I recently got back home from a seminar in Vancouver to see Nicole Wilde, CPDT-KA. Nicole is a very respected dog trainer with a background in wolves and wolf-dogs. Over two days we examined "Fearful Dogs" and "Creative Client Coaching".
I wanted to share some of the information I learned about Fearful Dogs. Nicole also has a great book on this topic: Help For Your Fearful Dog. I highly recommend it for anyone who has a dog that needs help in this area.She has also written a book specifically on Separation Anxiety which is a must read for anyone dealing with that particular issue.
There are different types of fears: anxiety, fears and phobias. Anxiety is not dependent on a specific trigger or cause. My own Miniature Schnauzer has anxiety which makes her fears worse. A fear is a response to a specific trigger such as a dog who is scared of men. Phobias are a profound reaction (out of proportion) to an actual threat. Learned fears are the easiest to undo while anxiety and phobias are much more difficult.
Root causes of fearful behaviour include genetics, lack of early socialization, abuse, traumatic experience, learned or associative fears and pain/illness. It's important to note that even if we can't pinpoint what might have caused the fear initially there's still help.
When training your own dog you need to be aware of how he/she is feeling and responding. It's not uncommon for dogs in group classes to be displaying fearful/anxious behaviour and the owner misinterprets it as stubborn or aggressive. Many dogs who are fearful will actually shut down and just stop moving/offering any behaviour. If your dog is fearful or anxious then he/she will not be able to learn. I highly recommend private training or a fearful dog class for dogs with these issues.
When Heidi first arrived in my life we spent 6 weeks in a group class where she hid under my chair the entire time. I decided to ride it out with her and offered her treats (which took until class #5 for her to accept). We eventually graduated with 0 new obedience skills but at least she would come out from under the chair. I opted to enroll her in agility after that and she did great with time, encouragement and positive reinforcement. I never force Heidi to do anything since that is more likely to increase her fearful behaviour. She was never being stubborn but was simply too fearful to work. Even to this day if we're at an agility trial or a new class if she gives me signals that she isn't feeling alright then we either head home or move to a quiet space to chill out.