the inspiration for the fearfuldogs website at the Humane Society of Louisiana’s Camp Katrina after the hurricanes of 2005.

Debbie – Thanks so much for agreeing to this interview. To start with…

What is a fearful dog?
Good question. Plenty of dogs are afraid of some things, some of the time. Being afraid helps keep animals alive. Zebras wouldn’t last long if they weren’t afraid of being eaten by lions. I use ‘fearful dog’ to describe dogs that suffer from anxiety related disorders or phobias.

What causes a dog to be fearful?
Certain medical conditions can cause dogs to behave fearfully. It is important to rule these out. Pain or injury can cause a dog to behave in a fearful way. If your back hurts when people pick you up, you might start acting afraid when you are going to be picked up. If your hips hurt you might try to avoid going up stairs.

A genetic predisposition can cause a dog to be fearful. Anyone who has raised children can attest to the fact that personalities in children can be observed from very young ages. Some kids rush right in, while others hang back. Dogs can be the same way. Since we cannot test for this and since many of us get our dogs as adults, we will never know if this is why our dog is fearful, shy or anxious.

Trauma and abuse can cause a dog to become fearful. Most people assume that a dog that behaves in a fearful way was beaten, hurt or abused. That well may have been the case but one of the leading causes of fear based behaviors in dogs is the following- The lack of adequate and appropriate socialization when the dog was a pup. There is a window of opportunity during which puppies need to be exposed, safely, to novel objects, situations, new people, sounds and experiences. If this doesn’t happen, there is no going back and ‘fixing’ it.

Are there certain characteristics or behaviors people are more likely to see in a fearful dog?
Most people can identify when dogs are afraid if they cower, hide or run away. These are ‘big’ behaviors that are easy to notice. There are many other ‘smaller’ more subtle behaviors that dogs perform which indicate varying degrees of fear or discomfit. A dog might yawn, lick their lips, lower their head, turn their head, tuck their tail, squint or close their eyes, freeze, pant, drool, shed, sweat from their paws, pee or roll over. A dog behaving in an overt aggressive manner is often afraid. When we see aggression in dogs it can be scary to us and we are less inclined to empathize with the dog. Most dogs go through a series of attempts to make whatever scares them go away or leave them alone, When it doesn’t work they may begin to escalate toward a more aggressive response. This is not an attempt to ‘dominate’ their owner, a stranger or other dog, it’s how a dog says, “Really, I mean it, back off.”

How does a fearful dog’s behavior differ from a “normal” dog?
In some cases a fearful dog can behave like other dogs that are not fearful. If a dog is not exposed to the things that scare them, they may be happy and confident. It is only around these things that their fear based behavioral responses are seen. Dogs without problematic anxiety or fear, typically recover quickly from being scared or startled. A fearful dog may need a longer time to recover from a scary episode. Fearful dogs’ behavior will often get worse, rather than better the more they are exposed to things that scare them.

You help a lot of people with fearful dogs, what are some of the common issues you come across?
Common issues for the dogs include; fear of people, other dogs or novelty (sudden changes in their environment)
Common issues for owners include; a lack of understanding of how to handle dogs that are afraid. They usually don’t realize the time, energy and patience their dog is going to require in order to develop more confidence.

What are some common mistakes people make when working with their fearful dog (i.e., one they adopted)?
In general most owners put too much pressure on their dogs without understanding how counter conditioning and desensitization are used. They try to change their dog’s behavior rather than try to change their dog’s emotional response. Change the emotion and the behavior usually changes along with it. People often want and need their dog to behave a certain way and use force or coercion to get these behaviors from their dog. Dogs are punished, corrected, yelled at and generally scared, in the name of ‘training’.

So what are some basic things an owner can do to help/work with a fearful dog?
Understanding triggers, thresholds, counter conditioning and desensitization provides the foundation for the work with do with our fearful dogs. To begin with, stop putting your dog in situations in which the dog is afraid. A dog will not learn to feel good about something or someone until they stop being scared by it. Each fearful response just makes it more likely that that response will be repeated in the future. Our fearful dogs’ brains have become very good at being scared and easily startled. We need to stop having them practice that. Keep your dog in situations in which the dog feels safe and never feels the need to run or resort to aggressive behavior to protect themselves. Only when you understand how rewards are used to change how our dogs feel should you begin to expose your dogs to its triggers. Figure out what rocks your dog’s world. What do they love to do, what makes them feel great? Give them as many opportunities during the day to experience these activities. Building a positive, trusting relationship with your dog is also key. Few of us would want to hang out with someone who always made us do things that scared us. Why would our dogs?

