What do you do if your dog is scared of everything? Fearful dogs manifest behaviors that many people think are bad behaviors. This includes leash reactivity, aggression, growling, hypervigilance, grabbing toys or your body parts, humping, etc. But these are not bad behaviors, they are the behaviors that dogs use to express their fears and/or anxieties. Fearful dogs who display these behaviors, need your help — don’t try to stop them and most definitely, don’t punish them. We want to change the association of fear to relief, little by little.
What are dogs afraid of and why?
Dogs fear all sorts of things, such as noise, people, children, other dogs, horses, different surfaces, thresholds, vacuum cleaners, new places, cars, bikes, motorcycles, skateboards… and a whole lot more.
There are many reasons why dogs become fearful. It could be neglect, abuse, lack of proper socialization with humans and/or other animals, pushed too much at an early age, physical trauma, pain, emotional trauma, any trauma at a critical period of puppyhood, etc.
Sometimes we know the reasons, but oftentimes we don’t. The bottom line is that helping these dogs overcome fear is about getting them to trust again and making them feel safe. But we can’t do that unless we know how to read their body language and learn what fear and stress look like.
So, how does one go about making a dog who is afraid of everything feel safe and trust again? My best advice is…
- Have no expectations.
- Go slow; as slow as the dog needs to go, to keep the fear factor/behaviors from manifesting or escalating to the point that they hit their threshold.
- Learn what the fearful dog’s triggers are and give her the skills to feel safe in those trigger situations.
Ways to build trust to create safety if your dog is scared of everything
- Learn how to read dog body language so that you can understand the emotions underneath the ways dogs express fear. Observation is key to understanding dogs.
- Learn how your own behavior, body language and responses either quell or exacerbate your dog’s behaviors. If you are not aware of how you are acting, you stand little chance at helping a fearful dog. Do you react by yelling or chasing your dog if he’s playfully biting your pants or behaving in any manner you think is bad? These aren’t bad behaviors, they are ways that dogs tell us that they are fearful or angry, so how you respond, not react, will help your dog become less fearful. Punishment most often makes dogs more afraid, backfiring on the goal you are trying to achieve — to help your dog feel more safe in his world.
- Find out what motivates your dog. We will use these motivational tools to change the association from fear to relief, over time. Some will do anything for food, while others will do anything for a Frisbee, and still others will go crazy for a game of tug-o-war. I recently worked with a dog who was petrified of leaf blowers. He bit the gardener out of fear. Any time he saw or heard a blower, he went berserk on the leash, barking and lunging at the person holding the blower. I knew he loved playing Frisbee. I bought a cheap blower at a yard sale and left it in my yard while playing Frisbee. Then I fed his meals right on the blower. Then I turned it on for a second and threw the Frisbee, then 5 seconds, then 10 seconds and so on. Within 5 minutes, I left the blower on while we played Frisbee. Don’t underestimate the power of play in overcoming fear.
- Set a foundation of activities that create a bond between you and your dog. Teach obedience cues and play with your dog — fetch, tug-o-war, Frisbee, agility, etc. This foundation is the groundwork that will help your dog feel safe as she moves through her world. These activities not only build trust, they also build confidence as well. Have fun!
- Start small and stay on familiar turf. While setting a solid foundation through teaching cues, games and play, you are strengthening your bond so that when you do move out into the world, your dog will anticipate the good things he’s learned to enjoy and be less and less triggered. This will in turn allow him to feel less anxious and fearful. These opportunities for continued positive reinforcement can liberate your dog from her fears, over time.
- Touch and/or massage when a dog is feeling afraid will go a long way in comforting her and helping to alleviate her fear.
- Some dogs benefit from medications, but if you choose to look into this, please only take the advice from a veterinary behaviorist, not just a general practice veterinarian. You will need to work with a positive reward trainer at the same time, too. Doing one without the other will not be sufficient nor as effective.
A final word if your dog is scared of everything
Remember, you can’t reinforce fear. Behaviors can be reinforced, but emotions can’t. So, go ahead, comfort your dog. Being your dog’s advocate is the most important thing you can do for your dog, so go at his pace and enjoy the journey. The benefits are boundless.
Thumbnail: Photography © kozorog | iStock / Getty Images.
Jill Breitner is a professional dog trainer and dog body language expert loving and living her life on the west coast, USA. She is the author of Dog Decoder, a smartphone app about dog body language. Jill has been teaching gentle handling/basic husbandry skills to clients and their dogs for 40 years, to be your pet’s advocate for a happier and stress-free life. Join Jill on her Dog Decoder Facebook page.
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36 thoughts on “Help! My Dog is Scared of Everything”
My husband and I have a 9-year-old golden retriever and a 15-month old lab. The lab is afraid of everything. Even us at times. She will be fine, interacting with us, playing, etc., and the next second she is cowering behind the sofa. Even if we offer her treats (she loves treats), when she is afraid, she won't come to us to get them. She has been shown nothing but love and affection her entire life! We have no idea what the problem is. My husband is home with her all day, he's retired. The Golden is so easy going, he lets her dominate him. She is afraid of normal stuff like loud noises, thunder, fireworks, but she is also afraid of the noise that comes from the tv, if someone drops something, just so many things. We try to keep things quiet, but nothing seems to help. We have tried the calming chews, but those just seem to make her sleepy. Talked with my vets office and they said that any kind of medication they could prescribe would also tend to make her sleepy. I don't want her to go through life in a sleepy stupor! Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!
My mixed breed is afraid of everything, too. All of the suggestions I've found online including Cesar Millan's methods don't work for him. His methods work great for literally every other dog I've had or encountered. But for my current mixed breed he refuses to be healed from his fear. I've given up. He is now afraid of his food and food bowl because my mouse dropped 2 inches from my sofa arm onto the built-in cup holder that's hard plastic while he was eating. I'm so over this. I've struggled with him for half his life to get him to eat and now this. If he starves himself, so be it. I'll always have food down. I can't keep changing bowls, place mats, and food in an attempt to get him to eat. He already wants to attack strangers because of fear aggression. He's afraid of small trash bags. So many things. I've considered getting a puppy in the hopes he would learn from the new dog that wouldn't be afraid of things – but my family says no. I'm done. Maybe once he gets neutered it'll help. I sure hope it doesn't make him worse. A 60 pound dog shouldn't be so afraid of life. He's never been abused. I've had him since he was 9 weeks old. He's almost a year and a half now.
The article is very interesting, it helps us to understand a little bit more about our pets and their fears. Thanks a lot
I have a 3 1/2 old lab who when walking on the beach or street she is always stopping and looking around like something or somebody is coming. We try to step over her and she jump and my phone fell last night and she jumped and looked around. Would like any suggestions or hints to help Lucy. Thank you
Hi I have a 11 yr old toy Yorkshire Terrier called summer. She is beautiful so well live she is our life. But the last couple of months she is petrified of our mobiles phones pinging or if she hears other sounds from our mobiles phones she runs away so frightened. Please help I’m so desperate many thanks
Our 1 year old rescue is becoming more and more terrified of everything. We rescued Roxy when she was 4 months old. She was a normal playful puppy who loved playing with other dogs and all the scratches from people. We have 2 other dogs she gets along with. One of them is the alpha dog and dominates her at times but she is 10 times bigger than him and they play together constantly. My husband is retired and spends a lot of time with all 3 of the dogs. Walks the every day and spends time playing with them in the backyard. When she was about 7 months old we started noticing she began to start shying away from other dogs and their people at the dog park. We had visitors who came to stay with us for a few weekends, on several occasions and she eventually became comfortable with them, even snuggling on the couch with them. One day a friend came by with his 7 year old daughter and she cowered away from them both. We realized she had never met a “little person”. The little girl was very savvy and sat on the floor letting the dogs all come to her. While the other 2 dogs came up to her taking treats and letting her pet them, Roxy never approached her. Now every time someone comes into the home, she runs and hides or cowers behind one of us. Taking her for walks is painful. She trembles and shakes the whole time, freaks out if a car goes by, someone walks out of their house or any noise she hears. She is very smart and responds to basic commands like sit, down, stay even while on our walks. We try positive reinforcement while on the walks but she gets to a point where she won’t even accept her favorite treat and just wants to go home. When she was 7 months old, we boarded all 3 of the dogs for a weekend trip away. We fear something happened during that time, but at this point, don’t know what or how to handle her extreme fear. We feel so bad for her. Any advice is appreciated!
I am so disappointed your post was from so long ago and I don't see any response to you. I have a 4 month old Sheltie is exactly as you described. I have hired a animal behaviorist and with my vet she was started on prozac it is so extreme. I am so discouraged. I am trying every single day all the things they have suggested and it is exhausting.
Help My Pup is an American Bully he is only 7 mo old and the last 2 months he has started to pee in our bed only on my side and its almost every day now but only once ,yes he is housebroken and potty pad traded just like my older female American bully which is 5yrs old, it is becoming a major issue,, he is a spooky pup ever since he got his ears done he seems to be scared or spooked of everything and he likes my husband loves me but runs from my brother (lives w/us )which is the nicest person and everyone of my pets/ fur babies have always loved him . I need help big time my pup is a sweet and loving boy
Pretty Please in-need of HELP
I’d run from you too, if I had part of my ears cut off. He is probably terrified of you for doing that to him. Cruel and unnecessary.
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We have a foster dog that is so fearful that he will not come to any of us. He refuses to come in the house till everyone is in bed then runs out in the a.m. He has been with us over a month and has made strides but now he just stays as far away from people as possible. Any help would be appreciated.
Thanks for reaching out. These pieces might help:
I adopted a 3 year old rescue dog not realizing she was from Russia and later found out she had grown up in a cage. I was led to believe she was friendly, house trained etc. she was not friendly or house trained. This poor pup was terrified of everything! She would hold her poop and pee in all day until the middle of the night and then do her business in the house. I finally realized the walks were causing her so much stress, I switched the time but it didn’t matter. For the past 3 weeks, we’ve shelved the walks and stuck to the backyard. For the 1st time since we got her she’s wagging her tail, barking and doing her business outside, she’s even started sleeping with me! I’m thinking we’re so conditioned for walks that I missed how much it terrified her. Hopefully at some point I can start walks again but I’m not going to push it like I did before. Reading their cues is so important!!! I finally feel like I have a dog that is feeling safe!
Thanks for the information, I’ll start training my dog so he doesn’t freak out when this happens.
I have an 8 month old female “Sheltie” that is afraid of loud noises and afraid to walk the sidewalks outside of her comfort zone.Trying treats to get her accustomed to this does not always work.Any suggestions would help.
Hi there John,
Thanks for reaching out! You might find this article interesting on how to help a scared puppy:
Here are some more articles on how to help a fearful dog:
I will check them out and let you know what happens or turnsout,she starts obedience training next week,thanks
Best of luck!
My dog became extremely afraid when the town was spraying for mosquitoes. I let her out as he was going down the street. She was overcome by the smell. This morning she took off running. She could still smell it in the house. Whimpers while looking at door. And will not sit on the back of the couch as she was use to doing. Help!
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My little dog is afraid of thunder or any loud noises also of wind and if anything moves in the wind. How do I over some these fears?
Hi there — So sorry to hear your dog is frightened of storms! We suggest working with a behaviorist.
Interesting article. I have 2 one year old sisters, rescued from Romania. Fantastic little dogs, although quite traumatised at first, now confident with their walks and games in the house/garden/streets and Park.
My main problem now though is they are terrified of buses, and as I don’t drive i’d Like to overcome this so we could sometimes go further afield on days out. My question is, should I force them to go on short bus rides to get them used to them? At present I can’t even get them near a bus without them panicking. This goes for any really large vehicle like refuse trucks and lorries too! I don’t want to make it worse.
Hi Linda — Thank you for rescuing these sweets pups! We suggest working with a behaviorist on this specific problem. Best of luck!
Cautious Canine by Patricia McConnell saved my life. Short and full of actionable strategies.
oops…in AND of itself! 🙂
I have 2 German Shepherds who are litter siblings (both male). This is a circus in an of itself, but unfortunately, they didn’t get the proper socialization and were actually weened at 4 weeks. (NOT BY ME!!!) Sadly, this has greatly impacted them in ways I didn’t even kno were possible. They are fearful of so many things and are now 9. Just a word of advice for anyone who seeks professional help – make sure you are contacting a BEHAVIORIST, not just a trainer. I did NOT know the difference and enlisted the help of a trainer – who was a DISASTER!! Rather than continuing to push them, I have accepted their quirks and just learned to keep their world as safe for them as I can. They are truly my heart on eight legs and are completely free and happy in the house, the pool or going for rides….even ok once they get IN the vet’s office. 🙂
Thank you for your article, it has helped me a lot since sometimes you do not understand why a dog can shoot like that. Humans do not always understand the reactions of animals.
Adopted a 2 year old sweet girl from a shelter almost a week ago. She has been regressing everyday, to the point she doesn’t want to go outside, or even be anywhere but a room by herself. She is quiet, gentle…but afraid of everything. I can’t even get her to leave a room without a leash and then she doesn’t go willingly. Any advice is appreciated.
Hi Tammy — Sorry to hear about your struggles. We suggest contacting a behaviorist and vet. Best of luck!
Please! I need help! I have a brother and sister and there shiz shu mix. They boy is fine around us. But sister comes in or home and hides underbed. Am sorry just got them. She came out for and hour and just barked and walked around .when I got close to her she runs and hides under bed. I went to bed! Got up at 7 am eastern time. And she is still underbed. I’ve tried to give her a treat and a piece of cheese and she didn’t come near me. She stayed! I know she has to go out but she won’t come. I sit near they bottom of bed with her brother and pet him and talk to them both. So she can see am not hurting him thinking she would come out a little to get her treat. And she still well not come out. Amy idles what to do? There about 5 months old
We suggest asking a vet / behaviorist about this. These articles might help, too:
I am having the same exact problem with a dog I brought home from the pound. She just sits and doesn’t really look at anything or any of us. She refuses to go out, refuses to use the bathroom and never wags her tail. She seems so sad. She was eating but now refuses to eat. Have you found a way to help your dog? If you have and can share with me, I would appreciate any help I can get.
Tammy I know you posted this a long time ago, but I am going through something similar with our rescue dog. Its been only 11 days but as days go by it seems like she is more and more afraid of us. How did it end up going for you? Would be nice to hear. thank you!
Going through the exact same thing with our pup, we have had him almost 4 months. Always a little timid but was walking playing eating and generally a happy dog until about a week ago out of nowhere stopped eating, playing, and even wanting to explore outside when we open the door. Can not figure it out for the life of us but he just seems so sad and upset. Did anything end up working for you?
I know how you feel I also have a rescue dog from RSPCA almost three years now and still fearful of the world. I’m looking into medication. Fluoxetine or alprazolam both sedatives and help to calm dog