Adopting a Fearful Puppy

Carly Davis, CPDTSmelling the dandelion

A while ago, I wrote a blog titled Questions to Ask Before Adopting a Dog or Puppy about the adoption process, and things to consider when you’re trying to find the right dog for your home. At the time, I was searching for a dog, which I have finally found. From the time I got the go ahead from my landlord to the day I was sure the right pup had found me was about 8 months. And it was quite the process.

In my line of work, you’d think that dogs would be falling into my lap, which is fairly true. But most of the dogs offered to me are dogs with issues, and while I do have the ability to fix a wide variety of behavior challenges, I have a husband and a job and a parrot. And it was proving to be quite an undertaking to find a dog with the types of issues that my life would be able to accommodate. As I said in the previous entry, vocal separation anxiety in an apartment building can have a very detrimental effect on your neighbor relations, and a high prey drive can be very hard to manage in a small space with a parrot and a dog. So we visited multiple shelters multiple times, and just didn’t find the right fit.


Fearful PuppyFiona. One of our clients had purchased multiple puppies at the same time and asked us to come help them get off to the right start. On our first visit, we discussed one of the puppy’s extreme social fear- hot dogs and string cheese were not enough of a motivator to allow us to pet this eight week old puppy, while her litter mate was crawling all over us like we would expect of a dog that age. We warned the owners that she was going to need intense socialization in a very careful manner, as well as lots of practice being separated from her brother to prevent dog/dog separation anxiety.  Honestly, the first time I met this dog, I shook my head and wanted to have a discussion with the breeder about breeding for temperament, because this puppy was obviously genetically extremely fearful.

Two weeks later, the owners called and had decided that the little black labradoodle needed a new home. With three other puppies around, her fear was increasing, she was starting to nip and bite when over-aroused, and was very reactive when any play time was happening. Knowing that she was in a critical socialization period, and that it would be essentially impossible for them to provide the kind of socialization this puppy desperately needed, I offered to foster her. I drove to pick her up the same day (Surprise, honey! I have a puppy!), and fortunately had all of the dog equipment I needed to get her through the night. And so began my life with Fiona.

Fiona slept for the first two or three days she was with us. She woke up for potty breaks, to eat a little, and then went back to sleep. That was a pretty good indication that the owners had made the best decision for this little dog- I think she was so intensely over-stimulated with three other puppies around that she hadn’t been sleeping enough. Once she had caught up on her rest, we began our work in earnest. It took about a week before she would approach my husband, for attention, but the first time she wandered over and laid down in his lap, he was hooked. By that time, so was I.

Every potty walk was a training opportunity, and we did not bring her outside without treats of some kind. Every single person she saw was associated with treats, either because they gave them to her or because I was essentially shoveling them into her mouth as they walked past. She went to puppy class about twice a week, and had separate puppy play times in addition to classes. I exposed her to all my trainer friends’ non-aggressive dogs, my parents’ dogs, and my in-laws’ cats. She went to University Village to meet people and puppies, to Home Depot to receive treats around all the scary sights and sounds there, took tons of car rides, visited the vet for lots of cookies, and essentially had a socialization blitz for the next two months.

Gimme treatFor the first month that I had Fiona, I didn’t have to worry about her jumping up on people- she was too scared to approach strangers and my husband and I had already taught her to sit for attention. When she did start investigating strange people, I was so excited that I would’ve let her jump on them, anyway. I’d much rather have a dog that’s so excited to see people that she’s bouncing all over the place than the dog that bites someone out of fear. Now that she’s 9 ½ months old, I hesitate to discourage her from the crazy greeting she gives her favorite people, since it took so much work to have her even tolerate direct eye contact without shivering.

The longer I have Fiona, the more I internalize (even though I’ve said this to owners a thousand times) that her training is a life-long project. She’s just now going through her second fear phase, and all of the things we worked so hard to counter-condition when she was tiny have become scary again. I find myself breaking out the treats and taking a deep breath before every walk again, and am still amazed at the things that trigger her. (Yes Fiona, I know there is an umbrella. AND that man has a hood?! How DARE he!) I also really see what a difference mental and physical exercise make in her reactivity. The days when I haven’t had a chance to take her for a good long zoom, she’s so much more alert to everything around her, and often picks up on things that I would never even notice if I didn’t have her with me.  She is a lot of work.

flapping earsFor all the work that she’s been, however, there have also been some things that have been ridiculously easy with her. For example, so far she hasn’t done any counter-surfing. I have left a forgotten plate of pizza on the kitchen counter with her barricaded in with it, and it will still be there when I return. She also doesn’t chew on inappropriate things, she gets along fantastically with other dogs (so far- she’s still a puppy, so that may change when she matures), housetrained very easily, and has always ridden well in the car (with a Kong and stuffed animals and chew toys). She has endeared herself to Nick completely, which is very important to me, and has been fantastic with my parrot, Kiwi. (Actually, her fear was rather helpful in this case. It only took one instance of Kiwi unexpectedly flapping off of her play stand and landing near Fiona for my poor cowardly dog to decide this angry green ball of fluff was something best avoided.)

