Training mindfully: Reframing our approach to fear in dogs

DSC05665.jpgMuch of my work as a trainer involves helping fearful dogs and their guardians.

Questions I commonly field include:

  • “When will this be fixed?”
  • “When will my dog be normal?”
  • “When is training over?”

These questions are tough. They’re also understandable. I empathize with people who ask them, because the concept of living with a fearful dog takes work, mentally and physically.

Lately, I’ve found many similarities between the concepts of acceptance and reframes as discussed in therapy for disordered eating, and the qualities necessary for trainers and guardians of dogs with fear and anxiety. I recently came across a Q&A with Melissa A. Fabello, an eating disorder activist. When I read the following quote, I immediately thought about the processes involved in working and living with fearful dogs:

“…I don’t think that we wake up one day, and the work is done, and we can go on for the rest of our lives never having another negative thought or feeling about our body. I think that conceptualizing body acceptance as something that eventually finishes is damaging.”

Replace the phrase “never having another negative thought or feeling about our body” with “never having another reactive incident,” “never having another stressful day with your dog,” or any number of thoughts that emerge during training and you have a very powerful statement about living with a dog with fear.

Conceptualizing training as something that eventually finishes is damaging. It sets up guardians for false expectations. It places undue pressure to “fix” fear instead of learning how to help a dog cope with his genetic and environmental load.

Sometimes people see me training a dog and ask: “Oh, what’s wrong with this one?” I’ve caught myself answering with an immediate diagnosis, like “fear of strangers” or “dog-dog aggressive.” While not wrong, I find these answers incomplete. A fearful dog isn’t a car that’s gone into the repair shop for fixing.

Imagine how powerful it could be to reframe our concept of fear in dogs as something that requires work, training, coping skills and lifetime management, as opposed to something wrong that needs fixing?

After all, fear isn’t the only thing in dog training that requires training, coping skills and management. A dog’s recall goes south quickly without regular practice, as do basic obedience cues, loose leash walking, and any number of behaviors that aren’t based in fear. The work involved in helping a dog feel safe doesn’t have an expiration date. The improvements achieved through training cannot be defined by the single word “fixed.” Coping skills increase, startle responses decrease, positive associations to the environment strengthen.

Often, one of the hardest parts of living and training with a fearful dog is accepting the dog in front of us, and reframing our thoughts of fixing and deadlines into those of coping and lifetime support.

–  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.