Why is my dog fearful?

A common question I get from dog owners is “Why is my dog afraid of (fill in the blank – men, children, bikes, new people…)?” Usually followed by the statement “He is a rescue, so he must have been abused”. There are a lot of reasons why dogs show fear of things, and in most cases it is not because the dog has been abused. Dogs can be born naturally fearful – the same way some people are born shy. Socialization is also a key factor in whether a dog will is shy or fearful.

Preventing fearfulness in puppies

In a puppy’s early development, they need to experience as much of the world they will ultimately live in as possible. They need to explore things like different types of flooring – carpet, tile, hardwood, even grass can all be scary to a dog who walks on it for the first time. It is very important that a puppy’s first experience with something new is positive – not scary or threatening to the pup. A great way to achieve this is to associate the new thing with play, praise, petting, or treats — all things that most puppies love!

Fears of new things in their environment

For example, I work with a lot of puppies that are afraid of steps. To help them overcome their fear, we use treats and praise to encourage the pup to go up one step. Once the pup realizes the step is not scary big deal, we encourage for 2 steps up. As his courage builds, we go for more steps between treats and the next thing you know going up steps is not a big deal, so we work on going down the steps the same way. The key to success is going slow, doing short sessions, and lots of good stuff for the pup – including making sure nothing scary happens like falling down the steps. This technique can also work with older dogs – but it may take a lot longer for the dog to build confidence so asking a trainer for help can be the best approach.

Fear of other dogs

If a puppy doesn’t meet other puppies, it is very common for the puppy to develop a fear of dogs. The best way to prevent this is to bring your puppy to a safe, well-run puppy class that includes off-leash puppy play. Before coming to class, be prepared to talk with the trainer and your vet about what vaccines your puppy must have become coming to class – our classes require a puppy to be at least 10 weeks old, have had 2 rounds of distemper vaccinations, and also a bordatella vaccination to prevent kennel cough. When your puppy first comes to class, she may be timid and fearful – and that is OK. Don’t force your puppy to interact with other puppies if she doesn’t want to – a great way to start socialization is for her to just watch the other puppies. Remember, keep it positive and not scary for the puppy.

Helping fearful adult dogs

Agility has helped Dixie build confidence. Her mom Jen couldn’t be more proud of her!

If you adopt an adult dog who shows fear towards men, strangers, kids, tile floors, etc. it is more likely to be due to lack of exposure/experience with these things than the having been abused. Just like with puppies, go slow with fearful adult dogs and let them explore their environment. Praise and reward them for braving the scary kitchen floor, and if they want to back away from something that scare them, let them. One of the worst things you can do to a fearful dog is throw them into a scary-to-them situation and just expect them to “deal with it”. I have seen this have disastrous results.

Training can help a fearful adult dog

If you have a fearful adult dog, training can be one of the best ways to help to your dog. Positive reinforcement training – where the dog gets rewards for doing behaviors (and does NOT get punished for not doing them) – can help show your dog that the world is not scary and unpredictable (and therefore dangerous), it can be fun and predictable (from your dog’s point of view – “this is awesome! I have figured these people out – if I want a treat or them to throw the ball for me, all I have to do is sit! I got this!”) Don’t laugh – it really works!

Don’t go it alone

Adult fearful dogs can be tricky to figure out, and even trickier to help them. This is one area where you definitely should not go it alone. If you think your dog has fear issues, don’t wait and hope it gets better, take steps to help your dog now. We have used everything from obedience training, agility training, group walks, in home environment and behavior consultations, calming sprays, essential oils, and referrals to veterinary behaviorists to help our clients with their fearful dogs. Every dog is different, and most can be helped. Need help with your fearful dog or puppy? Give us a call, we’d be happy to help you. Check out our new Fear Free Program.

Pepper’s Paws, LLC provides in home dog training in Rehoboth Beach, DE and surrounding communities. We also Zoom dog training lessons for people who do not live in our Delaware Beaches service area.

Head trainer Deb Murray, CBCC-KA CPDT-KA is certified by the Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers, an AKC Evaluator, a Doggone Safe “Be a Tree” Presenter, and a Distinguished Graduate and Mentor Trainer for the Catch Canine Academy.