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Fearful Dog Advice

Q: My Labrador has been fine up until now, but suddenly became overly fearful. He hides behind me, pees and growls at strangers. What happened? How do I correct this behavior?

(This problem is almost always encountered by women handlers. Men are less likely to experience these issues).

A: This sudden onset of behavior is usually caused by a visit to the veterinarian where surgery is involved; most of the time neutering or spaying was the reason for the visit. However, before we get into the details of that, let’s take a look at the basics to rule out other causes.
Some Labrador puppies are naturally more cautious than others, even from the same litter. Much depends upon development within the litter, and their reaction to litter mates. (Contrary to popular belief, the one that is picked on the most, seldom becomes the scared dog). While a Labrador’s caution is fine, we must make sure as owners we do not manifest this caution into the reactions stated in your question. First look back and see if your dog is only reacting to those people wearing hats, carrying umbrellas, or wearing orange. If so, skip down to the “What Do I Do Now? section, answer #4. Here are a few tips for all others:

1) When your Lab exhibits cautious behavior, do you coddle him and reassure him? Give him treats? (These are top no-nos – we will get into this in the correction area).

2) When approaching other dogs or people, do you hold the leash tightly or become apprehensive? This will transmit to your dog. They read body language extremely well!

3) Did your Labrador puppy stay in a crate much of the time? This causes him to become cautious, as he has become a “cave dog”. This is not something they typically grow out of, and is one reason I’m so adamant against crate training. Because of human’s busy schedules, crate training can get carried too far.

4) As a puppy, did he have people that liked to surprise him? (This usually comes from an innocent and natural game children play). While in most Labs a reaction as an adult may not be visible, in others the results can cause permanent fear.

5) Has your dog been through training involving a shock collar? While Field Trial Labradors can be stubborn enough to make a preacher swear, and may benefit from this type training, a more sedate Family Labrador can become mentally “burned” through this type of training, especially in the hands of a trainer not experienced with the Family Labrador Retriever. This can usually be corrected over time. Shock collars should only be used by the most experienced handlers. (This does not apply to under ground fence collars).

6) Is there a lot of arguing or fighting going on in your home? Let’s face it – we humans will have a spat with each other every once in a while, especially the married ones!

Now, on to the top reason: spaying, neutering, or other surgery. Let me start with two stories of my own.

1) Chip, our wonderful chocolate male, split an ear on another dog’s tooth as aChip-200 young adult. Our veterinarian came to the farm and sewed up his ear. When the vet first arrived, Chip went up to him, wagging his tail. The vet knocked him out using Rompin (a sedative), but forgot to bring any Lydocane or Ketoset to numb him. Chip was immobilized, but could still feel the pain of stitching. I remember one eyeball rolling up and fixing on the doctor’s face. Though I didn’t know it at the time, Chip was fully aware of what was happening but couldn’t express his desire for hasty travel. Up until the time of Chip’s death, he gave a low growl under his breath and made a wide circuit of anyone smelling like a veterinarian. Going to the vet’s office from that point on required carrying him, even though by nature Chip was not a particularly cautious Labrador.

2) Joe, the yellow male Labrador you see on the JaxMax bag, went to the vet’s Joe-140office at two years of age for hip x-rays, to obtain his OFA certification. He was sedated and I helped lift him onto the x-ray machine. His rear legs were positioned for the proper picture. This position would normally be quite painful, as the legs are stretched, thus the anesthesia. Just before the x-ray was taken, he pulled his legs back and whimpered, as enough anesthesia had not been administered. To this day, Joe goes ballistic just on seeing this particular vet. He will cower, pee and bark his fool head off non-stop. Joe is otherwise a perfectly calm, easy going Labrador that never met a stranger. Obviously he has strong memories from the procedure.

3) Consider the story of Amanda J. with Buddy, her male Labrador Retriever. From puppyhood until one year of age, he was a normal Lab puppy, losing the cautious nature of puppyhood over time. He showed no concern at the vet’s office or around strangers.
At one year of age, she took Buddy to the veterinarian to be neutered. After administering anesthesia, the veterinarian started the incision, causing the heart monitor to reflect a racing heart. He whimpered, and began squirming. They turned up the gas and kept operating. From that day forward, Buddy has had a general distrust of people – especially men. (the vet performing the surgery and his assistant were men. Even though Buddy could not see, he could hear their voices). Forget taking him near a veterinarian’s office. It takes a team of people to get him in the door, and then he pees and shakes.

One of the least likely reasons a dog is fearful in the manner described above is from abuse. (Abused dogs have their own set of problems). Strangely enough, it is the first suspicion of many when trying to find a reason for their dog’s behavior. I have met so many people on the street that say their dog is shy or fearful because it was abused as a puppy, when they have no factual knowledge of his past. It has become the pat answer for almost any problem, and stands in the way of understanding that the problem can most likely be corrected.

Q: What do I do now? How do I stop the fearfulness?

1) The first step – and I cannot overemphasize this enough – is to provide strong, confident leadership. This is applicable no matter what caused his fearfulness. First, let’s examine how a leader acts. Consider these two examples:

Imagine football coach Bill Cowher, in the heat of the game, taking a player aside and telling him the pain in his arm is going to be OK, and stroking his hair with a hand, while talking to him in a baby voice. Can you see any coach doing this? No! He’s going to speak sternly and confidently, with his shoulders held back, and the recipient of his commands will know he’s being spoken to. The player will obtain the confidence of his coach in a very short time, and the pain in his arm will diminish.

How about the leader of a wolf pack? Can you imagine him getting upside down and licking the chin of the lowest ranking wolf, while he pees on himself? Absolutely not! He will govern through body posture, growls, and physical action, usually in that order. The wolves will know he’s top dog, and respect him. Could he inspire confidence in his pack to attack a deer for food when showing such signs of weakness? Of course not – he would be despised by his followers (and then eaten) and the pack would take on a new leader.

There is actually a book on the market – and I’m not kidding – that teaches dog owners to roll on their backs with all four in the air, while making whimpering noises and licking their puppies chins! (this is supposed to cure puppy biting). Every so often I receive a call from someone that has done just this. They nearly all have the same problem – aggression from their dogs, as the dog takes over the leadership role. Most Labs do not like taking over as leader, and become grumpy or aggressive. (This is why I throw most training books across the room upon preview).


When your dog displays signs of fearfulness upon an approaching stranger, immediately give the leash a tug, and say with a stern voice, “Enough!” Demand the dog stop his growling, and be ready to back it up. Leaders are not leaders unless the ones being led perceive them as strong. Demonstrate your strength when necessary. By coddling, baby talking, and telling him “It’s OK” you are reinforcing the bad habit. Giving him treats literally feeds his bad behavior! Don’t do this, and don’t let the approaching stranger or a bystander do this either. You must overrule your human emotion to comfort, and act more like the lead wolf.

2) Expose your Labrador to as many new situations as possible, for both him and for your own experience in your new leadership role.
Take him for regular walks, making sure to keep the leash short, and not letting him pass your leg while walking. (If you are having difficulty with this, it is time to get some guidance in professional Labrador training. Training with treats is not professional training!). Make sure he does not dart in or out the door before you – The Leader Goes First! Take your Labrador Retriever to the park, around the neighborhood, to the outdoor table at the coffee house or restaurant. You will help desensitize him to his surroundings.

3) Get him out of the crate, if he is in one. Sheltered dogs have a difficult time create-shotbeing exposed to their outside world. They tend to internalize their thoughts and fears when restricted. It is a form of isolation, and is considered torture for humans held as POW’s. The crate is not an answer just because you are afraid he will chew something up. You need to make better arrangements, such as a safe room. Provide stimulation, such as a second dog, radio (tuned to classical) or television.

4) Have volunteers approach you and your Labrador while you are in various places. Instruct these volunteers to completely ignore your dog, no matter what his behavior. Don’t lose site of the fact you are a trainer at this juncture, and need to stay on point playing the lead wolf. Speak with your volunteer, but waste no time in providing correction. Give a pull on the leash while uttering your correction. This can be an emphatic, “No!” or a guttural sound. My favorite is “AAAAAT!!” At first, make sure the volunteers are not wearing a hat, carrying an umbrella, or are wearing sunglasses or reflective tape, especially orange. You can add these in later. They can be major sources of concern for a Labrador, due to the way they see color and recognize shapes.

5) Do not let anyone play the intimidation game with your Labrador Retriever Puppy. This is where someone sneaks up on him and spooks him repeatedly, causing wariness. (This does not mean you can’t use the technique under housebreaking tips. There is a difference when applying in that fashion). I have to admit Joe loves playing hide and seek, where a human will jump out and yell, “Boo!”, but Joe is older and comes seeking this type of play. We were careful not to overdo it when he was younger.

6) Be a trustworthy leader. Your dog will have more respect for you and less fearfulness if he can count on you to act in the same fashion given a similar circumstance. If you are going to provide correction for a certain behavior, provide it each and every time the behavior occurs. Let your Labrador Retriever count on you as a stable figure, and don’t let him get away with acting fearful.
7) Do not fight or argue with a co-leader in front of your Labrador Retriever. Your Labrador sees this arguing as a split or danger to leadership, causing very unsettled feelings. Most married couples send their children out of earshot before throwing plates, but forget what kind of effect this has on the family dog. To further illustrate, let’s examine the difference between arguing between spouses versus punishing the children:

Your dog sees you and/or your spouse as his rock solid base, and therefore anything that shakes this up can cause fearful behavior. However, he sees your children as part of the wolf pack, under you, the leader. Spanking a child in his presence will not cause him to act fearful, because he understands you are keeping the pack in order. This is what a leader does – provides stability and order within the unit. Even if he initially runs for cover, he will soon after be at your heels, respectful of your leadership control.

8) Make sure your own children obey you. Now we’re getting into dangerous territory, but I must go here in order to give the full picture. My job should not involve sugar coating. Here I will explain the old cliché “The dog always follows the parent that spanks the kids.”
When a child rebels against a parent (particularly a youngster) and is allowed to get away with it, your Lab sees you through new eyes – as a weakling, not to be minded. Remember the old adage, “Just wait until your Daddy gets home! You’re going to get it then!” This is not good enough if you are going to be a leader. While your Lab may not understand the exact circumstances surrounding the infraction and resulting lack of discipline, rest assured he has his eye on the pecking order and will understand you’ve just been rolled over in the mud by someone down the totem pole. This leads him to believe the child is taking the leadership role, and can cause fearfulness, behavioral changes, and possibly aggression towards you, the fallen leader. This is why women have the majority of problems with fearful dogs – they get the most backtalk from their children and sometimes feel powerless to maintain control.
You may remember in other literature a statement claiming parents that are unwilling to ever spank their children under any circumstances will have the most problems with leadership (training) of their Labs. It is not necessarily because they do not spank, but because of the mindset they have developed with regard to leadership. (Raising children in a household is NOT a democracy – that’s just living with them. True leadership of an undeveloped mind sometimes requires tough decisions and action). To all those anti-spankers out there reacting in horror, please understand I’m not advocating the beating of your children – that is different. I’m suggesting a different understanding of leadership, and that a leader sometimes has to make hard choices. I’ve strayed from the topic with this answer, but I feel it is important enough to have done so.

Remember, a fearful Labrador is usually a reflection of his owner.Gut it up. You can do it!

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