Rehabilitating a Fearful Dog: Meeting Mora

fearful anxious dog

Rehabilitating a Fearful Anxious Dog: Meeting Mora

Before I became a dog trainer, I spent years helping rescue and rehabilitate German Shepherds with a rescue in Virginia. My specialty, and the dogs that held the strongest hold on my heart, were the fearful, anxious and fear aggressive dogs that were so misunderstood. I grew up with German Shepherds, and they’ve always had a way of speaking to me. They’re also a very misunderstood breed because of their naturally wary nature and tough exteriors. I haven’t had the heart to be all-in with rescue in years, but over the last 10 years shepherds in need have continued to find me. Mora is the latest little girl to come to me for help.

Mora made her way to me just a couple days ago. I met her once before she was brought in, and during that visit she nipped me twice, lashing out at me out of overwhelming fear and anxiety. Since it’s been a few years since my last rehabilitation case (Ras, my 3-year-old shepherd), I’m hoping I haven’t lost my touch! Follow along with our journey as we navigate it.

Goals for Day 1

My first goals for Mora are:

  1. Ensure I can handle her safely.
  2. Find the food, toy or praise/affection combo that she finds most rewarding.
  3. Start using the reward to build the foundation of a relationship.

Mora’s Rehab: Day 1

Mora arrived with a flurry of barks, lunges and charging my direction. I asked her family to put her in my training room where a short fence separated me from her. Throughout our talk she would charge the desk and fence area where I was sitting every few minutes, remembering I was there and then finding something else to investigate in the room.

On the first day I met her, it was during one of these charges that she nipped at the back of my leg as I walked away from her. After that, she nipped at my back as I sat facing away from her, hoping that making myself small and unthreatening would calm her a bit. Because of that, we started Day 1 with her on the opposite side of the fence. I also asked my vet for a few days of Trazodone (an antidepressant that is used to treat behavioral disorders, especially anxiety- or phobia-related in dogs) to be sure I could get to the point where I could handle her safely as quickly as possible, for the sake of my husband and the other dogs in the facility. I gave her 2/3 of the recommended dose during the following process.

Once her family left, I set about showing Mora I wasn’t a threat to her, slowing letting her acclimate to the sound of my voice, my body language, smell, the sounds of our training and boarding space, etc. With every fearful dog I’ve ever worked with, this involves a lot of sitting quietly, talking without engaging her, and waiting patiently for her. I did this first on my side of the fence, tossing treats over for her. At her highest anxiety moments, she was too anxious to eat the treats. I still tossed them over, experimenting with a variety of different types to try to find one that enticed her. One sign of her starting to calm was her actually taking the treats from the floor that she decided she liked. She was still charging the fence at this point, but with less intensity.

After about 30 minutes or so I moved to a chair just on her side of the fence, careful to keep her in front of me. I continued to talk and not try to engage other than to toss treats out. My initial movement caused her fear/anxiety to spike again, so her charges became more intense, but she eventually started to relax again as I sat calmly tossing treats out.

Fearful dogs will be more likely to charge at the back side of a person walking away, versus their front, because our back side is less threatening.

Each time she calmed a bit I would move a bit more, getting her used to the idea that me moving wasn’t going to cause her any harm. Each movement initially caused more charging and barking, but eventually she would settle again. This video is from approximately 1.5 hours into her stay:

I faced her as I moved across the room to sit down, tossing bits of FreshPet food out anytime she approached. I also tried freeze dried chicken from PureBites and Vital Essentials freeze dried treats in a variety of flavors. Her anxiety overwhelms her desire for any food at times, so as that changes the food reward may change as well. She was not at all interested in the ball or stuffed toys I offered.

Around the 3 hour mark with her, I set the bowl of FreshPet food I was using on the floor and continued to do my own thing (surf Facebook and check emails) until she finally, FINALLY, approached me. Without reaching for her, I was able to slowly grab the end of her leash. Doing that seemed to flip a switch for her (this won’t happen with every fearful dog). Once I had her leash in hand, she came in closer and I was able to pet her sides and chest.

I don’t recommend reaching for a fearful dog’s head or face, because that can be uncomfortable for some. When it’s safe to do so, reach for their sides, chest or neck area.

After a few minutes of petting, we ventured outside for a potty break. She has been and will be on a leash for any trips outside until we’ve developed more of a relationship. When we got back inside I settled into her kennel with her for a bit more relationship building. She was a bit nervous about the other dogs in our space, and actually began to look to me for comfort – VICTORY!

fearful anxious dog

In the process of getting her settled into her kennel I removed her too-small choke chain and replaced it with a brand-new collar, gave her a new leash, new bed, new blanket and new name! I firmly believe dogs need a fresh start to get away from past situations, and Mora is here for her fresh start!

Before I left her for the evening, I walked away for an hour or so, then went back to her kennel to see her. She remembered me! That’s another victory! Some dogs may be so fearful that they react before they process who the person standing in front of them is. I call it the old “Shoot First Ask Questions Later” mentality. Mora seems to follow more of the “My Bucket is Already Full” mentality. I’ll explain both in posts over the next few days.

Meeting a Fearful, Anxious or Fear Aggressive Dog

Typically, a fearful or anxious dog is less threatened when we are seated, talking with a calm and quiet tone and not attempting to engage them. Eye contact can be very confrontational for a nervous dog, so avoid looking directly at the area of their head.

Any time I’m working with a fearful dog I don’t try to engage with them at all. I let them make the decision to come into my space if they feel comfortable doing that. Some will out of natural curiosity, some will only for a high value reward. Without acknowledging the dog, I’ll speak calmly and quietly to their owner and toss treats in their direction.

If you have a fearful or anxious dog, and they’re meeting someone for the first time in your home, ALWAYS leash your dog and give some distance to your guest. This is for the safety of your dog AND guest. Once your guest has come inside, is seated, and has a handful of treats, assess your dog. If your dog seems uncomfortable, they’re not ready to leave your side. If they seem calm and comfortable you may allow your dog to choose if they’d like to approach the guest. The guest should never move into your dog’s space, but your dog may choose to go into theirs to get their favorite treat!

If you’re meeting a fearful dog, be sure to give them space. Offer their favorite treat or toy if available but let them come to you if they would like it. Don’t move into their space or their owner’s space. Don’t focus all your attention on the dog, instead speak calmly with the owner and have relaxed body language.

If you need help with your fearful, anxious, or fear aggressive dog, give us a call – they’re our specialty! We can offer a lessons package to help teach you how to help your dog!