How to Handle a Frightened Dog

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The first dog I ever walked professionally, Ruby the Chiweenie, peed on the floor, hid under the bed and growled at me like I was the devil come to life. For 30 minutes, I sat on the floor with a bag of treats, whispering sweet nothings and contemplating my decision to quit accounting. We were both a mess.  It may have been the first time a dog was afraid of me, but it certainly wouldn't be the last.Animals, even family pets, can be unpredictable. While a Chiweenie isn't exactly capable of causing too much damage to anything but my ego, a large dog can become dangerous under certain circumstances. It's important to be able to identify fear behavior and properly diffuse the situation.

Signs of Fear in Dogs

Dogs give off a number of fear signals. The chart below is a great illustration of the different warning signs a dog may give off when they are frightened.In addition to body language, dogs may exhibit certain behaviors when in a heightened state of fear. These behaviors include peeing in the house, resource guarding, growling, backing away and excessive barking. Once you're able to identify the signs that a dog is frightened, there are certain steps you should take to maintain both your safety and the dogs emotional well being.

Keep Your Distance

If a dog is exhibiting signs of fear, the worst thing you can do is try to force it to go out with you. Cornering a dog is an excellent way to get bit, and cause severe harm to the dog's wellbeing. Give them some space and see if a little time is all that's needed. When I encounter a fearful dog, I typically sit on the opposite side of the room and quietly wait. If there are treats available I will try to offer them some. First I throw the treat as close to them as I can while maintaining a safe distance. If they are calm and will eat the treat, I will give additional treats as I lore them closer and closer to me. In many cases, the dogs are literally eating out of my hand a few minutes later and we are able to go for a walk.

Don't be Afraid to Walk Away

While giving a dog time and space along with a few treats can be effective, there are some times where the dog just will not let me approach. Don't force the situation. The first few times you cross the line with a fearful dog, you may get away with it, but it only takes one time to get seriously hurt. It's also possible to cause further emotional damage to the pet your working with.

During the meet and greet, I'm very upfront with customers. I tell them that their dog has to want to go out with the walker. I explain that if they are exhibiting any of the behavior I mentioned above, we will not be able to take their dog out. I also explain that it's a good idea to have us come over once or twice before leaving town for a vacation.

As a pet sitting business owner, I have a responsibility to my dog walkers. I let them use their judgment to let me know if a dog is afraid and acting aggressively. When they make the call that a dog cannot be safely handled, I have their back every time. I call the owner, explain the situation and let them know we can't provide services that day. That's not to say we don't work with dogs that have fear issues. Sometimes it's as easy as assigning another walker that's a better fit or doing some visits while the family is home. Unfortunately, there are also times where we just can't find a solution and we have to stop providing service.

Following these guidelines has helped keep my pet sitters safe and protects the emotional wellbeing of the pets we agree to care for. Have you had experiences with fearful dogs? What are some methods you use to provide a safe environment and help dogs overcome their fear?

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