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The dog of one my relatives suffer from extreme fear reactions and his life is about finding ways to hide in a dark corner of the house and spend half a day there.

I'll try to describe the dog's behaviour and give my understanding of the problem. In short: how can we help the dog overcome his general fearful state of mind ?

About the dog

From time to time he just "shuts down" when noticing that the owner wants to go for a walk. He'll either hide or just "act dead". He often does that while on walk too, for no obvious reason. It doesn't to be related to a specific thing (like cars or other dogs). He think he's in such a general fearful state that with time he associated many neutral situations with things that were initially starting his fear reactions.

He is clearly afraid of fireworks.

The dog was (in my view) not properly socialised and/or exposed to enough stimuli (cars, people, other dogs, loud noises, etc.) in his early life (from 8 weeks to his final shots, probably around 16 weeks). The reason was that the vet advised to keep him in the house for that period to avoid any potential problem before his first shots. Now that I know how important early socialisation is, this seems a bit crazy to me but that's what happened.

The dog is not showing signs of agression. When facing a "fight or flight" situation he definitely chose the second option.

The dog is a two and half years old Border Collie, pure breed. I don't have much information about the breeder. The family of the owner reports that the mother was fearful.

So all of that is far from perfect and it is quite sad to see the dog in that state of mind.

I don't have detailed explanation but apparently the vet tried to help the dog reach a more relaxed state with micro massaging. I think he was referring to the Tellington TTouch method (see the related question, the picture there is not the dog I'm talking about here).

Potential solutions and questions

For dogs with specific fear-related problems I think the way to treat the dog is with classical counter-conditioning and desensitisation. However I think the difficult part is that it is too easy to go too far too quickly and to actually flood the dog. There have been many criticism that it is what Cesar Milan does quite often in the presence of fearful dogs (not my goal to start a debate here but in this case it is my main concern).

So as in this case we have a generally fearful dog, how should we proceed ? I don't know if the best strategy is to work on each fear reaction individually, gradually exposing the dog to them. Or if it is better to treat the problem as a whole. If so, I don't know how and I don't know what the techniques are. This is my main question. What is the clinical definition of the situation ?

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    One thing to keep in mind is that, while you want to set the dog up for success as much as possible, you will get it wrong sometimes and, while every step back is worth 20 steps forward, you have to watch your reaction to him being fearful. It is very easy to condition a fearful reaction in if you pay him lots of attention whenever he is showing signs of fear. – ThomasH Mar 23 '14 at 23:58
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    As for your fear that you might "flood" the dog, make sure he always has an out, i.e. he can get away from the situation if he is uncomfortable at any time. – ThomasH Mar 24 '14 at 0:09
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There are a couple great books by a few different animal behaviorist:

In general it is best to take things slowly and build up confidence in the dog. Something that can be very helpful is to build a routine that you can go into when the dog encounters something frightening. It will only work if the dog is not overwhelmed so you will have to figure out how to expose the dog to a situation from a distance where the dog can still think. Then teach it fun and easy games at that time. These games should be well known to the dog and highly rewarded. Once you have done this a number of times the dog should start associating the "scary" situation with wanting to work instead of fear. The trick is to take extremely small steps especially in the beginning so that you don't push past where the dog is willing to play/work for treats. Clicker training games are great for this. Keep the sessions very short.

There are also things like "Thundershirts" that work well for many dogs.

Border collies can become a bit obsessive especially if they don't have some kind of job. Sometimes it can present itself as obsesive fear. Often giving the dog more brain work can really help. Exercise is not enough for most herding breeds and I'd say Border Collies can tend to need more brain work than most. It is just as or possibly even more important for them to be exercising their brains, not just their bodies. It might do some real good if you can find a kindhearted trainer in your area to take some classes from. Avoid old style dominance training or strict obedience training for a dog like this and focus on operant and general socialization training.

  • Thanks. I ll wait for the references. Do you have personal experience with the thunder shirt? This is part of the ttouch method right? – Cedric H. Mar 19 '14 at 9:10
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    I have not used it for my dogs but I have had several people I know and trust in the dog world say that it has helped their dogs. I am thinking of getting one for my older dog who is becoming more anxious so if I do I will update this post. – Beth Whitezel Mar 19 '14 at 14:12
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    Search for thundershirt on this site and you'll find lots of praise, especially from JohnDM, who keeps assuring us he's not a company shill ;-) It supposedly works great against fear but you have to use it sparingly or the dog will get used to it. – ThomasH Mar 23 '14 at 23:54

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