Fearful of People Despite Puppy Socialising

Stunning seven month old Chow Chow Chai is fearful of people. Sometimes the best laid plans simply go wrong.

Very carefully socialised.

Chow has become fearful of peopleI can’t fault her young owners. From the start they have done everything by the book. Then, sometime between four and eight weeks ago she became fearful of people.

They simply can’t trace what could have changed her so dramatically. They can however pinpoint that it was something during this four-week period. She would have been in her fifth or sixth month.

Their superb vet likes her to come in every month, no charge. All they do is put her on the table and keep her used to being handled, examined and weighed. They give her treats. She was due for her monthly visit last week.

Five weeks ago however, the last time they had taken her, they got her to the door and she didn’t want to enter. Once in, she was frantic, scared, leaping onto them, terrified of the other people in there. A different dog from the previous time.

Why so suddenly fearful of people?

All I can think of is that something happened that was huge to her but that her humans hadn’t noticed; that it had coincided with a fear period.

It makes me think back to when I was a child of about seven years old. I was in a group of people along with my mother, and something happened. It traumatised me to the extent that I shut it out until counselling unearthed it years later.  I could remember what we were doing before, but I had a blank period of time. I since asked my mother what it could have been and she had no idea.

What I found out seems very trivial now and I understand why my mother hadn’t even noticed. It had affected all my childhood.

I think it must be the same with young dogs when something happens at just the wrong time. The dog may, or may not, remember just what happened. To us it could seem so meaningless that we hadn’t even noticed. To the dog it’s life-changing.

In addition, as she matured some of the reported breed characteristics may have begun to surface: ‘…..can be aloof …….and downright suspicious of strangers. But for the right person, he’s a fiercely loyal companion’.

Chai is extremely attached to the man. (Interestingly, though initially she barked at me, when he left the room she stopped. Protective, maybe).

Who could be behind the door?

My questions unearthed that Chai had become particularly scared of entering into places. She is now so fearful of people that I believe it’s because she can’t see who might be the other side of the door.

A few days ago she had refused to go into the pet shop where she had been before. They didn’t insist, brought her home and called me.

I could see and hear how scared of me she was as I opened the gate into their high-fenced garden. I shut it again and waited for someone to come and help her then let me in.

Now they will do everything they can to help their beautiful fluffy dog become less fearful of people. People should be good news and not scary.


They will help her to associate people with only good things.

Recently, in order to control her, they have begun using a slip lead which tightens up if she pulls. Sometimes she is so desperate to avoid an approaching person she may try to run into the traffic.

She will feel more fearful of people when trapped on a tight lead. To make matters worse, just when she should be associating people with good things, the lead tightens. She will feel discomfort, pain even.

They will now get a harness and longer leash. With the lead fastened both on the back and the chest, they will have all the control they need without causing any discomfort.

They will stand at the entrance to their drive and ‘people-watch’. Her lead will be long and loose so at any time she feels fearful, she can retreat up the drive.

She first will be taught that looking at a person from a comfortable distance (to her) will bring her food.

They will then build this technique into walks, beginning early in the morning when there are few people about. They won’t walk her in busy places or at busy times until she is ready. It is only a short way to go to fields where they let her off lead.

Doorways into buildings

They will work on taking her through doorways into buildings, starting with their helpful vets. They will go together. The man, to whom she’s most bonded, can go in first and sit down. He will check the coast is clear of people for now.

Letting a little time elapse so Chai both feels she has choice and is also missing the man, the lady will then take her in. With the man inside already it’s pretty certain Chai will willingly walk in. Then they can then come out and do it the other way around – lady in first.

This technique can be worked on many times and in different places.

They will lock the garden gate so people can’t simply walk in – and put a bell on it. Chai will no longer be allowed to feel vulnerable in the garden with someone able to walk straight into what should be her safe place.

It is quite heartbreaking when a puppy, despite such dedicated socialising and habituating to life, suddenly becomes unaccountably fearful of people or other dogs.

NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Chai. Neither dog nor situation will ever be exactly the same. Listening to ‘other people’ or finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do much more harm than good. The case needs to be assessed correctly, particularly where fear is concerned. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Help page).

Sweet Dog Undersocialised and Scared

Three of the last four dogs I have been to have been scared of me. Although they all barked at me I’m not taking it personally. Each one, almost certainly, has been inadequately socialised at a sufficiently young age.

Rescues are full of undersocialised dogs. Without sufficient happy encounters with lots of different people in the first weeks of the dog’s life, the puppy of about three months old will very likely begin to be fearful. The clock can’t be put back.

People often think someone may have been actively cruel to their adopted dog but usually that’s not the case. There has even been research to prove that the brain of a dog that has been undersocialised deUndersocialised Cocker Spaielvelops a bit differently. What’s more, fearful dogs may pass on these fear genes to their puppies. It really is a big problem.

A dog that has been with one person, loved but not exposed to people and real life from a very young age, is condemned to a challenging life. So many people I go to have re-homed a dog like this, like the family I went to today.

Cocker Spaniel Millie, 3, is very happy with her family. She is pretty good with other dogs too. However, she does not like other people.

When someone comes into her house she will bark at them in a fearful way. The people have a ritual that may keep her barking under control but it’s not actually changing how Millie feels about people. Today I asked them not to do what they usually did, which unsettled her, actually making her worse. This may happen to begin with.

What was apparent is that the fear element reduced with the help of food but she still barked at me on and off. I feel it’s become a habit that always brings the same predictable result that may be rewarding or reassuring – a certain reaction from the family. She may even be getting a little bit cross. So often it’s a mix of things.

We have a plan for working on this involving food which fortunately she loves and multiple short sessions. They will have the environment already laced with food before Millie joins the visitor who will be sitting still and not looking at her. They will take it from there, trying different things. Some things work better with some dogs than others.

Millie’s not keen of people she meets on walks either. It is tempting to get the dog to sit as a person passes, but I prefer to keep on the move, making a bit of an arc rather than approaching head-on, keeping the dog’s attention and feeding as the person goes by. This is great practice at a level she can cope with to make her feel a bit better about people.

Millie barking at me

Millie barking at me

Millie’s general stress levels are permanently being topped up during the day by various things – she’s very alert to noises or anything sudden. There are many small things that can be done that could contribute to reducing stress from diet to preventing post being pushed through the door.

There are also things dogs can do for themselves to help them to self-calm.

Millie has had over three years in fear of people, so it will be a slow process. Every small step will be an achievement. The gentleman said that a trainer had told him that teaching Millie something new was not possible as it would be like trying to teach a 35-year-old human something new. That’s ridiculous. I am learning all the time.

Anyway, this isn’t about ‘learning’ as about ‘feeling’. There is no age limit to changing emotions.

The physical effect on Millie’s brain isn’t about ‘learning’ either. It is hard-wired and will always be there and even, once ‘cured’, she could revert if faced with a situation she can’t cope with. With continuing help she will bounce back.

When they first had Millie it looked like she had no tail. For days it was clamped between her legs and under her body. Even despite her unease with me, that didn’t happen. Later in my presence she was positively enjoying the clicker work the young lady was doing with her.

With kindness and patience they have come a long way in the eighteen months that they have had her. Now it’s time to push a bit further forward.

NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Millie. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good as the case needs to be assessed correctly which it’s hard for someone to do with insufficient experience and living too closely to their own situation. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Get Help page)


He Bites Without Warning?

Henry is a very mixed-up dog. The four-year-old Staffy mix has been with the young lady for three years now and came with a good deal of baggage which we can only guess at. He was terrified wreck initially. The lady has come a long way in making him more confident.

Brindle Staffy mixHenry ‘bites without warning’ and it’s getting worse. It did, to me, ‘come out of the blue’ at the time when he went for my feet under the table because it seemed so out of context with his other behaviour and I wasn’t looking for the right things. Replaying the sequence in my head afterwards I could see there was in fact subtle warning.

