Should I Get Another Dog to Help My Fearful Dog?

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It’s not uncommon for people who are living with a dog who is afraid of people or new environments to wonder if getting another dog would be helpful. It’s a generous thought but there are many potential pitfalls to take into consideration before making that leap.

Being around others who a dog feels safe with and trusts can help lower stress levels. This is why comforting a dog who is afraid can be so beneficial. With lowered stress some fearful dogs are able to do things they might not be able or willing to do on their own. If we like the things they are able to do it makes sense that we’d consider providing them with that benefit all the time by adding a dog to our household.

a cocker spaniel dog and chihuahua dog sharing a dog bed

Here are the questions I’d ask anyone considering getting a dog to help their fearful dog-

Why, if the dog you brought home felt more comfortable being around other dogs, did you adopt him to begin with if you didn’t already have another dog in the house?

Unless you deliberately set out to adopt a dog with fear based behavior challenges what makes you think that you, the breeder, rescue group or shelter is going to do a better job a second time around at finding an appropriate dog for you who: not only has to be a good pet, needs to rise to the occasion and be a stellar role model and companion for a fearful dog?

Are you willing to hire a professional trainer or behaviorist to help you find an appropriate dog to add to your household?

Are you prepared to spend more time training and more money for the upkeep of an additional dog?

What will you do if it doesn’t work out as you’d hoped? 

It’s a lovely thought that a fearful dog will see another dog interacting with people, other dogs, novel objects, etc., and learn to do so happily themselves. I could watch a dozen people jump out of a plane and still be reluctant to fling myself out the hatch. There are people who won’t taste a new food even though an entire group of people consumes it routinely, but we expect dogs to do better than this? What if instead the new dog learns to be more wary and cautious of things by following the lead of the fearful dog?

Pairing a friendly dog with a fearful dog for the benefits of social buffering can end up backfiring. I don’t worry when my border collie Finn races up to people to greet them. His behavior may be considered rude but the worst that is likely to happen is that someone will end up with paw prints on their pants. He likes people and sees every human as a potential frisbee tosser. Sunny on the other hand would be better off not being drawn toward people by following Finn’s example. He’s not comfortable with people and getting closer to them can end up scaring him. This could lead to an aggressive response.

Unless I have complete control over Finn’s behavior, being able to stop him in his tracks as he heads off to greet someone, I run the risk of having Sunny join him. Finn’s arousal is benign, Sunny’s is not. Annie, my adult cocker spaniel displays her ‘greeting disorder’ anytime a new person or dog appears on the scene. She is harmless, annoying but harmless. But her reactivity is not helpful when I am trying to train a fearful dog to stay right where he is. In trainer speak we call this ‘proofing’ a behavior, and means that we practice a cue, such as ‘wait’, over and over, in many different situations, with a variety of distractions, in order for the dog to gain the skill to perform the behavior wherever, whenever we ask for it, regardless of what is going on around them. It takes time and effort. Sunny has a solid ‘wait’ in many situations, but he is affected by the arousal level of other dogs, and this makes getting the behavior more challenging.

This is often when people will suggest the use of some kind of powerful punishment to teach the dog that moving is not an option. I will not go into it in depth in this post but the risk of ‘contextual conditioning’ is real. Anything that the dog experiences along with the punishment can become associated with the negative experience, including the thing they already are not feeling good about. To this day I am not inclined to eat cherry snow cones because as a kid I caught a stomach bug and the last thing I ate prior to being sick was a cherry snow cone. The snow cone itself did not cause the vomiting, but was associated with it.

To trust that a dog will not harm something we need to be certain that they are no longer afraid of it. Better that they love it, but short of that, a dog is less likely to bite something they do not feel threatened by. There are no magic bullet cures for fearfulness in dogs. The benefits of social buffering are real, but the tasks of training and using behavior modification are ours. We need to get our understanding of dog behavior and training polished up before we expect another dog to ‘fix’ our fearful dog.

26 thoughts on “Should I Get Another Dog to Help My Fearful Dog?”

  1. Matthew, dogs are not pack animals. It is commonly misunderstood that they are.

    There is no such thing has dominance and alpha too.

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  2. Ha, I just got my fearful Great Dane a therapy dog. She is still fearful but she has shown vast improvement and she seems to be much happier with her mate.

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  3. It is old school to believe comforting a scared dog will reinforce fear. Actually, only humans believe that. Watch any mammal…do they not comfort their frightened “children”….why wouldnt you comfort a frighten animal. I have a 4 yr old feral dog, in a pack(and yes dogs do pack and there is alpha and dominence within the pack) and she is much comforted by her group and by me, when fearful. She has gone from a dog that spent 1 1/2 yrs under the bed to a bouncey, happy pup. She does not like all people and I put in boundries for her, just like any dog, but I absolutely let her know I am there, if she i frightened…just like I would my frightened child!

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  4. We got a very fearful and shy dog out of the shelter recently. Admittedly we didn’t know how to pick out a dog from the shelter and picked her because she was so quiet and cute. Realizing we were way in over our heads with this one, we sought professional advice. It was suggested to get an older, male, and dominant dog to help our shy girl. We got a small 5 year old boy who had a very easy manner about him. 48 hours later and our shy one has made great strides. Much work still to be done, but a companion dog was precisely what we needed. I find this article engages in too much anthropomorphism and i would caution walking down that path when dealing with dogs.

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  5. Your questions for the adopter are rudely worded, as though accusatory, and make assumptions throughout.
    For example: My answer to question one would be that when adopted, we had a lovely companion dog at home already. They were incredible friends and the older dog would help the nervous new girl in a number of ways. Sadly, the big boy passed just a few months after bringing home the new (and a bit anxious) girl.
    To the second question: by going through a caring and reputable rescue operation that is clear about their dogs needs and personality, as well as being the same people we got our girl from, who were clear about her past and current needs and emotional state.

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