Helping a Scared Dog
Your dog usually feels at their safest when they’re with you, but like any other animals dogs may be cautious of something that could pose a threat, even if you know it’s fine. In these cases, they might respond with a ‘fight or flight’ reaction – which means they’ll either try to scare the threat away, or run from it.
The ‘fight or flight’ instinct is a natural one, but sometimes it can cause dogs to overreact. You can’t always be there to keep your scared dog feeling safe and happy, so it’s better for them if you can help them develop emotional independence and confidence. Read our tips for helping them deal with common fears and anxieties, and put your canine companion on the path to happiness.
Signs of fear in dogs typically include:
- Attempting to hide
- Lack of appetite
- Being too distracted for you to get their attention
- In extreme cases, incontinence
If you notice any of these signs of anxiety in dogs in response to certain stimuli, it may be that your dog or puppy is scared. If you think this is the case, contact your vet for more help.
Dog fears and phobias: fireworks and other loud noises
A fear of fireworks in dogs, or of other loud noises, is quite common especially around bonfire night and new year when they’re very loud and sporadic! While we know fireworks are nothing to worry about, the effects of fear can be devastating to some dogs. If not treated promptly, it can escalate into a phobia of loud noises or bright flashes, and, in the worst cases, anything your dog has come to associate with fireworks, such as the approach of dusk.
To find out more about this common dog phobia, check out our article on ‘Dogs, Parties and Fireworks.’
As you’ve probably noticed, dogs are sociable creatures, which is why yours loves to spend time with you - but some dogs are unhappy on their own, and some of these dogs can become stressed when left home by themselves. The most common cause of this stress is never having learned how to cope on their own, along with over-dependence on your presence. You should endeavour to prevent fear caused by separation related problems by getting your scared dog used to independence when they are younger; that way, it will seem totally normal to them.
Your dog may pace and pant, howl or bark repeatedly, become incontinent, chew furnishings, dig frantically at doors in an effort to escape the home, and even self-mutilate. Such separation-related problems are serious and best dealt with as soon as possible by a professional dog behaviourist on referral from your vet.
Treatment for separation anxiety in dogs
If your vet refers you to a behaviourist, they will investigate your dog’s separation related problems thoroughly, and may use a video camera to record how your dog behaves in your absence.
It may be simple boredom at the root of the problem (which is common with young, active dogs), or perhaps your dog is being left for too long or isn’t sufficiently stimulated at other times. A dog walker might help in such cases, as your dog will be occupied and having fun, then worn out when it’s time for you to leave. Or perhaps a traumatic event in your absence, such as a thunderstorm or firework display, has made your dog scared of being alone.
Fortunately, most separation anxiety in dogs cases such as this respond well to treatment but the sooner you seek help, the better your dog will be when they are alone.
Get your puppy used to separation
Although it’s tempting to spend every moment you can with your lovely puppy or new adult dog, it’s important that they have time-out from you.
Pop them in the kennel, crate or bed for half an hour or so, two or three times a day (or more, if you have a young pup who needs frequent naps) and reward them for going. Now, leave them alone – that way, they’ll get used to occupying themselves.
Get your adult dog used to separation
You can get your dog used to separation using stair-gates, which not only stop your dog from going up the stairs and into rooms, but keep them firmly away from you.
Shutting them on the other side of a stair-gate for brief but frequent periods throughout the day will get them used to being physically separated from you, while still having the security of seeing that you are close by.
Attention seeking dogs
You know your dog loves attention from you, but if you have a particularly attention seeking dog, try not to always make a fuss of them on demand. By all means give them the same amount of attention as before, just not as soon as they ask for it!
This can be difficult at first, as they may just redouble their efforts and show you their puppy-dog eyes, but try to be persistent and avoid making eye contact until they are calm.
Get your anxious dog used to you leaving
It often helps to establish a clear signal of when you are not available for contact. Placing a large ornament on the table and then leaving the room or ignoring all your dog’s efforts for attention will soon become associated with the presence of the ornament. They will give up trying if you are consistent. As soon as you remove the ornament, fuss them and allow them to initiate any contact they like.
Once your dog has learned about this, you can put the ornament on the table 10-15 minutes before you intend to leave, and they should be calmly engaged in some other behaviour by the time you go.
It’s also a good idea to defuse any leaving rituals. Your dog is clever and knows well in advance when you will be going out and leaving them at home. He may become anxious the moment keys are picked up, windows are closed and coats put on. Try doing all these things, but then carry on with what you were doing before. Put your coat on for ten minutes whilst vacuuming, perhaps; or walk out of the front door and walk straight round to the back door, so your dog is only left for a few seconds to start with.
Noise in the house
Generally keep all departures low-key. Try to keep the noise levels in your house the same. To go from the hubbub of hectic family life to stony silence signals the fact that your dog is on their own, which could make them nervous.
Leave a radio or the TV on for your scared dog, or even record your family going about their usual daily home life and play it back when you leave your dog.
