What Are Dogs Scared Of? How to Help Dogs Overcome Their Fears

A black dog scared and hiding.
A black dog scared and hiding. Photography ©anactor | iStock / Getty Images Plus.

What are dogs scared of? Dogs, like all animals, are individuals and can fear just about anything. Some dog fears make perfect sense to us, and some make no sense at all. Some of your dog’s fears may go unnoticed because they are so out of the blue and subtle. Unless we know how to read dogs, we will miss them. Missing the signs that your dog is scared of something might cause long-term fears and manifest in unwanted behaviors.

What Are Dogs Scared Of? First, Recognize Critical Fear Periods

Scared Dalmatian with wide eyes, whale eyes.
Before we answer the question, “What are dogs scared of?” let’s talk about critical fear periods. Photography ©Image Source | Photodisc via Getty Images.

To start, know that there are critical fear periods in dogs’ lives, from puppyhood until they hit maturity, and it behooves us to learn when these periods are. This way, we can be careful not to introduce new things or, if we do, to take extra care in how we approach them, so we can eliminate or diminish unnecessary fear or anxiety.

What Are Dogs Scared Of? A List of Some Common Dog Fears

Some dogs are scared of other dogs.
Some dogs are scared of other dogs. Dog Decoder smartphone app | Illustration by Lili Chin.

Answering the question, “What are dogs scared of?” is complicated. This is a short list of just a few common dog fears. But dogs can fear just about anything for no human-known rationale.

  1. Stairs (especially see-through stairs)
  2. Elevators
  3. Shiny objects
  4. Other dogs
  5. People
  6. Children
  7. Puppies
  8. Jumping off furniture
  9. Cars
  10. Other animals
  11. People with hats
  12. Certain smells
  13. Loud noises
  14. Different floor surfaces
  15. People yelling
  16. Crowds
  17. Being alone
  18. Thunder

Here Are Some Not-So-Obvious Way Dogs Might React to What Scares Them

Some dogs may show us they're scared of something by not participating in something that they usually do.
Some dogs may show us they’re scared of something by not participating in an activity that they usually love. Dog Decoder smartphone app | Illustration by Lili Chin.

Sometimes, when dogs are scared of something, they have some subtle or not-so-obvious ways they might react:

  1. Putting the brakes on when going to the groomer, vet or getting into the car
  2. Not eating because they are in a different environment
  3. Not going potty outside because they are out of their familiar comfort zone
  4. Hiding under a table or bed when they normally don’t
  5. Suddenly starting to bark like crazy or whining a lot
  6. Not wanting to participate in something that they usually enjoy

Usually when dogs start manifesting behaviors out of the ordinary, they are reacting to something that scares them. It’s our job to help them feel safe again. Sometimes, we have to play detective by paying close attention to when the behavior happens and what the expressions are. Learning to read dog body language is key to helping fearful dogs.

How Do You Help Dogs Overcome Their Fears?

You can help your dog overcome his fear.
You can help your dog overcome his fear. Dog Decoder smartphone app | Illustration by Lili Chin.

No matter the fear and how big the expression is, be it full-out panic, barking, lunging, shaking, backing up and even biting, it’s our responsibility as our dogs’ loving guardians and advocates to address it with extreme patience and a gentle approach. Many experts agree that fear is the root cause of aggression when not properly identified and treated. Never think that dogs are behaving badly — they are expressing some kind of anxiety. They don’t need punishment. They need our help to make them feel safe again. It’s about trust — trusting that we will take care of them.

Use a step-by-step approach to overcoming your dog’s fears, moving only as fast as the dog is comfortable. We must never push a dog through his fears. Overwhelming a fearful dog oftentimes exacerbates the fear. The dog may then go into learned helplessness or get bigger in his behaviors.

However, once we’ve identified a fear, we can proceed to desensitize our dog to his fear by breaking it down into small bits of training. This will help change the association to the trigger, from fear to calm, based on trust. The goal is to lessen the fear, understanding that, for some dogs, it may take a few days, a few months or a few years, depending on how deep the fear is.

Using a Motivator to Overcome Fears

This method can be used for almost any fear a dog has. First, we must know what motivates our dog. Is it food? If so, what kind? Is it a toy? If so, which one? I use high-value treats like cooked turkey, chicken, hot dogs, etc., that the dog only gets during these training sessions. Make sure the dog is hungry before your training session. Or, use his favorite toy if food isn’t a motivator.

Start by exposing your dog to the fear (for example, a person with a hat on), either from a distance or show the object (for example, nail clippers). As soon as your dog sees the trigger, offer him a piece of chicken or throw it on the ground, in front of him, if he has zeroed in on the trigger.

