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  • Writer's pictureKari Bastyr, MS, CDBC, CPCN

Dog Training: Why is My Dog Scared of Everything? Understanding Genetically Fearful Reservation & Rescue Dogs

During the years I lived in Denver, and most recently since I've been back in Minneapolis, I have worked with countless dogs from rural areas- including New Mexico, Kansas, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Utah, Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, and the Dakotas.  Lately, I have worked with fearful puppies who are transported to bigger cities from all over the US. These puppies face certain euthanasia as rural areas don’t have high rates of adoption. But rural areas do have a high number of un-altered dogs who continue to add to pet over-population.  Most of the dogs from rural areas are herding or livestock-guardian mixes: Cattle Dogs, Australian Shepherds, Anatolian Shepherds, Great Pyrenees, German Shepherds, etc.  all of which are known for their herding, guarding, shyness, and somewhat reserved/fearful behavior.  I call these puppies ‘reservation dogs,’ and they comprise about 60-70% of the dogs I work with on a daily basis.   

The behaviors are genetic, both in the breed characteristics and from the puppy’s parents and grandparents, therefore it is no surprise that these puppies grow up to be shy, fearful, reactive, and scared.  Many of these dogs don’t do well in the city, as the sights and sounds are too much for them to handle. Here are some of the genetically pre-wired behaviors reservation dogs may have and of course, not all dogs of each breed will have every characteristic. However, this is a short list of potential behaviors to consider when adopting (source- Wikipedia):

Australian Cattle Dog– Herding Dog: energetic and intelligent with an independent streak; reserved with people it does not know and naturally cautious in new situations; attitude to strangers makes it an excellent guard dog when trained for this task; good with older, considerate children, but will herd people by nipping at their heels, particularly younger children who run and squeal; forms a strong attachment to its owners, and can be protective of them and their possessions.

Australian Shepherd– Herding Dog: may show reserved and cautious guarding behaviors; kind, loving, and devoted to those they know; loyal to their owners, and are rewarding dogs if treated well; protective of its property; inclined to bark warnings about neighborhood activity; intelligent, learns quickly, and loves to play; a bored, neglected, unexercised Aussie may invent its own games, activities, and jobs; does best with plenty of human companionship; require a minimum of 2–3 hours a day of play, exercise, and attention.

Great Pyrenees– Livestock Guardian: confident, gentle, and affectionate; territorial and protective of its flock or family when necessary; general demeanor is of composure and patience and loyalty; strong willed, independent and reserved; attentive, fearless and loyal to its duties; will patrol its perimeter and may wander away if left off  leash in an unenclosed space; protects its flock by barking, and being nocturnal, tends to bark at night unless trained against such behavior.

Anatolian Shepherd– Livestock Guardian: independent and forceful; responsible for guarding its master’s flocks without human assistance or direction; rugged, large and very strong; these traits make it challenging as a pet; intelligent and can learn quickly but might choose not to listen; likes to roam; not recommended for living in small quarters.

Border Collie– Herding Dog: require considerable daily physical exercise and mental stimulation;  very demanding, playful, and energetic; may develop neurotic behaviors in households that are not able to provide for their needs; infamous for chewing holes in walls, destructive biting and chewing on furniture, and digging holes out of boredom; may not be good with young children, cats, or other pets due to their strong herding instinct; can be motion-sensitive and may chase moving vehicles.

Kuvasz– Livestock Guardian: intelligent, aloof and independent; intensely loyal; instinctive need to investigate strangers and protect its owner; not usually interested in meaningless activity, such as tricks; experienced handlers only.

German Shepherd– Herding/Working Dog: highly intelligent, active, and self-assured; willingness to learn and an eagerness to have a purpose;  curious which makes them excellent guard dogs and suitable for search missions; can become over-protective of their family and territory, especially if not socialized correctly; not inclined to become immediate friends with strangers.

Belgian Malinois– Herding/Working Dog: active, intelligent, friendly, protective, alert and hard-working; energy levels that are among the highest of all dog breeds; excessively high prey drive; can be destructive or develop neurotic behaviors if not provided enough stimulation and exercise; enjoy being challenged with new tasks; known to be easy to train, due to their high drive for rewards.

