When Fear Paralyses Our Dogs: How to Move On

Revolutionise Your Dog Training

When Fear Paralyses Our Dogs: How to Move On

October 3, 2023 Uncategorised 0

A few months ago, I started working with a dog named Barley whose fears were increasing. It had got to the point where he’d freeze on walks and refuse to go any further. Some days, he wouldn’t leave the house at all. His caregivers didn’t know how to cope and it was increasingly overwhelming. Barley’s world was shrinking.

Every day, he’d hit the ground on a walk and refuse to go any further. His caregivers would often stand with Barley and wait for him to recover, but the minutes would tick by. Barley often started trembling too. While they didn’t like picking him up and carrying him, he was small enough to do so, but he’d started avoiding them as a result.

Avoiding danger is central to our survival. However, sometimes our fears become so powerful that they derail our lives. Fear has given us evolutionary advantages. As a result of feeling fear, our species have gone on to live another day. Despite that, when our fears and anxieties become so powerful, they can derail our lives completely. It’s these types of fears and anxieties that we call maladaptive.

Avoidance and over-reaction

Many times, our dogs get locked into behavioural patterns of avoidance. They stop engaging with things even when it would be safe to do so. Every new situation is treated as if it is potentially dangerous. This was what was happening with Barley.

His fears also generalised.

He started freezing on new walks when he wasn’t quite sure of his environment. But it got worse. He then started freezing on his regular walks around his neighbourhood too.

A central problem for overcoming fears and learning that things are safe is the fact that some individuals avoid the world when they should be engaging with it. When our dogs avoid engaging with novelty and safe situations, shrinking back from anything new, they don’t give themselves opportunity to reappraise and downgrade potential threats.

As a result, they accumulate threats. More and more things become sources of potential threat. And instead of more and more things also becoming safe, those things also become a source of potential threat.

This has other consequences too. Because many fearful dogs are living in states of chronic stress and arousal, when life occasionally does throw them potentially scary things, they are primed to react. In her book Sway, author Pragya Agarwal calls individuals like this ‘sensitive smoke detectors’

That’s a fantastic comparison. They are primed to respond to threat.

But it’s only half of the story. They are also primed to avoid engaging with the world when it’s safe.

The cognitive consequences of these behaviour patterns

When we feel anxious and we learn that things weren’t as bad as we thought they’d be, it violates our expectations. This creates powerful learning. As Susan Jeffers said in her famous book from the 1980s, we feel the fear and do it anyway.

Imagine you feel – like many humans – a fear of speaking in public. You start with a small group of people you know well. Even though you’re nervous, you get up and you do it anyway. It was not as bad as you thought. Because this violates your expectations, it creates new learning and you can begin to fight against your belief that public speaking is terrifying.

Doing things when we feel mild levels of anxiety is how we learn to overcome our feelings. Eventually, you get up in front of people so frequently that even when it’s a hostile crowd, you feel confident that it’ll be okay. This is how our ventromedial prefrontal cortex downgrades our more ancestral fear responses.

But if we avoid public speaking, we never get to change those feelings. We need to do it, in other words, in order to learn differently.

Other than engaging and actually getting up and doing what we feel anxious about, another thing is important. The intensity of the experience. If we’re in a heightened state of arousal to start with, the experience is terrifying. We focus on the worst bits and we reinforce our belief that the situation is dangerous, unpleasant or even threatening.

So we not only need to do things, we need to do them at levels of mild intensity if we want to learn to overcome our fears.

How this looks in dogs

Research has shown us that this pattern of avoidance-until-in-real-danger is common across all mammalian species where maladaptive anxiety and fearfulness have been studied. Where fears get in the way of successful living and thriving, the same pattern is noticed: avoid things until you are too intensely aroused not to.

Susan Jeffers’ book title Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway was only partially right. Perhaps it should have read Feel the Fear at Mild Levels and Do It in Progressively Challenging Situations. That’s not such a pithy book title.

But many of our dogs are trapped in patterns where they avoid everything. Barley had got to the point where he wouldn’t do anything of his own volition if it involved the car. He wouldn’t even get in the car anymore. When they got to new places, he’d just sit in the car shaking and never get out. Once, they parked up in a secure field and left the door open. Barley’s caregivers got out and wandered about. They even played with a ball hoping to tempt him and show him that he was safe, but he just cowered in the car the whole time.

The consequences of coercion

Because we have to force our dogs to engage with almost any situation, this also has long-term consequences. We do it with the best of intentions. We know the world is safe. Our dogs won’t come to harm. Surely it can’t hurt to ‘encourage’ them a little by taking them to this place or that, even if we have to carry them or jolly them along?

Thus, we get into the habit of forcing or coercing our dogs one way or another. It doesn’t look like some awful social media trainer using shock every time our dog freezes, but it’s still experienced in the same way. It also has the same consequences. Our dogs learn that nothing they can do prevents them being put into uncomfortable or awkward situations, and it immediately stokes their arousal.

The long term consequences of forcing our dogs to face their fears

Because we only lift or ‘encourage’ our dogs when they are already so fearful that they are freezing, anything they experience will be interpreted as a threat. This is how sensitisation happens. We get more sensitive to new things when we are already frightened enough to freeze or panic. If you try and push a person onto a stage when they’re already hesitating and backing away because they are anxious about public speaking, you will have the opposite effect than the one you wanted.

It has other consequences too. The first is that if we’re the agent of control, our dogs’ trust in us will fail.

Sure, we mean well. Only monsters mean to terrify their dogs more. But because we don’t give our dogs a choice, they learn that we cannot be trusted.

This is especially hard when all we wanted to do was help! Nobody intends to make things worse.

Effective interventions for avoidant fearfulness

So how can we help these individuals like Barley?

We know they are avoiding everything. We also know that we rely on coercion to make them engage with the world, even if we don’t think of carrying a dog as being coercive. Nobody thinks that putting a lead on a dog and jollying them or trying to bribe them with food is the same as dragging a dog on a prong collar, but both use force and control to make the dog do things they wouldn’t do otherwise. Most of the time, we only do so out of desperation and because we don’t know how better to help.

The first stop for dogs like Barley is ALWAYS a vet and/or behaviour consultant.

Veterinary consultations

We see a vet for two reasons. The link between pain and behaviour is well established. Pain changes behaviour in many ways.

Sometimes it causes behaviour directly. It can be the direct cause of freezing or avoidance, for example.

Other times it increases or decreases behaviour. Maybe the dog had already been a little reluctant to engage and pain just adds to that reluctance. I had awful pain last night and I just couldn’t concentrate on what I was supposed to be doing. I went to bed early and had a restless night’s sleep.

So first, we see the vet for a good checkup.

Then we see the vet because the vet is the only person who can prescribe psychopharmaceuticals. If our dog has generalised anxiety or heightened fear responses, we need to stop wasting money on ‘natural’ products and have discussions about proper medications. If your dog has mild anxiety, you may find that over-the-counter remedies can help, and you can read about those in a post I wrote on Woof Like To Meet.

We also need to remember that pain has learned elements. Psychopharmaceuticals like fluoxetine, selegiline, imepitoin and clomipramine are never 100% successful. Where they work best is in combination with a behaviour modification protocol. Their guidance even says so.

In other words, you may need to be working with a multidisciplinary team.

Working with a Behaviour Consultant

You will need to work with a trainer or consultant who has a track record in working with emotional issues. Think of these more like seeing a psychologist rather than seeing a teacher. If you panic over driving in heavy traffic, you don’t see a driving instructor, you see someone who can help you with the emotional side of things. Sure, there are skills that can help, but often these are not related to the actual situation itself. They are more to do with how you handle things. And yes, sometimes a driving instructor can be helpful alongside the programme. The same is true for our dogs.

The first thing a behaviour consultant will do is take a full history. It’s easy to think that dogs like Barley are ‘traumatised’ when in fact, it could be any combination of genetic, prenatal, postnatal and early life experiences that have factored into their fears alongside single events which may have been traumatic for the animal. Sometimes, it can also be developmental too.

It’s also about how the dog perceives the world. Many dogs have temperaments or traits that cause them to focus on the negative. Like humans, dogs can be more reserved or timid across a range of situations. Like humans, they can also be more vulnerable to situations or more anxious in general. A behaviour consultant will carry out investigations into your dog’s sensitivities as well as understanding how they feel about the world.

They will then design a treatment plan based on your needs, helping you understand what’s possible and where you will need to compromise with any expectations about outcomes.


For Barley, he ended up having medication and we helped him learn to investigate the world. The skills I taught his caregivers were simple and scalable. We also had to compromise on some things. His caregivers had to learn that if Barley froze, this was simply information for them that the world was too overwhelming and he wasn’t ready to cope with it yet.

That was tough for them.

They also had to put aside views that Barley had been traumatised. Being trauma-informed is different from blaming potentially traumatic events or Covid lockdowns for behaviour. Blaming events is rarely productive, even though it’s very tempting. It just makes us angry and frustrated at the world. This in turn sends us reaching for the quick fixes.

There’s no shame in admitting that you’ve not come across this before.

It was also about accepting the value of behaviour work. Medication will not solve everything even if it makes a huge difference for your dog. They need behavioural patterns to change and they need to learn new skills. You can read about some of those in my free ebook: The Lighten Up Roadmap to Resilience.

We also taught Barley some important safety signals so that he could overcome his avoidance behaviours and teach him for sure that he was safe. That was a vital part of his recovery.

Next week, I’ll be looking at trauma in dogs, considering the challenges of this term.

Don’t forget you can check out my new Substack weekly newsletter and you can sign up for occasional updates from Lighten Up here: