By: Hannah Flint, BSc, MSc, PhD (Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare) 

        Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON


August 2, 2017

Dealing with a fearful dog can be an incredibly stressful experience. Living with my fearful and anxious dog Ripley for the past four years, I understand the challenges involved. Even after completing my PhD looking at fear and aggression in dogs, I still sometimes feel overwhelmed. Below are some tips for how to first recognize if your dog is fearful, and then some basic tips on how to overcome it.

Dogs have many ways of showing that they are fearful or stressed. Here a few of the more common and easily recognized signs

  • Posture: fearful dogs will often try to make themselves appear smaller. Dogs experiencing extreme fear bend their legs into a crouched or cowering posture, while dogs experiencing milder levels of fear may appear standing upright with only an arch to their back as seen in the picture below.

  • Ear position: dogs that experience fear or stress will often pull their ears back against their head.
  • Tail position: a fearful dog will have the tail lowered to hang straight down between the back legs, or if experiencing more extreme fear the tail may be tucked up towards the dog's belly. A wagging tail should not be used to judge a dog’s mood! Fearful dogs will often wag their tail even when it is tucked.
  • Trembling: while not always visible, you may feel a dog that is experiencing fear tremble when you touch them.
  • Panting: a dog that is panting when not over-heated or exercised is likely stressed.
  • Lip licking: dogs may lick their lips when afraid, especially when intimidated by a strange person or dog.
  • Avoidance: any attempts to hide, escape or avoid a situation should be taken as a sign of fear. Many dogs who appear to be stubborn by refusing to walk are actually afraid. Pay attention to your surroundings and try to look for patterns for when this is happening to see if you can identify what your dog is afraid of.
  • Food refusal: if your dog suddenly stops accepting treats (or any other rewarding activity such as petting or play) this is a common sign that your dog is overwhelmed by fear, or another emotion.
  • Displacement behaviours: these behaviours, such as sniffing, pacing and yawning, while normal in some contexts, can become abnormally frequent when your dog is afraid. If your dog suddenly starts obsessively sniffing the ground, or performing other abnormal behaviour, you should consider that there is something making your dog uncomfortable.
  • Vocalizing: whining is a sign of fear, and is the vocalization most commonly thought to relate to fear in dogs, but barking can also be an indicator of fear. Dogs, and most especially puppies, often bark at things that they are afraid of.

What to do:

One common myth is that you should not comfort a fearful dog, because you will reinforce their behaviour. This is not the case! Fear is an emotional response, and if addressed the behaviours associated with it will also disappear. Sometimes in situations where your dog is afraid and you cannot remove the thing that is causing their fear (e.g., during a thunderstorm) the best thing you can do is comfort your dog.

Below are five important steps for addressing fear in dogs:

1. Identify that your dog is fearful and what is causing the fear, pay attention to your dog’s behaviour and your surroundings! Keep track of when your dog acts afraid and what else is going on, and be specific. If your dog is afraid of other dogs is it just large dogs? Small dogs? Black dogs? A certain breed? The more information you know the better you will be able to anticipate your dog’s reaction.

2. Stay calm! While it is okay to comfort your dog, it should also be noted that fear can be contagious. Try not to get stressed out because your dog is upset. If you do, remember to take deep breathes, and speak in a slow calm voice so as not to feed into your dog’s fear.

3. Remove your dog from the situation, if possible, always prevent or minimize situations that cause your dog fear. Generally, repeated exposure to a situation does not teach your dog to be less afraid, but instead their reactions may get worse over time. If you can’t escape the situation, such as with dogs that are afraid of thunderstorms or fireworks, try to give them a safe space to escape to, or distract them with a fun game or food.

4. Desensitize and/or counter-condition. Desensitization refers to the process of gradually exposing your dog to a less intense version of the thing he fears, in such a way that his reaction is not triggered (e.g., playing the sound of fireworks quietly, then gradually increasing the volume over a series of days).

Counter-conditioning refers to the process of creating a positive reaction to something he once feared by associating the feared thing with something good (e.g., giving treats every time the dog sees a bicycle, so that eventually, instead of reacting, the dog gets excited to receive treats whenever he sees a bicycle).

With time and patience, the combination of these two methods can alleviate most fears.

5. Ask for help! If the above steps are not working, or your dog shows extreme levels of fear, contact a certified dog behavior professional (e.g., DACVB, CAAB, IAABC, CCBC). Professionals can provide an extra set of eyes in evaluating your dog’s behavior, come up with targeted training plans, and discuss the possibility of treating with medications

For more references on fear in dogs see the following links: