Controlling Your Dog’s Fear

Along with more exercise, one of the most common blanket-solutions for various dog behavior problems is Obedience Training, and many of our clients wonder “why?”

After all, if we’ve been called in to see a dog who is terrified of trucks, why are we talking about down-stays and sit-stays? Isn’t that like going to see a doctor for a sore ankle and being told you need to massage your left arm?

First, let me say that obedience training is not the ENTIRE solution to fear. If your dog trainer tells you that your dog just needs to be dominated and that this will make his fear magically dissipate, then you may want to find another trainer.

Desensitization programs are key to solving fear related issues, and we will talk about this in a later article.


Obedience is another key part of the issue. Put the two together and you have a recipe for success.

How does obedience relate to fear issues?

The answer is simple: control, control, control.

Obedience actually does two things:

1. It teaches him self-control and makes him feel more in charge of his destiny

2. It teaches him that YOU are in control and in charge of his destiny.

“But wait!” you say, “isn’t that contradictory?”

It sounds a little crazy, but let me break it down for you:

Staying In Control:

Loss of control makes us feel anxious. That is why so many people feel safer in cars than in planes, even though you are much more likely to be killed while driving to work than on a routine flight from Vancouver to Toronto. When you are behind the wheel, you feel in control, and that gives you a feeling of safety.

Now think back to the first time you ever drove on a public road. Did you feel in control? Did you feel safe? Probably not. That’s because you knew you weren’t very good at driving yet.

Obedience helps give your dog more control over his own body. The reason your dog lunges for a ball whenever it flashes by him, or dashes at another dog when he sees one, or runs from the vaccuum cleaner when it comes by is because he can’t help it. His body said “ball!” or “dog!” or “SCARY VACUUM!” and he took off. It would be like if your car just suddenly gunned its motor and drove into the oncoming lane, and there was nothing you could do about it.

Would that make you feel safe?

By working on down-stays and sit-stays, you teach your dog to resist his natural impulses. When he gets better at it, he’ll begin to realize that he is in control of himself, and that he has a choice in how he behaves, and that helps him feel much calmer and more secure.

Giving Up Control:

Let’s go back to the plane vs car scenario. If you took someone who was afraid of flying and put him in the cockpit, handed him the controls and said “there you go” would that make him feel better? Probably not!

If someone stepped up and said, “excuse me, I’m an experienced pilot. Please step aside and everything will be okay”, he’d feel a lot better.

As I said above, control is only comforting if we actually feel capable of handling the situation.

Well, there are many situations that you can handle better than your dog, because (quite frankly) you have a much larger brain. You can and should be in charge. If you aren’t, if your dog starts to think that he’s running his life, he starts to worry, because he knows he’s not really up for the job.

When you work on obedience with your dog, you are putting him under your control. You put him in down-stays, and sit-stays, and you require him to work for what he wants. At first, this is hard for him. He doesn’t trust you yet. As you work on it, though, and begin to show him that there are coherent laws for the world which you understand, he will begin to relax. He’ll realize that you have a grand plan, and that all he has to do to keep himself safe is do what you tell him. This actually increases the trust and love between you.

Think of yourself as your dog’s pilot. You guide and control him through a difficult situation, and he can just relax and trust you to take care of him.