What videos/blog posts/etc (from your website) would you recommend a new fearful dog owner check out?
Owners should visit fearfuldogs.com and click through the site. There’s lots of information and resources. The first step to changing our fearful dogs’ brains usually includes changing ours.

My many thanks to Debbie Jacobs for this interview!

As an added note, I would also recommend you check out Debbie’s blog. She not only shares some great food for thought (applicable to all dog owners), but also some additional info for owners with fearful dogs. It’s also a great place to meet other people with fearful dogs. We’ve created a nice little community of support there which has been greatly helpful to so many people, including ,myself.

  1. Kristine
    January 20, 2011 at 11:21 PM

    Great interview! I know I have learned a lot from Debbie Jacobs’ blog and website. Somehow I didn’t realise she had an ebook available but I will now have to check that out as well. She is so full of information and experience. I wish I had known about her years ago when I first adopted my dog.

    • Mel
      January 21, 2011 at 4:11 AM

      Kristine – I say that all of the time! When I was looking for support in working with my Daisy I couldn’t find anyone (until Carolyn Mueller-another phenomenal person!). I didn’t find out until the Pet Blogger’s Challenge why I didn’t find Debbie’s site. She started it about 2 months after I stopped looking. So glad I found her now!

  2. January 21, 2011 at 12:53 AM

    Wonderful interview and interviewee! Perfect questions; makes me want to know more! Debbie is always such a perfect resource for not only fearful dogs, but behavior training in general. Thanks for writing this, Mel!

    • Mel
      January 21, 2011 at 4:08 AM

      Thanks Hilary! I’ve been wanting to interview Debbie for some time now. I am so glad I could share her site and knowledge with others.

  3. January 21, 2011 at 10:38 AM

    Wonderful interview – much needed information! So many don’t understand how to deal with a fearful dog or what that even means. Debbie Jacobs’ blog is one of the best “go to” places to learn and keep learning! Thanks!

    • Mel
      January 22, 2011 at 4:41 AM

      Thanks Mary! That’s why I wanted to conduct an interview. Helping owners to understand whether or not they have a fearful dog is the first step to getting help. Although, Debbie’s blog and website are helpful to all dog owners.

  4. January 21, 2011 at 11:38 PM

    Great interview! I recently discovered the Fearful Dogs blog and we’ve already learned so much. Gus deals with anxiety issues and we’re always looking for ways to make him feel more at ease.

    • Mel
      January 22, 2011 at 4:37 AM

      Thanks Gus! I am glad you found Debbie and her website and blog. She is a great resource for any dog owner, but for those of us with fearful dogs she is a godsend.

  5. January 22, 2011 at 7:25 PM

    By the way, I can attest to Debbie’s comments under “What causes a dog to be fearful?” (last paragraph). There really is “no going back and fixing it” when a dog is not socialized as a pup.

    Jasper spent most of the first year of his life in a pet shop window (and no, I did not buy him. He was my foster when I adopted him), and as a result of his lack of socialization he is often afraid of new things in his environment, especially in the backyard or house. New situations can be very overwhelming for him. He either freaks out or shuts down. If you didn’t know his background, it would be very easy to misunderstand his reactions to new things in his environment. Fortunately, this has not transferred to people. He loves them!

    Socialization is SO very important when you have a puppy. I cannot emphasize that enough.

  6. January 26, 2011 at 8:27 AM

    We love Debbie here are GoPetFriendly.com – we’ve learned so much from her blog. She has a great way of making these concepts seem so simple.

    • Mel
      January 26, 2011 at 9:11 AM

      I have learned a lot from her too Amy.

  7. June 13, 2011 at 8:05 AM

    Great interview with a great advocate for fearful dogs – I love Debbie’s blog and writing. Couldn’t agree more with her comment to “Change the emotion and the behavior usually changes along with it” – it’s something we see time and time again with TTouch – as the dog feels more relaxed the behaviour often changes on its own. An important message when so many so called “solutions” completely ignore the dog’s emotional responses. Thanks for this.

  1. January 24, 2011 at 6:58 PM

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