Successfully teaching fearful dogs basic behaviors

IMG_3298.JPGWhen living or working with fearful dogs, it’s important not to forget how complex seeming simple obedience behaviors can be, particularly for dogs whose nervous systems are in overdrive.

Though fearful and debilitatingly cautious, long-term training and pharmacological interventions have helped client dog Lana progress to the point where she feels safe enough to learn more complex operant behaviors. Prior to this point in her training, the main focus was desensitization and counterconditioning. I kept operant behaviors simple so as not to lose any 1:1 conditioning opportunities and her body’s fear response made learning difficult. (When a dog is afraid, nothing else matters. She wants to feel safe. Period.)

One of the more complex behaviors I’ve started teaching her is recall. Although it’s considered one of the basic obedience cues, it’s not at all easy for a dog who is afraid. Before worrying about recalling Lana outside and at a distance, I broke down each of the initial steps of the behavior:

  1. Eye contact
  2. Movement toward me
  3. Gentle collar grab

If I were to ignore these initial steps, I’d get stuck, and get stuck quickly. Each of these steps causes some anxiety for Lana. In order to maintain the trust account I have established with her, and to ensure a successful recall, I decided to train each of these steps individually, in her safe space in the home, before dovetailing them into the same training plan.

The following are videos of our initial sessions, which I conducted where she feels safest in her home (the bathroom).

Collar grabs

Collar grabs scare Lana, and I don’t want to make recall training scary by adding it in before she’s ready. I also add a word, “collar,” as a cue so she knows what’s going to happen (surprises are scary for fearful dogs.) I then mark once I’ve gently grabbed her collar and feed with my hand still on the collar. We’re practicing in her safe place, and she has room behind her and in front to move in case she needs a break. Note the behaviors she’s offering to get more cookies – offering behaviors and showing play show she’s feeling safe and enjoying the training.

Name game and eye contact

Before adding in movement toward me, I want Lana to learn that hearing her name means making eye contact with me. I pay heavily for each successful trial to strengthen the behavior. Only until she’s consistently (and comfortably) making eye contact immediately upon hearing her name will I move forward in the training plan.

I train this way because, despite taking more time and patience, it teaches the behavior without compromising Lana’s emotional health or feeling of safety. Spending time upfront creating trust and safety saves time down the road and ultimately results in a stronger behavior.

–  Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and Muzzle Up! Online. To get in touch, email her at  To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog