Tips on Rehabilitating & Training a Fearful Dog

*disclaimer: we are not trainers! we are just sharing our experience on what we did with her and how it helped her 🙂

We have been very happy to receive questions from new adopters and fellow owners who are having a hard time with their skittish and fearful dog. Since we have already been sharing so much on instagram, might as well document it down! I have still yet to meet/hear from any owner who has a fearful dog to the extent of Mayo so I’m not sure how much these tips will help because most dogs are better off hahaha which is a good thing ok!

To give some context, Mayo came to us in Feb 2020 and would absolutely not walk on leash. She was dragged around by the shelter and completely shut down every time it was time for her walks. For the first month or so, we had to leave the house completely and watch her on our doggy cam so that she would eat and drink. She didn’t leave her bed/spot AT ALL for an entire month before we worked with her on that. We couldn’t touch her or be near her if not she would start shaking and running away. When we were out on walks she would be so nervous and anxious she would pull us just so that she can get home quicker and end the walk. Upon seeing triggers like runners, kids, bicycles and etc, she would panic and buckle (we lost her once cos of that). After 7 months she still has yet to warm up to us so we really like to go to the basics and work with building trust. It’s not like she wags a tail when she sees us hahaha. That being said she’s still a work-in-progress and hasnt fully warmed but anyhoo! lets go into some tips we felt really helped her with some of her issues and helped us with relationship building.

  1. Hand-Feeding
    we did tons of research on how to best bond with newly rescued dogs and hand-feeding always came up. The guiding principle for us is ‘Good things come from my hand’. You could expect that Mayo was initially not quite comfortable with approaching us to eat from our hand but we didn’t relent. If she was too scared to eat (actually I don’t remember if she was ever), we will try again at the next meal. As long as she ate 1 bite from my hand, we would put the food bowl down next to us and let her eat. Of course, it helped to feed her food of very high value to start the process. When she first came, we prepared fresh salmon, beef, and all sorts of meat and had her take it out of our hand for a few minutes a day.

    When Mayo lived as a stray, her pack of dogs wouldn’t really let her eat. She had to be fed separately by her kind feeder. Another reason why hand feeding is great for fearful dogs is that I think it gives them some sort of security knowing that no one will be able to snatch their food bowl away or attack their bowl. Actually now, she loves being hand-fed hahaha. In stressful places with other dogs around, she will only eat from my hand because I figure she knows she can trust my hand.
  2. No Hiding
    On Mayo’s first day home, we set up some playpens in the kitchen for her to chill out in. We thought it would be too stressful for her to be close to us so we left her alone in the kitchen to hide. What happened subsequently was every time we went into the kitchen, she would jolt and start shivering. After 2 weeks of that and receiving some advice, we shifted her out to her current spot in the living room, far enough from us to not be triggered but at a place that she could at least observe us, hear our voice, watch our movements and slowly come to understand us as a different species.

But why? Why not give her her own space and let her hide for as long as she wanted? Why not give her time? You see, it is a little like humans being trapped in our heads or having a fear of heights we are trying to overcome. We just need to take ONE STEP. If I allowed her to hide, who’s to say she would magically be comfortable enough to step outside? For all I know, I might be feeding into her anxiety by allowing her to constantly think ‘outside the kitchen is scary’. She was still cautious whenever we stood up or walked around or when she heard new noises for the first time like typing of the keyboard, remote control on the table, clinking of our utensils as we ate. But at least now she could see what we were doing and associating clinking to eating. If she was in the kitchen and only depended on her ears, every sound will consistently be scary isn’t it?

3. Leash/Collar Pressure/Tethering
This, I learned from our friend @theroyaltail who also happens to dabble in dog training. (p.s you can check out her writing on Pawjourr too!) If you watch videos of Mayo walking in the shelter, she had no understanding of leash/collar pressure – which is why having anything remotely touching her aka leash would send her jumping, shutting down flat out on the ground and refusing to move. Now I’m not a trainer so i don’t think I can correctly verbalize what it means to teach a dog collar/leash pressure – but my understanding is to apply LIGHT pressure, and as soon as the dogs give in to it, reward!

We also did tethering exercises for 5-10mins everyday after her walks. After coming back from her walks, we kept her on the leash and walked her to different parts of the house. E.g we will walk her to the sofa area and sit there for 5 mins without talking to her or looking at her. In that 5 mins, she might be uncomfortable but as she processes whats around her we really saw her feeling braver to explore new parts of the house. We also took that opportunity to teach her things like ‘come’. When she sits far away from me (this is to be expected when you first start the tether especially if they are not warmed up to you) , I will put GENTLE GENTLE pressure on the leash and ask her to ‘come’. The moment she takes one step forward towards me, I mark the behavior with a GOOD GIRL and reward her with food if I have it on me 🙂

our tethering exercise

4. Walking Ahead
No, I’m not trying to tell you to dominate your dog and prove you’re alpha and all that (that’s another discussion for a whole other day). Don’t misunderstand – for fearful dogs, a lot of owners have shared that this tip was very helpful to them.

