A scared dog is an unhappy dog. All owners would agree they want to see their canine friends living their best life, not hiding under the couch like a hermit. It’s nothing less than disheartening to see your dog cowering in the corner. Our natural instincts tell us to jump to their side and comfort them, but does that actually help them in the long run? What else can we do to help a frightened canine?
Is it Normal for a Dog to be Scared?
Yes and no. It’s normal for dogs to exhibit fear occasionally since it’s a natural response to danger. However, some dogs may overreact with fear regardless of the scenario. If your dog exhibits fear in situations when it’s inappropriate, or if the fear inhibits their daily activities, then their behavior might be crossing the line into “abnormal”.
There are times during a dog’s life when they are more prone to fear. Fear is common in puppies (8-12 weeks) because they are learning to distinguish between danger and safety. It’s also normal for adolescent dogs (6-14 months) to go through a temporary fear period when they may be afraid of things they previously weren’t before. This novel anxiety occurs because your dog’s pack and survival instincts intensify, and this results in heightened reactivity.
Are Some Dog Breeds More Prone to Fear?
Spanish Water Dogs, Wheaten Terriers, Lagotto Roagnolos, Shetland Sheep Dogs, and mixed breeds have the highest rates of fear, according to studies published in Scientific Reports and Journal of Veterinary Behavior. It’s good to keep in mind that every study has its limitations, and that “mixed breed” is a very large category. Your dog’s breed may not necessarily determine their disposition.
Current research maintains that fear and anxiety are inheritable traits, hence why parentage may play a larger role than breed type in your dog’s heebie-jeebies.
Why Do Dogs Get Scared?
Dogs become fearful when they are in situations they perceive to be unsafe. Clearly, not every dog agrees on what an “unsafe situation” is. Some dogs hide when they hear the doorbell ring, others take down home intruders without flinching. Not to say that any pup is less valuable! The point is, some dogs are more reactive than others.
It’s usually easy to determine what’s making your dog scared, but in cases of trauma and certain phobias, the trigger may not be so clear. Pay close attention to the events preceding your dog’s fearful behavior. Details about who or what was near your dog, what they were doing, and what else was happening in the scene can all lend important clues to what is causing their fear.
Certain sounds and sights can send your dog running for cover. Fearful reactions to these stimuli aren’t necessarily abnormal. In nature, these cues might signal danger, so your scared dog’s reaction is an appropriate response.
However, if the fear persists after the stimulus has been removed, or if your dog is hypervigilant about detecting these cues, then they might have a problem. Sometimes, these stimuli can frighten your dog so much that it causes them to develop a phobia.
A phobia is an intense fear reaction that leads to avoidance of the feared object. Loud noises like fireworks, thunder, sirens, gunshots, or even other canines are a common phobia among dogs.
Separation anxiety, which is a phobia of isolation, is another common issue. Phobias of the vet, strangers, car rides, or even people wearing bulky clothes are also frequently reported.
Unfortunately, some dogs go through the worst of it. Whether it’s at the hands of an abusive owner or the outcome of a stressful event, traumatic episodes have a deep psychological impact on your dog. Aversive training techniques, abandonment, fighting, serious accidents of any kind, and even plane flights can traumatize dogs.
Trauma conditions your dog to fear certain stimuli associated with the event, and it can also cause them to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Post-traumatic stress disorder is often mistaken for other anxiety disorders.
Similar to separation anxiety, dogs with PTSD may defecate in the house, whine when they’re alone, or exhibit destructive behaviors like chewing furniture.
Some dogs are just born more fearful than others. Like people, dogs have a vast array of personalities that make them unique individuals. If your furry friend naturally falls on the jumpy side, it might not be cause for concern. But, if their nervous tendencies impact their quality of life, then intervention is recommended.
A dog who isn’t socialized properly during critical formative periods may be overly wary of people and other dogs. When a puppy is between 8 and 14 weeks old, they must be exposed to people to reduce their timidity and fear.
Dogs that don’t gain this experience may exhibit more fear later in life. Although it’s possible to rehabilitate an anti-social dog to some extent, they will never interact as easily as a dog that had the benefit of proper socialization.
Dogs should also be socialized with other pets during their puppy years. This will make them better behaved amongst other dogs, and can also work as a deterrent to their prey instincts later in life. Your pet is less likely to chase cats if it was raised around them as a puppy.