Henry, between barks, had happily eaten food that I threw over the gate and made no attempt to back away, so he wasn’t unduly fearful. He was put on lead by the gentleman who took him the other end of the room while I came through the gate to sit at the dining table with the young lady. I lobbed Henry chicken and I threw him a ball. Fine. He had a couple of short barking bouts but soon stopped. I suggested the man dropped the lead.

After a while I watched Henry disappear quietly under the table towards me and he suddenly surprised me by biting first one of my shoes and then the other – hard and in quick succession. My feet hadn’t been moving. Fortunately no harm was done as my shoes protected my feet. I asked the man to get hold of the lead again.

How did I not see that coming?

This seemed very much like anger to me – anger perhaps that his barking hadn’t got rid of me and that I simply carried on sitting where I was, the other side of the table, ignoring him when he barked.

I could now see why they said their dog was unpredictable, ‘biting without warning’. We carefully examined each of the other times he has bitten in detail and found quite a few things in common including (apart from myself) it has been men he attacks and he bites always below the knee and usualy hard enough to draw blood. On each occasion Henry was already very aroused.

Why bite my feet?

Where most dogs, certainly those that have had a more fortunate upbringing, will only bite as a last resort, Henry seems to go straight into biting. It looked very much like some sort of learned behaviour to me. One time when he was held by the collar and couldn’t get to someone he actually bit the sofa instead. I would guess that, at some stage, he has been taught to bite, maybe deliberately.

If has been ‘roughed up’ to encourage aggression with the original owner from a pup, possibly tackled with feet to encourage an aggressive response, my guess is that the mere sight of feet/boots/legs/shoes has in the past had his body drenched with fear of being attacked so he will over time have built up an automatic response. If the stress of feet/shoes and close proximity to the lady he trusts and invasion of space has been niggling, then his warnings to increase distance were ignored (barking), it might have just tipped him over, resulting in defensive, fearful and what seemed a no-warning sudden reaction with no control of his actions to my feet under the table. This is the most likely explanation.

As it had happened to myself, I could re-play the scene in my mind afterwards. I believe, when we know what to look for, there is warning and a context. The usual context is one of Henry already being stressed, being in his own territory and a man being too close to himself or to the lady. The warning: he stares. That’s all. It could be easy for his owner to miss unless she’s watching him constantly.

For important reasons I won’t go into here, the lady has a deadline to make some progress with Henry.

There first thing to ensure is in place is management. He has to be muzzled when they are out, just in case. She already has systems in place for when callers come to the house, a gate, a crate that he’s used to being in, an anchor point and a muzzle he’s quite happy with, but this isn’t really the life that anyone wants with their dog. The young lady works hard to give her dog the best life possible but she unable to have friends to her home and she can’t take her dog away with her.

As stress is playing a such large part, everything must be done to keep Henry’s stress levels down in all areas of his life. Every time he goes mental when seeing a person or even barks at people passing the fence it is ‘loading the gun’.

He needs reprogramming. This is the only way in the long run that he is ever likely to be trustworthy. A process will be taught and repeated over and over, hundreds of times, so that upon a certain cue Henry will immediately and automatically, without thinking, follow a pre-planned sequence that is incompatible with stressing, barking or staring at someone. Whenever he sees a person and is anything other than relaxed, he must be taught a default alternative behaviour incompatible with his current behaviour.

I won’t go into the exact detail because it is specifically tailored to Henry, and if lifted and applied to another dog out of context could be inappropriate.

If the technique can be sufficiently ingrained before time runs out, then other people can also use the special cue if they are feeling at all uneasy.

The ‘wrong’ people taking on young dogs for the ‘wrong’ reasons can do untold harm. When they are abandoned, where do many end up? Well-meaning people like my young lady do the principled thing by taking in a rescue dog and then end up condemned to years of heartbreak and worry, unable to live a normal life because of the damage done earlier by someone else to the dog they have grown to love.

NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’, but I choose an angle. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Sunny. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good. One size does not fit all. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Get Help page).