Sarah Wilson

Dog Expert

With Fearful Dogs, Focus on Progress


Standing in line at PetSmart this AM, buying some pill wrapsshy dog training, my client dog stands next to me, his hind legs trembling. A mother with a young daughter makes a sympathetic sound toward him.

Is he a new rescue? 

No, he’s not. I reply with a smile.

What’s wrong with him?

He’s scared. I say, but he’s less scared than he used to be. He’s doing great today.

The dog glances up at me, wags twice then tucks his tail again.

Other people see a scaredy cat, I see a dog with courage I can only imagine. He and I have been working together for many months. He started out more terrified of the world than any pet dog I have seen. But he’s lucky; his people both adore him as is and keep working to help him improve.

What observers see is a dog, standing next to me, trembling. What I see is a dog who isn’t plastered to the floor, a dog who can walk, a dog who isn’t shaking stem to stern, a dog who follow me willingly around the store with moments of real curiosity thrown in, a dog who matches my movement on a slack leash, a dog who, thankfully, hasn’t stress pooped in the store.

He and I are having an excellent errand!

Then I come home and find the Huffpost piece on How Long Does It Actually Take to Form a New Habit? (Backed by Science), which says, “On average, it takes more than two months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact. ” 66 Days? Really? But if you read on, they say (not in bold but much more realistically): “the truth is that it will probably take you anywhere from two months to eight months to build a new behavior into your life…

That can be true for a straight-forward behavior that has no downsides and isn’t trying to replace something more powerful or addictive. In fact, for dogs, it doesn’t take them that long to adopt a new simple behavior. Dogs can pick things up startlingly quickly and, with the right support, be reliable much faster than 66 days.

But, if the habit you’re working to develop is counter a behavior that is rewarding to the dog or causes a major bio-chem response of some kind in a dog then it can may take more than 8 months to develop a solid replacement. The behavior can be in place much sooner but be a true self-sustaining habit? That can take a while sometimes. With this dog, his fear response has a massive, primal impact on his brain and body so change comes more slowly. Habits that are fighting such powerful responses are just trickier. Ask any one fighting with an addiction.

But you and your dog can get there. Just don’t put a time limit on the journey. Do keep a detailed list of your successes. Today, this dog ran from my backdoor to the car and tried to hop in. He used to have to be carried. That goes on his list.

And, as he snores quietly at my feet, recharging from his big adventure, I smile. I’m so proud of him. He’s gonna make it. Not in 66 days or 8 months but what does that matter? He is improving steadily and when we get there it will be that much sweeter.




  1. Yes. So very much yes. All of it – from the initial conversation snippet to having patience with the journey. Chart the progress, don’t expect speedy change. It takes as long as it takes. These are all things I have learned with Lily.

    Just this last weekend, she handled a big sensory overload event. People, dogs, loud music – all of it. I still recall clearly out first trip to a pet food store years ago. We did not make it into the store at all. Just the parking lot was too much.

    Thank you for giving the journey such eloquent words.

  2. Good reminder about habit change, particularly when the behavior seems to be hardwired into the dogs temperament in some way as it is with our reactive Cody (whom you helped me with over cyber sessions this winter). At 8 months he is still reactive but less so. Had our own errand outing to PetSmart today. Although I had to redirect pulling more than I would like – it was a definite victory that there was no out of control barking and lunging. He did a beautiful guided down at my feet while I paid for his toy which I should add to the list of accomplishments. Need to start to keep that list.

    • That list of improvements really helps as it is a long and sometimes lonely road that can be discouraging. But, with a list of “Yes, we still have work but look how far we have come” it’s easier to both celebrate the accomplishments and gear up for the continued effort.

  3. Great article.

    It’s very difficult with dogs. With humans you can eventually get them to trust you enough to *tell* you what went wrong/happened and once that happens then it gets much easier. With dogs, a whole pile of elimination and experimental work is required and if there is a combination of problems picked up from a variety of previous owners then the task is very very difficult indeed. Persistence, praise, and patience are the three main weapons in our armoury to establish trust and enabling moving on – however slowly that might be.

    • That is true. The awesome thing is that dogs seem to have no attachment to their disfunction. Give them a better option and they happily adopt it to the best of their current abilities.

      Always amazes me.

      And YES – those 3 P’s are the foundation for success. Absolutely!

  4. Great article! It is nice to know I am not alone. I have a 5 month old lab mix. He is fearful of everything. He won’t walk far fr the house without being spooked. I have been taking him to pet stores every other day. He usually barks, growls, and even snaps at customer trying to pet him. In the past month he is not barking as much and even let a few people pet him that took the time to slowly work with him… About 5-10 minutes or so. Still so much more to work on and is very frustrating and discouraging. Thanks again for the article.

  5. The vet told me to keep a record of when my four year old cocker had diarrhea. I noticed it was when he met other dogs on walks, including one spectacular episode after two off leash pit bulls ran up to us in the neighborhood. The vet told me that dogs don’t get stress diarrhea as he sat under my chair trembling. On our way back to the car he had a huge, unformed stool.
    Scout has stayed with a neighbor who adores him when we left town, but was apparently so scared that he pooped in his crate. He does better with a sitter who stays at our house with him.
    We walk him very early–before school kids and dog walkers–and I’ve realized that the bonus walk after school or on weekends is not a treat for him. He’s able to tolerate/enjoy more excitement when we have a confident but respectful foster dog. A foster who teases him results in a poop fest (and quick return of the foster).
    I’m so relieved that someone else has observed stress poops.

    • Good heavens, yes! Why wouldn’t dogs be as effected by stress as we are? No doubt about it.

      If I had a dog as sensitive as yours, I might add from plain baked sweet potato into his food as a way to help moderate such reactions. Might be worth a try.

      Poor guy. That’s pretty scared. Lucky he has you!

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.