Stubborn, Stupid and Just Plain Nasty

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When animals are afraid (and you can include yourself in this example) we see one or more of the following four responses. Keep in mind that without lots of practice we, or our dogs, do not have cognitive control over reactions to being afraid.

black dog looking out of the corner of his eyes
Image courtesy of Olathe Animal Hospital


1. Freeze: Stop what you are doing. Maybe they won’t see you. Maybe they’ll go after something else. Prepare for responses 2-4.

2. Withdraw: Flee! Get the heck outta there! Save yourself!

3. Submit: Offer appeasement gestures. Roll over. Cower. Duck your head. Maybe they’ll decide not to hurt you since you are showing your lack of intention to hurt them.

4. Aggress: Maybe if you act threatening enough they’ll leave you alone. Fighting might be your last chance of survival.

This list is in no particular order, a feral dog who has had the opportunity to flee will likely do so when frightened in the future. A dog who has lived in a cage or was chained up their entire life never had the chance to flee so will have learned to use other responses in an attempt to protect themselves. A dog who freezes up or offers appeasement gestures is not necessarily any less afraid than a dog who becomes aggressive. They may be, but maybe not. All four responses are to achieve the same end, self-preservation.

Now, think about the frustration, anger and even fear, you may have felt trying to get a scared dog to do what you want. Think about how you have described their behavior. Are they being stubborn, or afraid to make a move? Are they stupid or unable to make good choices or learn new skills because they’re scared? Are they mean or using aggression to protect themselves? Think about what getting a dog to offer ‘submission’ really means to the dog (be afraid, be very afraid).

The first behavior we have to change when it comes to working with fearful dogs is our own. When we have a better understanding of how fear affects a dog emotionally, behaviorally and physiologically we will be better prepared to respond in ways that are more likely to effect positive change in our scared dogs.

This series of lectures by Jean Donaldson are worth viewing.

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11 thoughts on “Stubborn, Stupid and Just Plain Nasty”

  1. I have an 8 yr old border Collie, who has fear/aggression to everyone except 4 people. Her mother was like this, and my dog was not well socialized. We go to dog school every week (have for years) to be around other dogs, but they cannot approach her. I would be interested in purchasing your book. Thanks!

  2. I rescued a fearful dog (they told me she was a little shy) and it takes a lot of time and love. It took a good 6 months before she was truly comfortable with us. I think it helped having our other dog in the house who is super social. She’s still fearful of other people, even ones she’s met before like my family. You just have to give her space. She will always be a dog who is fearful of new people and situations, it’s not a behavior you can train out of her. But she’s doing wonderful and knows she will always have a loving and happy home!

  3. Hi Debbie, Any suggestions/resources on dealing with fear around food? Use of treats seem to make things worse. We have a black and tan coonhound, Pete, ~4yr old, from a shelter (was previously returned to the shelter as “unmanageable”). After a year and a half he’s good with the other 4 dogs except at meal times. He willingly goes into his crate when we’re setting up bowls, but bays the entire time — sounds like fear rather than excitement. Have not been able to figure out how to help him calm down. Cannot leave him out while we’re setting up or he may go after another dog. He’s never shown aggression to people. He behaves well the rest of the time, though sometimes he still seems fearful/reactive (his pupils go huge, even though he does not do anything). I’m working with him on leash training and commands to work on self control (his). Suggestions on resources I could tap into? We’ve had a behaviorist in to see him, but we could use whatever resources we can find on helping this fearful dog. Many thanks for your thoughts.

  4. I am about halfway through your book, and it has been extremely rewarding reading. My difficulty is in the application of what I know I should be doing. I learn from watching, doing, repeating as well as reading. I have been working with an extremely fearful rescued Weimaraner (literally afraid of his own shadow; no aggression shown, however). Lack of socialization and/or abuse? Don’t know. Local trainers in our rural area are ill-equipped to assist me. I am trainable, but I need more help. I have earned his trust over the 3+ months he’s been here and he will let me touch him now. He is only confident when outside playing with other dogs (we have 1 other dog, a lab/Jack Russell mix) and when playing fetch. If left alone he will curl up and hide under my desk at my feet all day. Do you have any plans to come anywhere near NC for a workshop? I want to help him be all that he can be and I know I have much to learn.


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