Can a Confident Dog Help a Fearful One?

Misty is a six-month-old Bichon who has been with her family since the age of seven weeks. On walks, Misty seems to be afraid of everything. She lags on leash, practically hiding behind whoever is walking her, and constantly scans the environment for potential trouble.

Buddy is a two-year-old Shepherd mix. By all accounts, he’s a great family dog; that is, until a stranger comes to visit. When the visitor first enters the home, Buddy barks and alternates between lunging toward the person and backing away as if to say, “You big scary thing, don’t make me come over there!” In short, Buddy is uncomfortable around new people, and wishes they’d just leave.

Misty and Buddy, although two very different dogs, have something in common: they’re fearful in certain situations. While it would be wonderful if we could explain to them that there’s nothing to be afraid of, we can’t. (Well, we try, but dogs are pretty much just hearing that Peanuts cartoon wah-wah-WAH-wah.) But what if we could show them instead? The easiest way to do that is by employing the help of a confident, dog-friendly dog.

Dogs learn by observation. And they most certainly learn things from each other, both good and bad. One dog, by example, can help to potty train a new dog. A dog with separation anxiety can, unfortunately, demonstrate to another dog that it’s worrisome for the owners to be gone. Since dogs observe and learn from each other, we might as well put that to good use. You might be lucky enough to have a second dog in the home who is confident. If not, think about who you know that has a confident dog who likes other dogs and people. In Misty’s case, maybe you could phone a friend and ask if she’d like to take the dogs out for a walk together. In Buddy’s case, invite the friend to bring her dog over. If your dog doesn’t know her, she can serve as the visitor. If Buddy already knows her, invite another friend to come by once the friend and her dog have settled in for at least 15 minutes.

Now imagine the new scenarios. Misty and her friend are being walked down the street together. The confident dog is happy and outgoing. Misty, normally nervous and insecure, is less so with her friend there to back her up and to show her the world isn’t such a scary place. At home, Buddy notices how his friend reacts in a friendly way to the person Buddy found frightening, and considers that maybe the person isn’t so bad after all. With careful, controlled repetition of these scenarios, Misty and Buddy will begin to gain confidence, and will eventually learn to be more confident on their own.

In my full-day seminar Working with Fearful Dogs, I show a video of a cocker spaniel named Buster. Buster has multiple fear issues, including meeting new people. In the clip, the female cocker who lives with him is secluded in another room. I work with Buster on hand targeting. He’s willing to work with me because I have super yummy treats, but his body language clearly broadcasts that he is afraid to get too close, and he simply can’t relax. After a few minutes, we let the female cocker out to join us. Viola! There is an Instant transformation as Buster, along with the other dog, jumps all over me, tail wagging, body wiggly, clearly unafraid. It’s an amazing turnaround, and demonstrates so clearly how much having a confident dog present can help a fearful one.

Does this plan work for each and every dog? Of course not. Nothing is 100% effective with every dog. But as a trainer with many years of experience, I can tell you that it does absolutely help many dogs. Think about ways you can use a confident dog to help your fearful one.

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9 Responses to Can a Confident Dog Help a Fearful One?

  1. Lovely informative post as always.
    My GSD house trained the new collie pup (a long time ago now as both have passed), and in another scenario, a friend’s spaniel was nervous of thunder and we were concerned it would be passed it on to our dog of the time. It worked the other way when they were together, but sadly reverted once she was back in her home environment.

  2. Tressie says:

    I was told the opposite by a trainer that is, that my dog who is like Buddy, would make another dog who likes all people, become fearful. So how does one know, who will influence who the greatest?

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Tressie, I do not believe that a dog who has a solid, confident temperament is going to be swayed by a dog who is less confident. I could see a dog who is conflicted being influenced by the fearful dog, but again, not one who has a solid temperament to begin with.

  3. Mandy Croft says:

    I have a problem, my terrier cross who is female 3 years old, is intimidating and using the stillness, stand over on the new dog a cav. female 5 years..I thought this would work as a companion but my terrier is now depressed or intimidating I am worried for both of them but don’t want to rehome the new one unless absolutely necessary. the cavalier isnt standing up to her but not going into a passive pose either..please help

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Mandy, you need a trainer to come assess the situation in person and work with you. If you go to and click on Trainer Search you can enter your zip code and a search radius (I suggest 50 miles) and a list of names will come up. Make sure you get one that says they handle behavior issues in home. Good luck and hopefully you won’t have to rehome either dog.

  4. I’ve found that this can be great in theory but more problematic in practice. Finding an available calm dog to work with the reactive dog is always a challenge. And you absolutely can’t always assume the behavior will travel in the direction you want. Owners have to also understand that if it does help, it can take many many iterations. It can work in some instances, but like all behavior modification, there are never any easy quick fixes.

  5. Every dog and situation is different, but sounds like your method is worth a shot if you are lucky enough to have access to a calm confident dog.

  6. Anu says:

    Your post today resonated with me and is absolutely true for my reactive little dog, Remy. He’s been fearful of walking the neighborhood from day one. Five years later he’s much more comfortable with our walks but still has occasional spooky days when I have to carry him in my arms until we’ve passed whatever’s
    frightening him.

    That said, whenever we run into a friendly neighbor dog and walk with them, Remy’s attitude always improves immediately and his tail goes back up to his “12 o’clock happy” position. Curiously, all three friendly dogs who’ve given him confidence walking around the neighborhood have been Westies.

  7. Tami Kearney says:

    I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one using this technique – I mainly use it for dog who are fearful to people, but have used it for dog on dog as well. And yes, its true, it doesn’t work 100% of the time on a 100% of the dogs, but the percentage is definitely high enough to always try it. The only time I’ve seen it do the opposite like Tressie was mentioning, was when that other dog was still slightly unsure, or younger than the already fearful dog.
    Thanks again

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