Woof Wednesday With Debbie Jacobs

When I came up with the idea of doing a Woof Wednesday blog I knew that Debbie Jacobs would be the first person I would ask to be my guest. Debbie was one of the first people that I followed when I first setup my Twitter account and she and I have much in common. We were both unabashed dog lovers and we both have fearful dogs that came to us by way of Hurricane Katrina. I quickly found that Debbie was not just another dog lover with a fearful dog, she was very knowledgeable about them and extremely passionate about helping fearful dogs and their owners. Her website, www.fearfuldogs.com, is a prime resource of information on fearful dogs and her blog fearfuldogs.wordpress.com is one of the most thoughtful blogs I’ve come across. So keeping our shy and fearful dogs in mind, here are some of the questions I asked Debbie.

DLD: Behavioral medications for dogs are somewhat a hot button issue right now. At what point should an owners consider putting their fearful dog on medication(s) and is it something that most veterinarians are familiar with?

Debbie: I think that anyone who is dealing with a fearful dog would benefit from researching the uses and benefits of behavioral medications. Meds can help make it easier for anxious dogs to learn new behaviors. So the question I would ask is, when would someone with a fearful dog NOT want to make it easier for their dog to learn new behaviors? Any vet should know about when to prescribe meds, but some may not. Karen Overall DVM has done lots of research into the benefits of medications for helping dogs with behavioral challenges, so folks should check out what she has written. The longer a dog practices being afraid the better he gets at it.

OK that said, there are plenty of dogs out there that are fearful because of inexperience and with the appropriate handling and training can learn to be more confident & resilient without medication. These dogs typically respond quickly to training. Every owner has to become an expert on and advocate for their own dog.

The reluctance that most people have about using meds is that they don’t understand how they work and assume that they will be sedating their dogs. While sedation may be a side effect of a medication, it should be short-lived and is NOT the desired effect. Some owners may find that after a few months on a medication they can begin to discontinue its use, others may find that given their dog’s level of anxiety that medications may be helpful for the duration of the dog’s life. Few of us hesitate to put our dogs on a medication for a physical condition such as low thyroid or diabetes, nor would we deny them the benefits of a pain killer or antibiotic. Behavioral medications can offer real benefits that affect the quality of a dog’s life. They are not a cure and owners need to understand how to work with their dogs to help them learn new behaviors and emotional response.

DLD: When considering a trainer to help with a fearful dog, what questions should be asked to find out if the trainer is fearful dog friendly?

Debbie: Ask if they use corrections or punishment to modify a fearful dog’s behavior. If so, find someone else. There is a list of trainers on the fearfuldogs.com website.

DLD: Before adopting a fearful dog, what three things should the perspective owner know?


1. The dog may always exhibit some kind of fearful behavior and working with it may become a lifelong project. It’s probably going to take longer, require more time, effort and money, than you imagine to help this dog.

2. Fearful dogs can become aggressive dogs if not handled appropriately.

3. If you have no experience in positive dog training or no interest in learning, do not adopt a fearful dog.

DLD: What books and other resources should I know about to help me with my fearful dog?


The Cautious Canine by Patricia McConnell
Help For Your Fearful Dog by Nicole Wilde
Scaredy Dog by Ali Brown
Control Unleashed by Leslie McDevitt
Don’t Shoot The Dog by Karen Pryor
If A Dog’s Prayers Were Answered Bones Would Rain From The Sky by Suzanne Clothier

and of course http://www.fearfuldogs.com and http://fearfuldogs.wordpress.com

DLD: While Twitter is a great tool to help spread the message about fearful dogs 140 characters can be a bit limiting. Would you mind expanding a bit on the following tweets…

@fearfuldogs: U cannot ‘show’ a scared dog something is not dangerous

Neither dogs nor people that are seriously afraid of something care whether or not you say something isn’t going to hurt them or show them how benign they may be. Most people who are afraid of snakes or spiders have never had one bite them. Forcing a dog to deal with something scary just gives them more opportunity to repeat feeling afraid of it.

@fearfuldogs: How would u like it if I made u hold a bunch of spiders? What kind of a friend would I b?

In an attempt to show their dogs that something isn’t going to hurt them, owners force their dogs to deal with scary things. Not only is this not likely to change how a dog feels about the scary thing, he’s  got good reason to worry about what you’ll do next time you run into it. This lack of trust in his owner is not beneficial to a fearful dog.

@fearfuldogs: U don’t have 2 know what made your dog a fearful dog 2 help her become more comfortable in the world.

People often believe that if they knew why their dog was afraid it would somehow make it easier to ‘fix’ them. The cause of a dog’s fear does not change the process used to help to help them. Background information on a fearful dog is useful because it may help an owner establish realistic expectations for their dog. An adult dog that was never appropriately socialized will likely never become a social butterfly. But knowing ‘why’ a dog is afraid ultimately doesn’t matter.

@fearfuldogs: When interacting w a scared dog just pretend it’s a cat. Everyone knows u can’t make a cat like u, so don’t try.

Dogs that are afraid of people usually want to avoid social interactions with them. But people who like dogs, want to engage with them. We like to look them in their big, usually brown eyes, bend over, kiss them on the head or give them a big squeeze. All this just makes a fearful dog more afraid. If a scared cat hisses at us or scratches us if we get close, we usually get the hint. Not so for our poor dogs. A dog that growls or snaps at us to keep us away is considered a ‘bad’ dog. When someone gets bitten or scratched by a cat they usually blame themselves, not the cat.

@fearfuldogs: Anything that lowers a dog’s anxiety will likely help improve it’s behavior

Fearful dogs usually behave inappropriately because they are anxious, afraid or stressed. If a dog sees a person walking toward them and is afraid, the dog will react in one way. If when the person gets close the dog realizes that it’s a buddy of his, he’s no longer afraid and reacts differently. Stress and anxiety don’t help any of us perform at our best.

For more information about shy and fearful dogs, be sure to visit Debbie’s web site athttp://www.fearfuldogs.com. We hope you’ve enjoyed this talk with Debbie Jacobs and invite you back next Wednesday when Leslie Fisher of Look What I Can Do Dog Training will be our guest.

As always your comments and suggestions are welcome and I am sure that Debbie will be following the comments as well.


Kevin, Jackie, Gavin, Annie, Tosha