Home > Animal Rescue, Daisy, Photos, Puppy Mills > Fearful dogs – Tread softly. Be gentle. Be kind.

Fearful dogs – Tread softly. Be gentle. Be kind.

Daisy close up


I’ve been thinking about this blog post, a cautionary letterever since a friend shared it with me the this past weekend.

It is a tale of a fearful dog stuck in a situation that too many fearful dogs are stuck in –  in a home where the owner chooses to go with a trainer who ends up harming the dog more than helping him.

The woman’s story brought to mind all the times I have seen a fearful dog corrected using training methods that were not only less than helpful, but often harmful to the dog.

It reminded me of a blog post comment I once received from a young woman who had taken in a very shy and fearful dog after he had been rescued from living on the streets. She had expressed hope that perhaps one day her new dog would be more like Daisy is today – less fearful and more confident around people and other dogs. She also shared how a friend had recently come over, and after seeing her dog, told her that the way to work with him was to show him she was the alpha. She should show him who was boss and then everything would be alright. (Yeah right. That’ll teach your fearful dog not to be afraid.) I sure hope she trusted her gut and went the other way.

I am truly disheartened when I see fearful dog owners buying into the belief that using an aggressive training approach will lead to better or more  immediate results than time, a gentle touch, an encouraging voice and patience. It makes me shudder to think that Daisy might have ended up in a home where that was approach used on her.

For me, the pleasure has been in seeing Daisy blossom of her own accord. Yes, I helped along the way, but mostly I let her set the tone and pace of her own progress. I didn’t rush her. I let her decide when I was worth trusting. I let her have a say in her progress. In doing so, I believe I empowered her to explore, to try new things, to meet new people and to share her happiness with me.  That’s not to say an owner can’t help a fearful dog along more quickly (without force), but for me it’s always been about the journey. Both of us together. Learning from one another.

I can’t help the woman or the dog who she wrote about in that piece (God I wish I could), but I hope sharing my journey with Daisy has helped some people to see that there is another way. A way that is both gentle and kind and better than the one that uses force.


  1. July 30, 2013 at 12:36 AM

    An important post…thank you for writing it!

    • Mel
      July 30, 2013 at 6:57 AM

      THanks Audrey. I really appreciate your comment.

  2. July 30, 2013 at 1:21 AM

    My Gretel was very fearful when I adopted her. I guess she still is fearful but just not as much. I have been trying to teach her to be confident and to sooth herself but basically stepped back to let her be who she was an progress or not progress at her own pace. The changes have been slow but so rewarding because I know she is choosing when she can feel safe enough to take a figurative step forward. Maybe I am not helping her along “enough” but I would rather take that road than one of fear, dominance and too-high expectations.

    • Mel
      July 30, 2013 at 6:55 AM

      I love that Jessica! Yes. I also used to think I was not helping Daisy enough. I don’t anymore. I did what was good for her. It may have taken a little longer, but she is so much happier and healthier and more confident than I could have ever expected. I think every dog is different, but if Gretel is happy and not shaking in fear all of the time, I’d say you did what was right for her. She is lucky to have you.

  3. July 30, 2013 at 2:42 AM

    ❤ love!

    • Mel
      July 30, 2013 at 6:51 AM

      🙂 Thanks Nancy. Thanks for sharing that piece too.

  4. July 30, 2013 at 4:49 AM

    Very important. My Aunt’s dog Missy really suffered before she was rescued and to this day she flinches away from men but she is getting so much better through gentleness and positive rewards for good things she does. She even sat down next to my dad last time we visited which is such a huge step for her. Aggressive training should never be the way. You would not be like that with a frightened child, so why would you with a dog or any other animal for that matter?


    • Mel
      July 30, 2013 at 6:51 AM

      Amen to that Amy. I so agree. How wonderful to read about your aunt’s dog and her progress. That is such a huge step! Kudos to your aunt for choosing to be gentle and kind. What a lucky dog to have found her.

    • July 30, 2013 at 7:32 AM

      Yes, that’s why “cat people” seem to understand “scaredy-dogs” better… The problem comes when dogs aren’t trembling and hiding, but reactive, barking and lunging. So people think they are aggressive and “dominant.”

  5. July 30, 2013 at 6:13 AM

    Thanks for sharing this important information. It is easy for us to get impatient with our dogs. Have a great day.

  6. July 30, 2013 at 7:19 AM

    I just don’t understand some people who think this way. By using a hard-handed approach, you’re only making a fearful dog more fearful. Why don’t they understand this. They should put themselves in the dog’s situation to answer this question.

  7. July 30, 2013 at 7:37 AM

    Mel, that blog story was indeed awful. It got a lot of comments! . I am SO glad that I rejected the terrible techniques that Australian company was pushing. And did it quickly before Stoli was damaged.

  8. July 30, 2013 at 8:46 AM

    Very important point! My dog June is fearful, but we were lucky enough to find a trainer that knows she needs tons of positive reinforcement. I often wonder if some other family had chosen her… would she be back at the shelter for being “defiant.”

  9. July 30, 2013 at 10:23 AM

    Me and Mama so agree! I was completely fearful when Mama took me home, but Mama believes in teaching, healing, and gaining loyalty through Love, not fear! Mama is the bestest at healing and loving scared pups! Thank you for posting this! Woooowoooooo, Ku

  10. July 30, 2013 at 11:02 AM

    I am disheartened sometimes, feeling that we’re just ultimately failing our Lovie. While she continues to learn to trust, and finds happiness and courage and gets more comfortable in her own skin …and places an absolute trust in us, her humans … something out of the blue, as simple as my husband (who hasn’t ever lifted a voice or a finger to any of the critters here on Dancing Dog Farm or ever anywhere in the Universe!!) replacing his black T-shirt with a Hawaiian shirt, colorful and flowery and one she has indeed seen him wear before, will send her careening back into her fearful, shadow world. She just shuts down. And it makes me weep. For her. But also, selfishly, for me.
    And then …. for no apparent reason, she shifts, and is back to being her joyous, goofy, happy self.
    While I’ve been blessed with an abundance of precious canine companions all of my life, I have never had the opportunity to live with/learn from one as fearful as Mz Lovie Snugglebum. Sometimes I really feel I just don’t have the resources to truly help her. I’ve sought help from trainers and behaviorists, but so far it has not really seemed to be understoond that Lovie does not have ‘behavioral issues’, but she simply is a Fearful Dog, and I am the one who needs the training in order to best help her. I’ve had to pull back, before any harm can be done to the fragile strength we’ve helped to grow in her. I take great solace in your blog … following your journey with Daisy gives me hope.
    Thank you.

  11. July 30, 2013 at 12:05 PM

    When I started fostering, I wondered how I would cope with a busy, hyperactive dog. Instead, I ended up with lots of young puppies and a few extremely fearful dogs.

    I learned that my personality is better suited to a shy or gentle dog than to a rambunctious one.

    I hope that more people learn that every dog is unique and they are meant to be paired with someone they understand and who understands them. I think that one reason people stay with outdated and ineffective training methods is because it fits their personality. It confirms something they think they know about how the world works.

    And some people who reject force training, even if they don’t know why, are hearing something deep in their gut that comes from their personality.

    Unfortunately, matching a fearful dog with a forceful trainer is particularly terrible.

    I remember meeting a person who kept alpha rolling the golden retriever she was fostering whenever he got overexcited. The happy boy couldn’t care less. He just loved the attention and didn’t mind being turned over on his back one little bit.

    Sorry to say the foster person didn’t take the advice of the experienced dog people who told her to stop rolling her dog. I hope she never ended up fostering a stressed out or fearful dog.

  12. July 30, 2013 at 2:51 PM

    i know you’ve been through the wars on this one and speak from experience. Maggie is our first fearful dog, so it’s been a real learning experience. She has slowly blossomed with simple reward based training and a gentle hand. We let her do what she’s comfortable with and never force her to do anything she is reluctant to do. As Jessica said – the rewards are so much greater when you know she has chosen to go sun herself in the backyard on her own or pick up the elk antler Jack left lying around and gnaw on it a bit, or just run freely across the yard. Love that photos of Daisy.

    • Mel
      July 30, 2013 at 10:31 PM

      Maggie is very lucky to have you. I have no doubt she will blossom in your care. You and Jessica are right, the rewards are so much greater when it is their choice. It has made our journey all the richer.
      Glad you liked the Daisy photos. These are some of my favorite ones. 🙂

  13. July 30, 2013 at 9:57 PM

    We’ve had several fearful dogs, two that we kept here and a few fosters, over the years, and honestly, what worked for one of them wouldn’t work for the other. They just both had different styles and different fears. I think they were/are both genetically disposed to their fears. A lot of times you will hear people talk about Greyhound “spooks” and it’s interesting that no matter what their experience is, they behave the same way. In German Shepherds, it’s referred to as “mentally unsound.” Whatever you call it, it’s frustrating to deal with at times, but we’ve done our best to work through it. I have found that training together with both of them helped a lot in that it established a relationship for us with a common “language.” After that, though, it’s been a different path. I don’t think either was right or wrong, it’s just what worked for each dog and us.

  14. August 1, 2013 at 8:13 AM

    That was such a sad story. I am so glad you shared that through this post, so that more people will know. I know this isn’t exactly the same thing, but along those lines…. I bought into the whole “don’t comfort your dog when they’re afraid” thing for a while. Moses was afraid of thunderstorms, and it was so against my nature to not comfort him, I should have known better. Luckily I finally read otherwise, and not comforting him wasn’t working anyway. We changed how we handled him (we started using a thundershirt also). The last weekend before he died we had a bad thunderstorm, and thank goodness we were able to comfort him then….I would hate to have had our last memories of him that we didn’t comfort him when he was afraid.

  15. August 11, 2013 at 10:05 AM

    Your post title really says it all, Mel, and I know you’re helping people find a better way. This space is filled with so much wisdom, people who read it can’t help but want to try to create that same feeling for themselves.

    Our first trainer reduced me to tears within 5 minutes of meeting him and had Fe cowering at the back of a crate. His whole “training” philosophy was Alpha based and the technique appeared to be to scare and berate us both until we had totally shut down emotionally. I finally snapped, pulled my poor, sweet shivering boy out of there and told this so called trainer where he could stick it, forfeiting my entire $500 training budget, since he wouldn’t refund it. (Eventually, a year and a half later, I got it back in small claims court.)

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