All in all, I got very lucky. Since I’ve found Fiona, I’ve also come across two other dogs that would have been much easier to own and would have probably fit into my life just as easily. But having this project dog has made me much more empathetic to the owners of the dogs I work with. And it’s brought me to the conclusion that it’s not about finding a dog without any issues, but one whose issues you’ll be able to work with. If you’ve seen RENT, it’s summed up pretty well- “I’m looking for baggage that goes with mine.”

Got any stories about your new puppy? Are you thinking about adopting a puppy? Do you have questions about finding a puppy or setting your new puppy up for success in your new home? We’d love to hear from you!!


  1. says

    I loved this post because I could relate to it, only I’m not a professional trainer so it’s been a lot slower and more frustrating progress. But working with you guys (Christine) has really helped and started to turn things around.

    My dog was also afraid of everyone and everything. I had him since eight weeks and so I didn’t know why he was behaving this way, but now I can see it’s genetic. I also blame my initial attempts to train using Cesar Millan’s “methods”. At eight weeks he was pretty accepting of most people, but not all. Then he started getting more fearful and he was always afraid of other dogs. When I first learned about clicker training he quickly (over a few months) learned to be okay with walking by people, stollers, bikes, and even his most hated: rollerbladers.

    Now he happily greet some people who work at my apartment and sometimes doesn’t even put his tail down when they pet him. He’s weird in that he really wants to be social but he’s scared. So he’ll jump up to give kisses but his tail tells me he’s still a bit worried. But it gets better every time and there’s always food reinforcemen added in.

    I also learned (over time) that we couldn’t even go potty without hot dogs. Any opportunity missed could make things worse. Now I watch him very closely and know when he gets that look that it’s time for a treat. He rarely barks now, except when he first sees other dogs which is definitely a challenge still. Like you said it’s a life long challenge but it does get a lot better.

    Recently the mailman actually commented on how good and calm my dog was compared to other dachshunds. If he only new how hard I’ve worked. To have someone say that to me was a really big deal. It’s like the academy award of dog training. “You like my dog, you really like my dog!”

  2. says

    @Matt: Working with you and Kody has been a genuine pleasure. I know how hard you’ve worked and I’ve seen how much Kody has improved. I’m thrilled to know that the world is becoming a less scary place for Kody and he’s enjoying his interactions with people much more.

  3. Julie says

    Hi Carly (and Christine),
    I had to laugh when I read about you letting Fiona jump on her favorite people! Kara actually told me about this post as I struggle with the same thing with Nola. She too has a few favorite people and will greet them with enthusiasm (aka, jumping on them and then try to lick their face). Lucky for me, most of these folks are trainers, or just very cool people who understand and appreciate both the struggle and the progress to get to this point. I have to say that when I’ve met Fiona, I hadn’t realized she was so fearful – you’ve done an amazing job with her.

  4. Tracey says

    can anyone help? we have just brought home a 4 month old puppy. Called Skye. We saw the parents friendly and submissive, in the pack she was quietly ocnfident. but since we brought her home she is fearful submissive. shaking, ears down, urinating in fear.
    She has and loves her crate (which we drapped a cloth over) she has mums scent on a blanket too. she will go in and out of the crate herslef, but takes me over 45mins to entise her out for toileting, which by this time when she does come she wets due to waiting so long and going submissive.
    Skye is only responsive to me although as i said is a very lengthy process. we have 3 children and she has growled once at them which i quickly corrected..but has no left me wondering and watching her constantly. i just need some help ingaining her confidence and introducing her to the family.

  5. Kathy says

    I can totally relate to this also. My female pom Rosie grew up as a fear-biter, and is the alpha dog in the house, tho gets along with everyone. She will put an end to any goings on that she thinks she should (too much running, one dog bothering another too much even if its playing, tug-of-war is a rude game ‘give the toy to mom, she’s pulling cus she wants it’ etc), and is fearful of fireworks and thunderstorms.
    Now I have a new pup, about 6-7 months old havanese or lhasa, or poodle mix. She was fine the first few months, but has become fearful of strange people and situations. Nipped at the vet. Sis came over and she was petting her and she nipped out of the blue. Tried to take her to the park and she freaked out wanting to get away, so we sat in the grass across from the park just to watch from the distance…two little girls started walking our way and she growled and barked, so I told them to stay back
    Last night the neighbors lit off what sounded like an entire bag of fireworks, almost 10 min of straight booming and whistles. All day today she has stared out the window and acting spooked. Not sure how to help her..

  6. says

    I highly recommend that you find a behavior specialist who can work with you one on one. Counter conditioning fear is not in every trainer’s wheel house: We’re happy to help you find someone in your area. I also highly recommend an inexpensive booklet titled Cautious Canine by Patricia McConnell, PhD: Good luck!

  7. Kathy says

    I took the pup to Petco yesterday. Stood talking to a sales kid for about 10 min before he kind of reached towards her and she growled, tried to bite him then barked at him. So I went to their buffet of treats and grabbed a few…I had him give two of them, then he was able to touch her head! So I walked around the almost empty store, had a lady give her a treat, then another cashier, all went well…so we’re going to do that more often. She’s very food motivated.

  8. says

    Nothing says “I’m harmless little pup” like a treat. Have people toss them to her if having people lean over to hand feed them to her is too scary. Use super tasty treats and rotate them to maintain novelty. Let us know how your work progresses with her.

  9. Jen says

    I found your article because we have recently welcomed a border terrier puppy into our family. We got him when he was 8 wks old and now he’s about 12 weeks old. He is, and always has been very fearful. He is never able to relax and just be a curious puppy. The biggest problem is that we have two daughters, 9 & 6years old. They are now afraid of our pup. He is very aggressive and bites (drawing blood). We’re taking him to his breeder this weekend to chat about possible options. We could leave him with them to see if they can help. How likely is it that this puppy will ever actually fit in with our family? All we wanted was a happy, healthy puppy. We really think this pup will be too much for our family to handle. What do you think?

  10. says

    Without knowing you, your family or meeting your puppy, it’s impossible for me to have an opinion about whether this puppy is appropriate for your family. My only recommendation is to get your Puppy into a Puppy Kindergarten as quickly as possible: and follow through by hiring a dog trainer highly experienced with positive reinforcement based methods to help you get ahead of your little terrorist… I mean terrier. Here’s an article that can help you find someone or you can contact us at and we can help find someone for you in your area:

    Good luck and let us know how things turn out for you.

  11. Kathy says

    Last night was our 5th Family Dog Obedience class. My main goal with the class was for Tsuki to be around other dogs and people in a controlled environment. I’m happy to report…she is getting better about strange dogs! The class is held at a dog park, so before/after class we walk around near the park to let her ‘see’ other dogs. There have been some confrontation across the fence, but when one of her classmates came running over, she was like ‘oh wait, I kinda know you’. Now she’s met other dog park dogs and is better unless they come up nose to nose with her. She’s never sought any out to attack, it was only when they approach her (fear biting I think). But the class has definately made her more confident and at ease with other dogs and people :)

  12. Teri says

    We just got a 13 week old puppy. Mom is an American staffordshire mix dad is unknown. Goose is about 9 lbs right now. Mom was very sweet and had appropriate behavior. There were 3 pups when we visited. These dogs are rescue dogs. They were found on the streets when pups were about 3-4 weeks old. Mom and pups were undernourished. The pups were all mellow but played appropriately. So, the pup my husband chose has a mellow personality but was pushed aside by his siblings while playing. He would go under the table with his tail between his legs but would come out and check things out cautiously. This is the one we brought home. It wouldn’t have been my first choice but he is here, and we know it will be a big commitment. What we are finding is he is fearful of noise and people. We have had him only 2 days and has made good progress but I am wondering the best way to help him. He runs away if anyone approaches him but is very food motivated and will come to you with food. I have started making noise and holding food to him to get him to come towards the noise. He has never had a leash on so we are staring with that today too. Any info or good books would be great to get him to be the best dog he can be. Thanks!

  13. beatty123 says

    Congratulations on your puppy! You are on the right track using positive reinforcement to help him feel good about scary things like noises. Introducing him to as many things as possible that he’ll need to get used to – always in a positive and comfortable way – is the best thing you can do for him. Remember that the first 16 weeks of his life is prime time when this needs to be done. Taking him to a positive reinforcement puppy class where he can learn to play appropriately with other puppies is also very important during this time. The instructor should be able to help you with his fear issues. Be sure to steer clear of anyone who uses leash corrections, intimidation or “dominance” in training. Dr. Sophia Yin’s book “Perfect Puppy in 7 days” is a great resource. Best of luck with your new family member!

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