As you can see, many of the breed characteristics above include ‘reserved’, ‘cautious’, ‘protective’, ‘high prey drive’, and ‘will nip at heels’.  While these behaviors are normal to the dog, they may be unwanted in a family, or in day-to-day life.  I will also add that many of these mixed breed reservation dogs tend to have Husky, Boxer, Staffie, or Labrador in them.  Rescues may even identify puppies as a ‘Lab Mix’ or a ‘Boxer Mix’ when it is mainly a herding dog or livestock guardian. It is imperative that new adoptive pet parents understand these above behaviors and set their puppies up to succeed in all situations.

I have had the opportunity to work with thousands of these genetically fearful puppies in the past 30 years, and I have adopted 3 reservation puppies myself.  Every adopter, including myself, has very good intentions with socialization, desensitization, and training, and it was different even for me to experience these behaviors, as I have only had Siberian Huskies, Great Danes, and Labradors before.  However, many of these reservation puppies aren’t equipped to process a lot of confusing environmental stimuli at once and then those good intentions can be disastrous.    Many of these puppies grow up to growl, snap, and bite because of their breed characteristics. It doesn’t have to be that way if humans understood their ‘genetic’ predisposition better.

German Shepherd Fearful Dog Training

1). It’s not about ‘socialization’. Reservation dogs need training that is different than other puppies.  The focus should be on building their confidence and helping them to cope with scary environmental things slowly instead of putting them in situations that will make them more scared.  ‘Flooding’ can be detrimental to their psychological well-being.

2). Behavior and emotions are always context specific. Your puppy is going to behave differently in certain environments: friendly at home, and scared at the vet; running around happily in the backyard at home, or hiding under your legs at the pet store.  It is crucial that you take ‘context’ into account when analyzing your dog’s behavior.

3). Behavior is individual to every single dog. Just because you had a wonderfully behaved German Shepherd when you were growing up, doesn’t mean that the one you adopt today is going to be the same way. Every dog is different even if they are related.  We are different from our siblings, and we have the same parents, too.

4). Desensitization and counter-conditioning must be done when your dog is not afraid, adrenalized, or stressed, and your puppy must always feel safe at all times.  If your puppy’s brain is in full-blown fear mode, she cannot learn. She can only shut down, or suppress her stress, which will make her fear and anxiety worse in the future, and may cause more aggression.

5). Punishing, forcing, leash correcting, yelling at, squirting, throwing things, or shocking your puppy is not going to help her.  It will inevitably make her more afraid, or worse, more aggressive because she feels pain/fear.  Punishment increases stress, it’s as simple as that. She may ‘behave’ after getting shocked, but only because she’s afraid of getting shocked, not because she’s less fearful or stressed.

6). Growling is not bad... It is an appropriate warning for fear. Please do not punish your puppy for growling, as it is the most appropriate warning a dog could ever give.  If he growls, he is telling you he’s scared, and then its up to you to help get him out of the situation and/or redirect him.  If you punish your puppy for growling, he’ll stop growling i.e. stop warning, and guess what? Then he’ll go straight to snapping and biting as a warning.

7). Fearful, shy, stressed, and aggressive puppies need professional help in the form of dog-friendly, positive, confidence building behavior modification. Please call a positive dog behavior professional, and please stay away from punishment-based or ‘balanced’ dog trainers, as both use fear, corrections, and intimidation in their training.

8). Dog behavior is not about being dominant or alpha, and shouldn’t be characterized as such.  If you try to be ‘dominant’ over your dog, you will make him scared of you and more anxious about his environment.  Dominant dogs are calm, stable, friendly, and confident.  Fearful dogs are anxious, shy, shut down, reactive, and can be aggressive.

9). Fearful dogs may have less-than optimal gut health, because they inherit their mother’s microbiome. If that’s the case, then healing the gut and increasing good gut bacteria to increase mood stabilizing neurotransmitters may significantly improve anxiety. The microbiome is key to behavior and emotions because of the gut-brain axis.

Whether you adopt a reservation puppy, or rescue a fearful adult dog, there are many things to consider when training and socializing.  Every dog is different, and his or her individual needs and genetically pre-wired behaviors should play the biggest part in how you teach, desensitize, and work towards building confidence and social skills. If you have any doubt, please hire a professional so you don’t inadvertently make things worse.  If you make one wrong step, or try to work through fear and anxiety on your own, it could have dire consequences for your fur baby.

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