Frightened Dog Behavior
Not all dogs will exhibit the same signs of fear, so it’s important that you familiarize yourself with your dog’s body language. Since you have a close bond with your canine friend, it’s going to be obvious when they’re afraid. Their whole aura and physical behavior will shift.
Watch for these signs of distress, and what triggers them, to gain a better understanding of your dog’s fears.
Symptoms of Fear in Dogs
- Running away
- Tucking their tails between their legs
- Flattening their ears
- Licking their lips
- Avoiding eye contact
- Shaking or trembling
- Baring their teeth
How to Calm a Scared Dog
When your dog launches into full panic mode, remain calm, don’t become frantic. In fact, worrying is the last thing you want to do because it can cause your pup’s emotions to get worse. Luckily, there are a lot of tools you can use to de-escalate your dog’s fear!
Be a Role Model
Dogs look to their pack leaders in situations of uncertainty. Does the leader see this object as a threat? Are they freaking out? To your dog, you are the pack leader. If you stay cool and collected in the face of your dog’s fear, your behavior will communicate to your dog that no danger is present. Your dog is more likely to chill if you’re calm yourself.
CBD & Dog Fear
Some dog owners are using cannabidiol (CBD) for their dog’s skittishness. CBD, a cannabinoid derived from the hemp plant, has been known to have a calming effect on dogs. Not to worry, even though it comes from hemp – CBD is a non-intoxicating compound that won’t get your dog “high.”
It operates in the background to promote your dog’s endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS helps regulate other systems, including the nervous system, so ensuring its health is key!
HolistaPet’s CBD dog treats, capsules, and oil tinctures are fantastic options if you’re looking for something to calm your frightened dog. All of our products are formulated with natural and beneficial ingredients that complement your dog’s overall health.
Our CBD Dog Treats + Stress & Anxiety Relief are specially designed for dogs with nervous tendencies. The formula includes calming ingredients like chamomile, L-theanine, and hemp seed powder for extra relief.
You will be impelled to coddle your dog when you see them in such a state of distress. We can’t blame you – a terrorized pup is a sad sight indeed. However, giving affection to your dog when they are frightened rewards their fearful behavior and thus reinforces it. If you always pull your dog into your lap when they become a shaky mess, they will expect that comforting response and their fearful behavior will persist.
How to Get a Scared Dog to Trust You
Be cautious about how you move. A fearful dog is on the lookout for danger, so fast movements will trigger their instincts to flee. The dog will feel safer if they can predict your movements, so try to quietly get their attention before you make any sudden movements. Talking can also trigger anxiety in dogs, so if they’re not responding to your baby voice, cease vocalization.
You can teach an anxious dog to trust your presence by playing the plate game. Start by placing a plate or bowl between you and the dog. Then, drop a treat on the plate and walk away. Rinse and repeat and eventually the dog associates your approach with food.
How to Approach a Fearful Dog
Your body language is crucial when engaging with fearful dogs. When your furball is spooked, it’s best to not stand over them because the size difference is intimidating. Rather, get down on their level. Turn your body a bit to the side so you’re not directly in front of them – this stance is less confrontational.
Direct eye contact can signal aggression, so averting your gaze will put your dog at ease. Use a high-pitched, happy tone when speaking or perhaps a calm soft voice. Avoid using a commanding or disappointed voice.
Training Your Dog to Not Freak Out
One of the best ways to get a pet to overcome their fear is through desensitization and counterconditioning. Desensitization gets your dog accustomed to the scary thing through gradual exposure. Counterconditioning teaches your dog to establish a positive connection with the object. When combined, these techniques significantly improve your dog’s fear!
Start by introducing the scary thing at a low intensity – a diminished version of the actual object. For example, if your dog fears people in bulky clothes, approach them wearing a light jacket. Pair this exposure with a treat to create a pleasant experience and foster a positive association. When your dog is comfortable with this, wear a bulkier coat, and repeat the process.
Using different people in this training will help ensure the effects extend to strangers. Eventually, your dog will be used to seeing people in bulky clothes, and they’ll associate the sight with a treat. The result is a notable reduction in fear!
Final Thoughts – Scared Dog
Your dog needs not to live in fear. And you need not live in anticipation of your dog’s breakdowns. By understanding and utilizing the right tactics, your dog’s fear reaction may disappear.
Above all, scared dogs need patient owners. Their behavior won’t change overnight – it’s up to you to help your dog overcome their fears!