This is what I observed from Mayo and also after hearing feedback from owners with dogs fearful of the outdoors. Some people will tell you to let your dog sniff, let them walk anywhere they want to and discover. But for a fearful dog, personally, I find that when they walk ahead of you, they are more subject to reacting negatively and scaring themselves. When a bicycle is coming towards you and your dog, is it easier to manage if the dog is behind/beside you or ahead of you? I can’t count how many times Mayo will veer to another side when she sees a bike and her leash almost causing an accident with the bike. It is my personal opinion that fearful dogs need direction and leadership, solely because they have no clue how to deal with anything. Food is not going to work when a surprise bicycle comes heading for us, or when she’s already so occupied with fear from just leaving the house. However as a fellow owner rightly pointed out – fearful dogs also need to sniff assess their surroundings and be allowed to make choices. 100%! What i’m saying is if you notice your dog not focused on sniffing but in a panic mode, try walking ahead and redirect her 🙂 

After struggling with her leash walking when she got lost, a fellow owner shared her own experience with her fearful dog. She asked me to check my own confidence level on our walks and try to own the walk. That one day I picked up the leash confidently and whenever mayo got into her panic pulling, I stopped. Walked in front of her to block her and continued walking. She calmed down a significant amount. Since then, whenever we approach triggers or if she sees something that makes her a bit unsure, I set her to walk behind me and keep my leash short so I can easily manage her and she can just follow me confidently as we walk pass her triggers. That way she can watch me as i am giving her an example to follow and she doesn’t have to ‘face them alone’ (assuming she’s walking ahead) and over time will understand that these ‘triggers’ are nothing scary, we just need to walk pass them calmly. Of course now as she gets more and more confident, she gets to sniff wherever she wants to and pee/poop whenever and wherever she wants (;

5. Start Small don’t be over-ambitious & be patient
In order to get Mayo comfortable around the house, besides hand feeding, we tried conditioning, shaping & capturing desired behaviors. For example, in the first week, we tossed high-value food to where she was. At most, she would have to stand up and lean forward to get it. We increased the ‘difficulty’ and distance as the days go by. At 2 months, we tossed high-value treats around the house from a distance and she would have to run around the house to get them. After a while, she will realize walking around the house is not scary and that she does have the permission to walk around even in our presence. After a month of the tossing treats activity, we slowly increased the difficulty and made her come to us for the food. Subsequently, we hovered our hands over her head, and then adding a ‘touch’ cue where she would voluntarily let us brush ONE time on her head and immediately get a reward – associating the human touch with a positive thing.

Because Mayo couldn’t be touched and wasn’t warmed up to us humans it was almost impossible to teach her any tricks. We had to be extremely patient and wait for her to give us the desired behavior e.g sit, and I would ‘capture’ that behavior with a ‘GOOD GIRL’ every time she sits and toss her a reward. After a while, whenever she sat I introduced the word “SIT” and then mark it with a good girl followed by a reward. 5 months later….. she can sit. HAHAHA.


6. Talk less
When we go on walks and meet a reactive dog, I always hear owners do this:

Bro, even I don’t know what you want la. Do you think your dog understands everything you are saying? Dogs don’t understand English. They don’t know what you are saying and only associate the words to behaviors and your tone of voice. Talking to your dog excessively only confuses them especially when you are training because they don’t know what you want. For example, when I want her to sit, I say, ‘Mayo, sit’. And if she doesn’t, I don’t go ‘why mayo why you don’t sit? come on, sit for me please. good girl, sit la…’ Can you see how confusing that would sound? I just maintain, ‘Mayo, Sit.’ if she does – GOOD GIRL! Try not to overwhelm with talking also because the attention can be too much for them. A lot of us are guilty of that – i think of course there’s no harm in baby-talking our dogs especially when they come for a manja sesh. But personally when it comes to training and when you want to give a clear direction – the less you talk, the better. I also want my words to have weight and meaning and not yap away like a duck. Like Ronan Keating would say… “You say it best when you say nothing at all.”

And that’s all for now folks! 5 tips + a bonus. Let us know what you think! Does it make sense? And if you are going to try them let us know if it worked for you! But remember that every dog is different and they progress at their own time. Different dogs also need different levels of support. I have a fearful dog that shuts down instead of reacting and I can’t speak for the other spectrum of dogs 🙂 Also, success is not linear. If you face some set backs here and there don’t give up. It’s really part of the process.. If you have a tip for us, share it with us too!

Again we are not trainers but I would like to think Mayo has progressed A LOT after being with us and working with her. Thank you to everyone on our social media who have supported us and asked us for help! We are so humbled and we hope this will help you 🙂 Hang in there! You can do this <3

With love,
Mayo’s pawrents


  • Ashwyn
    Posted September 25, 2020 3:36 pm 0Likes

    Such an informative article! Thank you for sharing!

  • Kake
    Posted September 25, 2020 3:58 pm 0Likes

    You guys are doing a great job!

  • Dee
    Posted September 25, 2020 7:51 pm 0Likes

    Love all the info and proud of your progress Mayo!

  • Val
    Posted September 25, 2020 8:56 pm 0Likes

    Mayo is lucky to have you guys! Glad she’s progressing!

    • Fynn
      Posted September 26, 2020 12:34 pm 0Likes

      Thank you for the informative article! I tried the advice on walking ahead of my dog (he is a skittish one too!) and prepare him for oncoming potential trigger and he reacted quite well!
      And i second the point about starting small. Watching all those training videos on youtube made me think that everything will be that fast and they will always want treat. But noo!! Like human, dogs have their own personality and their own pace. We should see what works and what doesn’t..
      You are doing a greaaat job with Mayo!! I’m sure Mayo loves her home now :)!

Leave a comment

Minimum 4 characters