Foraging for food we have tossed on the ground is a natural instinct and a great detractor from a trigger. If your dog doesn’t take the food, you’re too close or the object is too close. Move away and start again. If using a toy, play tug or gently toss it for a game of fetch, on a long line.

If the trigger is an object, like nail clippers, leave them out on the coffee table, then on the floor, etc. This way, the feared object doesn’t only come out for training. Remember, we are desensitizing them.

Other Tips for Overcoming Your Dog’s Fears

Your body language and energy should be calm as you show your dog the trigger and offer the treat. It’s ok to talk to the dog to comfort him, while tossing treats or playing with a toy. However, if talking isn’t soothing the dog, refrain and just use treats or a toy. Tossing treats on the ground at a high rate, if he does look away from the trigger and begins to forage or take the treat, is crucial to changing the association from fear to good things happening when the trigger appears.

Make training sessions short to keep them under threshold (not reactive). Add time little by little, keeping the dog from getting triggered (under threshold), and only decrease the distance if the dog remains non-reactive. If at any point, the dog reacts, you’ve moved too fast, too soon. Go back to where you were when he wasn’t triggered. As you progress in desensitizing the dog to his fear, you’ll be able to walk by the person who once triggered your dog, and he won’t be triggered anymore. You’ll be able to take the clippers out, and he won’t run into another room. Breaks in between sessions, even a couple of days, is helpful for highly fearful dogs.

Overcoming fears in dogs is an individual thing, and we must throw away any expectations we have about their progress. If at any time, you are concerned for your dog’s safety or anyone else’s, please call in a positive rewards-based trainer or veterinary behaviorist.

Thumbnail: Photography ©anactor | iStock / Getty Images Plus. 

Award-winning writer Jill Breitner has been training dogs since 1978. Her passion lies in teaching people about dog body language. Jill created the Dog Decoder app as a way to enhance the human-dog bond by understanding them better. She also does online dog training worldwide. You’ll find her at play near the ocean or on the trails. Follow her at dogdecoder.comfacebook.com/dogdecoder and on Twitter @shewhispers.

Read more about training your dog on Dogster.com: 

24 thoughts on “What Are Dogs Scared Of? How to Help Dogs Overcome Their Fears”

  1. Would like some insights on ‘Bullying/Dominate’ behavior of male adolescents in terms of aggressive behavior. I question that this type of aggressive behavior is fear based but instead due to overexcitablity, immaturity &/or lack of social skills.

  2. Don’t listen to that advice Neil. Fear isn’t “the first sign of aggression’. That’s a load of bull. Your dog is probably feeling threatened and trying to defend herself. That’s called distance-increasing behavior. Trying to get the threat to go away so that she feels safe. Help her learn to feel safe in these situations. Don’t trust online “decoders” for that. Find a reputable certified professional to help you in person. One who doesn’t post dangerous inaccuracies that mislead the public.

  3. Fear is NOT a “sign of aggression”. That is an ignorant comment that just shows not to take Dog Decoder’s advice too seriously.

  4. I’m hoping to get some help on here. My service animal has a fear of people, that to her appear out of nowhere. like from around corners and doors. She sits next to me and gets really fixated on the object. It’s incredibly difficult to break her focus on the object/person. Shes let out a very low growl or a yip if she gets to worked up. So with her not focusing on work and being disruptive in public i really need some advice on this!

    1. Hi there,

      We suggest asking the service organization for help. Here are some other articles that might provide insight, too:

  5. I am a double amputee and use a mobility cart at times. Our little Maltese will not come near me at any time. What can I do? I have never posted on this site before

  6. I am a double amputee and use a mobility cart at times. Our little Maltese will not come near me at any time. What can I do?

    1. ChrisGermanMalinois

      I’m no professional this is my opinion from reading: It could be a number of things, very dynamic case by case and situational to things such as Environment, Mistreatment/Abuse, etc… Much more reasons out there.

      Here’s a few ideas:
      #1) Being Overly Dominated – Example: I’ve seen dog owners yank their dogs leash when other owners and their dogs are walking by. The owner thinks they are protecting their own dog but often this can cause confusion in the dog feeling their owner is having discomfort. This can cause the dog to start barking and before you know it the owner is yelling at their dog saying “Stop it!!”… We are often the source to their problems and all we’re trying to do is help. In this situation a dog can feel overly dominated and one would slowly work to build the dogs confidence (rewarding, petting, getting on the floor at the same level as your dog, not as dominating as being much higher than the dog.

      #2) Recent sudden loud noise can cause a phobia and destroy the dogs confidence, making it paranoid, etc. This could be a number of things (Rain/Thunder, Earthquake, Car, Crash, screaming kids, Motorcycles, etc..)

      #3) Could be recent Malnutrition, Ate something wrong, Dealing with some kind of potential pain, etc… I would check your dogs posture, paws (for any immediate thorns, etc) and definitely take it to the vet asap if it’s having a sudden emotional dip.

      #4) Sitting around too much and doing nothing. No activity is no good, especially for working type of dogs.

  7. Awe, I’m sorry to hear this. I think it would be a good idea to get the help of a positive reinforcement trainer in your area. Sometimes it’s good to separate them, so that they can bond with you, the human rather than themselves. Use high value treats to coax her out of the crate while someone else has the little boy somewhere else, playing or going for a walk, so that you and the girl can have alone time to bond. Do this a little each day, several times a day to bond with you. It will help the male bond w/ you as well while someone else in your family is with the female. Move only at the pace of the dogs. You can even feed all her meals from your hand, coaxing her out of the crate, instead of feeding her in a bowl. Still, I would advise hiring a positive rewards based trainer to help get you started. Timing is now. Good luck.

    1. Good recommendations from Jill. Also familiarize yourself w/ Calming Signals (Turid Rugaas) to reduce stress & make yourself more approachable to the dog.

  8. I have a four months old beagle pups,a male and female,the owner keep them in a cage when they were born,he never bother with them. Just to feed and water them it took me a week to get the male to come to me but now he comes to me and he’s happy,the female hide’s in the dog house and shaking she will let me pett her,but the male trying to get between me and her, what can I do to win her over.i need help.

  9. Great article, I have a very fearful, anxiety riddled new rescue (also a tripod doggie). I’m working with a trainer certified in B.A.T. , have him attending doggie day car 2x a week and have finally got him on meds. I’m hoping with time and patience he’ll get better, but I am thinking of moving to a house that is not in such a busy neighborhood.

  10. Growling is a non violent form of communication. Your dog is trying to tell the other dog to back off and he’s not getting it, so she had to get bigger in her communication with a snap. This could turn sour, so perhaps this isn’t a good play date partner. You may also benefit from hiring a positive rewards trainer to help you out, but the other party has to be on board with this, as well.

  11. My dog has many anxieties but she never responded with aggression until she met her cousin doggy. She was good with him when she first met him as she is great with all the dogs she has ever met. The problem began when he cornered her (In fun as far as he was concerned) and tries to sit on her and hump her. She now growls at him and she even nipped at him on our last visit. I am afraid we will not be able to take her to get togethers anymore. They won’t get their male dog fixed.

    1. So in this instance, I think the owner needs to advocate for their dog. If your dog trusts you to take care of the problem she won’t need feel like she needs to defend herself bc she knows you’ll intercede in her behalf. I have friends w/ mini breeds who will go stand between owner’s feet whenever they begin to feel overwhelmed. They do not bark or nip at the bigger dogs.

  12. Yes, Neil, fear is the first sign of aggression. Aggression is a fear based behavior. Your dog doesn’t feel safe so feels the need to be on the defensive to feel safe. IT’s common but she’s stressed a lot, so it might be a good idea to get some help from a positive rewards trainer, so she doesn’t have to feel anxious or less anxious.

  13. My dog seems to react to fear by being aggressive. I suspect this is common in smaller dogs and is used as a tactic to try to scare off other dogs that she may be afraid of. Seems like the reverse of what is happening because aggression appears to be the opposite of fear but I am pretty sure that fear is the trigger.

    1. Don’t listen to that advice Neil. Fear isn’t “the first sign of aggression’. That’s a load of bull. Your dog is probably feeling threatened and trying to defend herself. That’s called distance-increasing behavior. Trying to get the threat to go away so that she feels safe. Help her learn to feel safe in these situations. Don’t trust online “decoders” for that. Find a reputable certified professional to help you in person. One who doesn’t post dangerous inaccuracies that mislead the public.

      1. Jason, Feeling threatened is feeling fearful and then naturally they may become defensive. Exactly what you just said. I am the author of this article. Thanks for validating what I’ve written about fearful dogs.

  14. Pingback: Do You Want To Know What 🐶 Dogs Are Really Afraid Of? Here Are Some Tips To Help Them Overcome Their Fear ·

  15. Pingback: 3 Questions You Must Answer to Overcome Your Fears – Michael Jackson

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