A dog-appeasing pheromone diffuser may also help to calm your anxious dog; ask your vet for details.
Before leaving your dog at home, always make sure their needs have been met, so they will be comfortable. Ensure they have been fed, exercised and allowed to go to the toilet so they will be more likely to snooze contentedly when you are out!
Why does my dog fear other animals and people?
If your dog is scared of other dogs or even people, it can be a result of lack of socialisation as a puppy, or from negative experiences with other dogs and people in the past.
Sometimes, dogs can learn the wrong response to something they fear, which makes the problem worse. As your dog’s best friend and trusted companion they want to learn from you, but inadvertently taking the wrong steps can lead to your dog’s fear increasing.
For example, if your dog were to growl when approached by a toddler, it might be because he is unused to them. By growling, he is communicating his natural apprehension.
Listening to your scared dog and removing them from the situation would be the best first step. Telling your dog off, trying to make them approach the toddler, or letting the toddler pet them heavily, although they seem logical, would not work. The next time your dog encountered a toddler, they might growl earlier and more threateningly because the toddler is a definite source of problems. Put into this situation repeatedly, they may want to bite in order to protect themselves.
Instead, when you have removed your dog, you might think about helping your pet to see the toddler as a good thing. Of course, it’s not just toddlers your dog might be scared of – it could be anything from cats to lawnmowers! But in each case, there are ways to help your anxious and scared dog be less fearful.
How does desensitisation work?
Desensitisation means gradually exposing your anxious dog to the thing they’re scared of. Fear in dogs is reduced when they see the frightening stimuli from a distance, where it isn’t threatening, and it is slowly and steadily brought nearer.
Gradually, with repeated exposure under the care of a pet behaviourist, your anxious dog should become quite used to what they were once terrified of! In an ideal situation they now ignore it, or turn to you for the opportunity to carry out a rewarding behaviour, such as holding or chasing a toy. This is very different to the owner consoling or trying to reward the dog in a fearful state. It’s much more fun to play with a squeaky ball than to have to growl at someone!
Treatment might be extended, for example with dogs that are scared of other dogs, to help them realise how fun it is to have playmates – but of course, it will all take place in a carefully controlled environment.
Why is it important for my dog to overcome fear of animals and other people?
If your dog’s fear response goes unchecked, or if it is inadvertently reinforced by your attention at the wrong time, it can quickly escalate until it becomes deep-rooted. It can also lead to problems with aggression if your dog feels they cannot avoid the fearful object, leaving no other option than to fight to protect themselves.
If defensive aggression becomes the preferred strategy for any dog to relieve their fear, there may be social and legal implications for the dog’s owner as well. Even if it doesn’t get that bad, your dog might be very unhappy and stressed a lot of the time, which is unpleasant for you as well as for your pet.
The most important consideration in any situation that scared dogs become fearful of children, adults or of other dogs is safety. It’s best to seek professional advice from your vet at the first sign of dog anxiety or fear of ‘normal’ social situations, either at home or outdoors. This way you’ll soon have your dog feeling confident, happy, and well-behaved – and you’ll be able to have loads more fun together!
Preventing fears and phobias in puppies
Good, early socialisation to a wide range of sounds will prepare a puppy for any loud noises they will encounter later in life; this will hopefully help them grow into a less anxious dog. Training your nervous or scared dog to be calm around loud noises doesn’t always have to be difficult, either! If raised in a breeder’s busy home, with people coming and going, and all the sounds that accompany ordinary family life (pans being dropped, washing machines, loud music, excited play and so on), then a puppy is likely to be noise-tolerant as an adult in any subsequent home.
Similarly, they will be fine outdoors if, as a young puppy, they experience the sounds of aircraft, thunder, cars backfiring and so on, and take their cue from his relaxed, non-reacting owner.
If your puppy’s first exposure to these noises causes great fear and their initial anxiety is reinforced by over-attention from you, they could well learn to be fearful of such sounds for life. The answer is simply to stay relaxed.
As a general rule, puppies can get used to almost anything given enough time and exposure, but they take their cue from the people and animals around them. Make sure you’re calm at all times and aren’t making too much of a fuss of them. If problems persist, speak to your vet about possible solutions such as behavioural therapy.
The information contained in this article is not a substitute for individual veterinary or behavioural advice and is for information purposes only. You should always consult a veterinary surgeon if you have any concerns about your pet’s health. He or she will be able to take a complete medical history and physically examine your pet, to then recommend appropriate individual advice or treatment options. For detailed behavioural advice tailored specifically for your scared dog, we recommend that you contact a qualified pet behaviourist. For further details of local canine and feline behaviourists practising in your area and how they offer help for with problem pets, please contact The Coape Association of Pet Behaviourists and Trainers, or the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. Do bear in mind that while dog trainers can take you on as a client directly, pet behaviourists will always require a referral from your veterinary surgeon.