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Helping a Scared Dog

6 min read

Whether your dog is curious and fun-loving, affectionate to all, or a bit more selective about their friends, and whether they are generally relaxed, laid back or quickly excited – all dogs can experience fear. 

Some dogs will be predisposed towards fear and anxiety as a result of genetics, prior learning or trauma, and some will be naturally more resilient with great bounce-back skills, but ultimately, frightening experiences or events can happen to anyone – dog or human.

Every dog has a different ‘personality’ – some of this is related to their breed type and the traits they’ve been selectively bred for – often for generations. Some of it will be down to the specific genetics of their parents (yes, fearful parents can produce fearful offspring!), and of course, there are the specific experiences, or lack of, that each dog has in the course of their lifetime, along with the training, habituation and puppy socialisation they receive (or not) from the humans in their life.

On top of this, there are the day-to-day stressors each dog experiences that colour how well they can cope with scary or unpleasant events. A dog who leads a very laid-back relaxed life feels very secure and is rarely stressed, is going to handle a potentially frightening event far better than the dog who is constantly pushed over its stress threshold, who is experiencing acute or chronic pain, and who does not feel secure.

The more we take time to understand our dogs, understand what may cause fear, what may be affecting their ability to tolerate distressing events, and of course, what fear may look like in them – the better we can avoid them being scared and if they are, we can recognise it and the better we can help and support them.
Fear in dogs is very often the underlying cause of many behaviour problems, particularly aggression, so it's essential to address fear first. If fear is not the problem, you’ll not harm by assuming it’s there and taking steps to prevent it. Conversely, if fear is the problem but you assume it is not there, and therefore don’t address it, there is the potential to harm, as well as failing to resolve the issue!

Common Fear-Related Behaviour Problems:

  • Separation Related Problems – fear of being alone or isolated, fear of owner return (there are other non-fear related factors in many separation-related issues, such as frustration)


  • Noise Phobias – fear of strange or sudden noises
  • Resource Guarding – fear of losing a valued item
  • Fear aggression – (either dog to dog or dog to human) comes from fear and then using aggressive behaviours to create more space or end an interaction.
  • Fear of pain – this may be actual current pain or historic pain. Often seen as a fear of an object such as a harness, a location such as a doorway or a vehicle, but may appear to be stubbornness, rudeness, defiance or even described as ‘dominance’ when the dog tries to avoid doing the action that causes or historically has caused pain, but the owner does not realise this.

What does fear in dogs look like?

We assume fear looks like a cowering dog, one paw raised, back lowered, ears back, cringing away from the frightening thing. Or else it is the dog running away in a blind panic, or scrabbling to get out and away if trapped.

Fearful dogs may well look like that, however they very frequently don’t and it is these dogs whose fear is mistaken for something else, which often leads to further behaviour problems, and even bite incidents.

Less obvious signs of fear in dogs

  • Sniffing around
  • Snatching at food rewards but not properly eating them
  • Inability to eat previously desired foods
  • Subdued or ‘quiet’ behaviour
  • Confident looking aggressive displays – lunging, barking, chasing
  • Giddy silly bouncy behaviour
  • Inability to listen
  • Reluctant to move
  • Stubbornness
  • Refusing to comply with known cues
  • Hard stares
  • Lip curling
  • Freezing
  • Whining/crying
  • Piloerection (hair along the shoulders and back raised)

This is not an exhaustive list of less-obvious fear in dogs signs; however, these should be taken in context – context is everything! The dog who is sniffing around the spot where food was recently spilt could simply be picking up that interesting scent, or the dog who is giddy and bouncing about might just be excited.

The environment is important too – a dog growling while playing tuggy games at home almost certainly doesn’t mean the same thing as a dog growling from under a bench in a busy shopping centre while strange people try to reach under and touch them! 
Our dogs are much more likely to be happy and relaxed, confident and secure, in our homes or in very familiar places, around trusted family, where nothing bad has ever happened. In new, or very busy, overwhelming places, that confidence may well vanish and now you have an insecure, worried dog who may feel – and so behave - very differently!
We should also consider the choices a dog has, and whether they’re aware of those options.

A loose dog, off lead in a big open space, has many choices; flight – run away, fight – use aggression to drive the threat away, freeze – stay very still and hope the threat goes away or the situation ends, fiddle about – sniff around or be rather silly in the hopes that the situation is defused, deflected or avoided.

A dog on a short lead, in a small space, or for some reason unaware there are choices (for example a dog previously punished for moving away from someone or something) really has no option to run away, and limited ability to freeze or fiddle about, often leaving ‘fight’ as the only effective option!

Signs of fear in dogs may include: 

  • Pacing.
  • Panting.
  • Shaking/trembling.
  • Inability to settle.
  • Attempting to hide.
  • Salivation
  • Yawning.
  • Licking lips.
  • Whale eye (showing whites of eyes).
  • Lifting a paw.
  • Loss of toilet training.
  • Barking
  • Growling.
  • Aggression.

Again, context is important, and you may see one or two of these signs, or many. Some dogs will escalate through several ways of trying to communicate their feelings and others may have learned that this doesn’t work, and so will skip some. Others who have learnt through past experiences that nothing else will be effective may go straight to the last… 
Or even inanimate objects, noises, certain environments or locations?

Typically, fear in dogs has its roots either in a lack of positive associations or a negative association.

This means the puppy who has not been habituated and socialised at the vets – they have not visited just to get some treats and have a fuss, or have perhaps never been to the vets at all (lack of positive associations) – may well be every bit as scared as the puppy who has been to the vets, but every single time, something painful and unpleasant has happened to them (negative associations).

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that because nothing we consider frightening or unpleasant has happened, the fear in your dog is not real or is something else (attention seeking, being a wimp, being rude or silly).
There are many unseen things that can cause stress, and fear in your dog. From linking a series of events with fear, to a noise, all of which can cause your dog to become scared and anxious. 


Fear in dogs can be quite triggering

For a dog, the fear itself may be the scary thing – simply being somewhere unfamiliar, overwhelmingly loud or that smells very strange, perhaps with strangers doing unfamiliar things, could be enough to trigger fear. The dog does not suffer any physical injury, nothing dramatic happens but… this is still a scary experience for your dog if they feel scared. 

Linking one event to another

Sometimes a dog has mistakenly linked one event to another – for example, the dog who painfully steps on a thorn whilst at the same time a person reaches out to touch them, may link the person going to touch with the pain in their paw.

Linking a sequence of events

Dogs can also very easily link sequences of events – for example, a fear of thunder is not unusual and for dogs, this comes with a drop in atmospheric pressure that they can sense more easily than us, strange smells in the air, darkening skies – this is very easily linked to similar sounds such as someone pulling in a wheely bin, at night – heavy rain at night – rumbly lorries.

Connections to historical events 

Even more baffling connections can be made – such as the dog that is terrified of craneflies (those harmless huge dangly-legged creatures that can neither bite nor sting). If their human hates these or is fearful of them, the dog may experience unusual, scary, human behaviour – people squeaking and flapping about – then jumping around smacking at the walls with a fly swat. This was a real behaviour case, as these worrying events happened several times in a row and eventually resulted in growing fear in the dog, they would then respond in terror to the sight of a cranefly long before the humans noticed its presence!

People changing their appearance 

There are many things we take for granted as ‘normal’ that dogs may not – a familiar person significantly changing their appearance or movement – by putting on unusual clothing a la Tik Tok (fake dog suit, hilarious dinosaur outfit) – or humans using a crutch or wheelchair or gliding by in a canoe.

A fantastic example of this is the dog who sees a person on a horse – if they have never seen a person get on a horse or get off a horse, the chances are they do not recognise this as ‘person + horse’ but as some sort of monster! This even applies where the dog knows the rider very well, because the person’s appearance, particularly their outline or silhouette and the way they move whilst riding, has changed dramatically!

Babies can scare dogs too! 

Another example is human babies – many dogs will cope just fine with a non-mobile baby. But when that baby begins to crawl and pull up to stand and wobble about, things can change. Now movement and appearance have changed, now the toddler is far less predictable, very wobbly and liable to fall or sit down suddenly and inclined to be grabby and in dog terms, ‘rude’ (grabbing faces, grabbing objects, staring into eyes, kissing, pulling at, biting…). We see a cute toddler but the dog may well see a thoroughly intimidating and worrying new creature entirely! 

This is why socialisation and habituation to things we may think we’ll never come across, are really important. There’s likely to be 12+ years of life with our dog – can we really guarantee we will never see a wobbly toddler, or a person in an inflatable T-rex suit or sitting on a horse in that time?

