Fearful brown and white rescued dog in his new home hiding under a blanket

How to Train Your Rescue Dog to Overcome Fears

Adopting and bringing home a shelter dog that has been rescued is a wonderful thing to do. You have just saved a life and created a space at the shelter for another dog in need. But it is just the first step in a longer series of steps to help your dog overcome fears and begin to have a joyful life.

Once your rescue dog begins to relax and is responding well to you, you can then begin to train your dog to overcome his fears. The best way to do this is through a process trainers call desensitization and counter-counter conditioning. This series of training reduces a dog’s sensitivity to things that frighten him and provides him new associations which are more enjoyable.

Keep reading to learn more about this process and why it is critical to your new dog’s long-term happiness.

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Training Your Dog to Overcome Fears Cannot be Done Overnight

Sometimes the first thing we want to do with a rescue dog is to just hold him and let him know that everything is going to be alright. But dogs learn through associations and repeated experiences and much less through our words.

Your new pup may sense that you are trying to help. Yet, he may continue to have some deep-seated fears that only time and new, positive associations will heal.

The biggest mistake new owners make is pushing their dogs to do too much too soon. Training of any sort should only begin once your dog has had several days and probably weeks to settle in and adjust.

Your dog will need plenty of space, quiet, rest, and a chance to get used to you, your family, and his new surroundings. He may not even eat when he first arrives if his fear levels are extreme. He may need a couple of days to calm down and feel safe enough to eat and sleep comfortably.

Be sure to see my post, How to Help a Scared Rescue Dog Adapt to His New Home for more information.

What is Desensitization and How Does It Calm a Dog’s Fears?

Desensitization is a type of training that helps a dog become less frightened of something. The process may seem a little counter-intuitive because it exposes the dog to the very thing that he is frightened of. But it is done in a very minimal and controlled way. Over time, a dog will begin to view the object or situation as less threatening.

When I first adopted my rescued dogs, they seemed skittish and afraid of a lot of things. For some reason really large birds and fowl terrified them. We have a small flock of wild roosters in our town that hang out by the local coffee shop. The first time I met a friend there for coffee with my pups, the dogs went nuts! So, we did not stay long.

But I periodically took them back to the area, sometimes just driving by with my dogs in the car. They were allowed to see the roosters, but only for short periods. I gave them lots of their favorite treats to make it a pleasant experience. Eventually, they stopped reacting, and barely noticed them the next time I went back for coffee.

Large flock of ducks and geese on small lake.

I did the same thing when we went for a walk by a lake where a huge flock of Canadian Geese and ducks hang out. They practically pulled me off my feet when they saw the ducks. We have since walked by this same lake dozens of times and now, they pretty much ignore them. You can read about our adventure in my post When Dogs Meet Ducks–How to Manage their Reaction.

If your dog is afraid of a certain sound or noise, you can record the sound. Then play the sound but at the lowest possible level and for a short period. You can gradually increase the volume and length of time.

But at any point, if your dog shows discomfort, you should stop and return to the previous level. And go slowly with this training. Don’t try to go too quickly. Give your dog some time in between sessions so your dog does not get overwhelmed.

What is Counter-Conditioning and How Does it Help Fear-Based Reactivity?

Rescued husky on leashed baring teeth as behavior gets worse

Counter-conditioning is using a positive experience to make a stressful situation feel better. This process also helps to distract the dog from something she fears or causes distress. This technique is slightly different than desensitization in that the exposure to the scary thing is not introduced or increased but is mitigated instead. Eventually, the thing or situation that your dog is fearful of becomes a non-issue.

Dogs who lunge at other dogs when walking on a leash can be challenging to manage. You can use counter-conditioning if your dog is fearful and reactive toward dogs when you go for a walk. Before another dog approaches, turn your dog around and have him sit while you give him several treats as the dog walks by. If you can get him to lie down to receive treats this is even better. He will become more relaxed and focused on his tasty snack.

If you do this each time another dog passes by, he will eventually associate an approaching dog with his favorite treats. The other dogs in the park will eventually become less scary and hopefully a non-issue for your pup.

How to Use Desentiziation and Counter-Conditioning Together while Training Your Dog to Overcome Fears

White and black pug in a blue bathtub looking a little eager to get out!
Pug in the Tub

These two techniques used together can be very effective in training a fearful dog. Trainers often refer to the combined types of training as dscc. First, systematically and slowly expose your dog to the scary thing in small steps, so he is less fearful. Then, make the scary thing fun so it becomes a non-issue and maybe even something for him to look forward to like getting a bath! See this great introduction to dscc training techniques by one of the vets at VCA Hospitals.

Using the bath example, you should first get your dog to be less frightened of water and the tub. So, just dip his toes in the water, then his feet, and eventually his whole body. Or, let him first sit in a dry tub. Then add very small amounts of water. Repeat several times until he can tolerate more water.

Eventually, when he is less afraid, you can make his bath seem more like a fun thing to do. Reward him each time he gets into his bath with something special like a peanut butter lick mat or his favorite, high-value treats (think hot dog slices or cheese cubes).