Check frequently on how your dog feels

  • In new situations or places, be prepared to go to a quieter place, or to leave if necessary.
  • Watch your dog’s interactions – some dogs may well not move away from an interaction they’re not enjoying. Fearful dogs may freeze rather than move away so do not rely on them avoiding or leaving a situation they can’t handle.
  • Read and watch videos on canine body language, there are a lot available – and watch videos with the sound off so you can focus on the dog and not the narrator (who may be wrong!)
  • If your dog growls at you don’t get angry or take offense. Instead, back off, work out what you were doing they didn’t like, and find a conflict-free way to resolve the situation
  • If your dog growls at someone else – remove your dog from the situation immediately and find them something calming to do (scattering food in an activity mat or in some grass is a good choice)
  • Learn about desensitisation and counter-conditioning – the two options used by behaviourists to address fear.
  • If you are concerned about fear and in particular, fear-related aggression, contact a reputable accredited professional behaviourist with experience in fear issues.

Desensitisation is often misunderstood – it should be a process where the dog is exposed to the thing they’re scared of in such a way that they’re not actually scared. This may mean that there is more distance, the event is far shorter, or the sound is much quieter.

For example, if a dog is scared when someone brings in the vacuum cleaner and switches it on, then to desensitise (DS), it may be that the vacuum is brought into the room (or even just in the doorway if the fear is extreme) for just a few seconds and not plugged in, removed, brought back, removed again and put away. You are looking for the dog to notice it’s there but for it not to be close enough (or for long enough) to trigger a response.

Repeat this several times a week until the dog is not remotely bothered, and then the exposure is increased slightly. So, the new DS session may be the vacuum being brought in for slightly longer or keeping to the same duration, but now it is plugged in and immediately unplugged each time.

It is and it should be, a very tedious and boring process. If this process produces a strong reaction or is in any way dramatic - it’s being done wrong! In fact, you are making the fear worse.

Desensitisation is not flooding. Flooding, where the animal is exposed to something terrifying until they stop reacting, is ineffective and cruel.
Counter conditioning (CC) is necessary where it’s not possible to desensitise – perhaps the mere sight of the vacuum cleaner pushes the dog into fear. So, in this case, we might place the vacuum down the very far end of a large room, bring in the dog and immediately reward them with extremely high-value food, and then take them away again. Here, potentially we would not even wait to see if the dog has spotted the vacuum, to be absolutely certain we’re not making the problem worse and pushing the dog too far.

For this method, it’s important that the food is not used to lure the dog closer to the scary thing – nor is the dog required to do anything in order to receive the food beyond being in the same room as the vacuum cleaner.

To progress, we might have them stay longer, or move the vacuum side to side slowly, we might toss the food around so the dog is constantly reminded they can move further away from the trigger for their fear (this really helps with dogs who forget they can do this and freeze!)

Puppies should be socialised and habituated, first with the breeder and then this is continued in the new home.

Puppy socialisation 

Puppy socialisation means learning how to be around other animals including people, which does not mean ‘hurrah I may greet everyone I clap eyes on’ but instead means how to exist around them, how to greet but also how to handle not greeting. How to walk on by, how to sit and observe, how to curl up, relax and ignore.

Puppy habituation 

Habituation means learning that all the weird noises, sights, strange locations and odd movements of things are all ‘fine’. 

Both are done by carefully managing exposure and interaction, and by pairing events and experiences with high-value foods. 

Puppies have a short window – between 4 and 12 weeks, in some breeds up to 16 weeks and in others only 8 weeks – where they are very open to new experiences and unlikely to be particularly frightened. It is in this window that the bulk of socialisation and habituation should happen – but that doesn’t mean over-exposing your puppy to everything. Quality rather than quantity is the key phrase here. 

Pairing high-value food is really key – it’s the easiest way to build a positive association, but it’s also very easy to forget to bother until the puppy shows that they’re worried, by which point you are hurtling towards ‘too late’, which means lots and lots of work using desensitisation and possibly counter conditioning later on.

When trying to understand and help your scared dog, it is always important to remain patient. Rushing your dog or forcing them to ‘face their fears’ will increase the likelihood of them being more anxious and scared going forward. 

If you want to discover more ways to support and train your dog, then take a look at our article on basic dog training, next.   

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