The same combination of techniques can be used when walking your dog at the park. Keep your dog at a safe distance from other dogs. Don’t let another dog approach your dog or meet him head-on while on a leash. Dogs prefer to meet freely without a leash by standing side by side or sniffing a bit first. This way they can back off or run away if the other dog seems threatening. So, by providing a safe distance, your dog will be less fearful.

As your dog gets used to seeing other dogs in the park, you can shorten the distance as much as he can tolerate. Next, have him sit or lay down to receive his tasty treats. By doing this, you have minimized the fear and then made the event of a passing dog more pleasant. This is a great way to employ dscc training.

How to Make Training Successful in Reducing Fear


Both of these techniques require that you be consistent each time. Show him the same scary thing in the same way for only brief periods to desensitize him. To counter-condition, give your pooch treats every time a dog passes by, not every other time, or sometimes! If you reward your dog with treats inconsistently, he will become confused. That is not to say that you cannot skip the treats down the road when the training is firmly in place. But in the beginning, you must be consistent for it to work and take hold.

Use an Abundance of High-Value Treats

Don’t just give your pup one or two dry treats while training. Give him a lot of very high-value treats. The best treats will be cubes or slices of boiled chicken, thin slices of organic, non-spicy hot dogs, or small cubes of cheese. If your dog is sensitive to any of these or you just don’t have them handy you can buy some treats.

My favorite treats for training are Full Moon’s human-grade savory bites made from free-range U.S.-raised beef. They have other flavors and sizes including chicken strips and jerky. Another brand my dogs really love is Blue Buffalo Nudges Grillers which are strips made from real beef steak. Both of these treats are shelf stable as they include packets of preservatives inside. But I keep them in the fridge just to be safe, especially if I don’t use them up within a week or two.

Pay Close Attention to Your Dog’s Reactions While Training

If you try to desensitize your dog too quickly, the training may backfire. Don’t just throw him into a tub full of water if he is terrified of water. You will only make things worse. You may never get him into that bathtub again!

When at the park, as you begin to shorten the distance between him and other dogs, pay attention to his behavior. As you get closer each time, notice if he stiffens or stares or sticks his tail straight out. The hair may raise up on the back of his neck or he may begin to lick his lips or begin to growl. These are all warning signs that he is uncomfortable, so back off and maintain a safe distance until he can better handle it.

Timing is Everything!

Again, as with the examples above, timing is really key. Don’t give your dog a bath before he has had a chance to experience it as something less scary. When desensitizing your dog to other dogs, whip out the treats and distract them as soon as you see another dog coming your way. If you wait too long, your dog will already be in a frenzy and you will not get his attention.

Clickers Will Probably Not Be Helpful

Clicker training can be very useful in dog training. But it is used mostly for training a dog to do certain things, like sit, lay down, and rollover. It is usually not helpful with a fearful dog to desensitize him. In fact, it may actually scare him even more. He sees a thing he is frightened of and hears a loud click which startles him even more. So, I would suggest not using a clicker for this type of training.

Most Importantly, Go Slowly!

Going slowly will more likely bring you success. Going too fast will sabotage your efforts and terrify your dog even more. Give your pup plenty of time and space to get used to something scary or new. The process may take days or months depending upon his level of fear. Let your dog tell you how fast you can go and what he can tolerate.

If your dog is afraid of a certain room in your house like the kitchen or the bathroom, don’t force him into the room! Sit with him by the room. Later, you can throw a treat an inch into the room several times, and then a little farther until he is no longer afraid and can actually feel ok walking into the room.

The worst thing you can do to a puppy who is afraid to ride in a car is to throw him into the back seat for a long ride. That will only terrify him. Let him sit in the car while it is parked in the garage for a few minutes at a time. Offer treats and sit with him. Eventually, you can put him in the back seat with someone sitting next to him and back up onto your drive. Later, you will be able to drive down the street, around the block, and then for a 10-minute ride, and someday go on a trip. Remember, baby steps!

Finally Thoughts

Woman relaxing on sofa reading book with jack russel puppy dog. Good relationships with pets and home relaxing

A shelter or rescue dog may be fearful of many things for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is not due to abuse or neglect, but simply being in a shelter, missing a prior owner, or moving into a new home can frighten a dog. These dogs will probably need a little less time to overcome their fears.

In the case of a woefully isolated, under-socialized, or abused dog, you should expect the training to take much longer. In some cases, it may be a lifelong process. You may also want to seek the help of an animal behavioralist if your efforts are not quite working. And make sure your dog has a complete medical exam to rule out injury or health problems that could cause him discomfort and make him feel more vulnerable.

Fortunately, most dogs are very resilient and really want to be part of their new human pack. A warm touch, a safe place to sleep, good food, and lots and lots of love will go a long way to help heal your dog and make him whole again!

See my post, How To Heal and Comfort a Rescue Dog for much more information.

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