Overcoming Fear in Your Dog

Does your dog hide under the bed when there’s a storm brewing? Try to hide behind you when a stranger is nearby? Piddle behind the couch when someone new comes into the living room? Just like we humans, canines have their own little insecurities, fears, and foibles that can make a day pretty miserable. So how do you help your little puddle of helplessness become as brave as Wonder Dog? The answer is pretty simple, really: socialization!

fearful dog
Dogs have their own little insecurities, fears, and foibles that can make them miserable.

The theory is this: each time your dog experiences something new and lives to tell about it, he or she knows there is one less thing in the world to be scared of. So, if you expose the dog to as many different things as you can during puppyhood, when dogs naturally know no fear, you will reduce the number of fears he or she has as an adult.

Fear of People

For example, many dogs become fearful when they meet new people. It’s probably because of one of two reasons: either the new person reminds them of an unpleasant experience from their past, or they haven’t been properly socialized so that they are comfortable with strangers.

If your dog becomes shy when introduced to one specific type of person, for example men or children, chances are he or she had a bad experience with a man or a child in the past. In that case, you need to use positive reinforcement to entice the dog to start trusting members of that group. You might ask the men at the dog park to give your dog a treat whenever they see the animal. You might work with the neighbor kid on lying very still and letting the dog approach him at his or her own pace.

If, on the other hand, your dog is fearful of all people, it usually means the dog has just not had enough experience to know that there are at least a few good people in this world. Try taking your dog with you when you run errands. Expose him or her to the great big world out there. But take it slow. It won’t do any good to try to socialize the dog if you rush the process and the dog simply becomes overwhelmed.

Try taking the dog on short errands where you don’t expect to run into more than a few people at first. Gradually increase the length of the trip and the number of people the dog interacts with. Be sure to reward your dog with a treat and lots of affection and praise when you see him or her responding in an appropriate way to the people you meet.

If taking your dog out poses too many challenges, you can also socialize him in your own home. Simply begin inviting people over for dinner or have your kids’ friends come inside when they stop by to pick up your child for a date or an outing. Give them some coaching ahead of time so they know to let the dog approach them at a pace that is comfortable for the dog.

Fear of Noise

If your dog has fears related to noise, you might try tape-recording the noise, then playing it back to your dog to help him or her get used to it. Start out with the playback at a very low volume, played far away from your dog. If he or she doesn’t run and hide under the bed, reward the dog with a treat and lots of praise. Gradually increase the volume and the proximity until your dog is totally comfortable with the noise.

It bears noting that some dogs will bite when they are fearful. If this is a concern, you will probably want to practice socialization with your dog wearing a muzzle. Safety first!

Challenges of Socialization

fearful dog
Stress signs include putting the tail between the legs, yawning, hiding, and losing control of the bladder.

If possible, it is best to socialize your dog during puppyhood. Puppies are likely to be more willing to explore before they have bad experiences which can show them the hurtful things in the world. When you bring a new puppy into your home, make sure you take the time to properly socialize him or her. It’s just as important as obedience training. A new puppy should come with you whenever you leave the house, if possible. He or she should get used to riding in a car, being near loud traffic noises, hearing kids playing, seeing lots of sounds, smelling lots of smells, and touching lots of different surfaces.

If your dog is already past puppyhood when he or she comes into your family, your task will be a little bit harder, but certainly not impossible. If you take your time and allow your dog to lead you, you’ll both feel better in no time!

As you are socializing your dog, you want to be sure you allow him or her to experience success early and often. Don’t rush, and watch for signs your dog is becoming stressed, then remove him or her from the situation before full-blown panic sets in. Stress signs include putting the tail between the legs, yawning, hiding, and losing control of the bladder. Here is a good article from the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department on recognizing canine stress.

If your dog does well with an exercise initially, then begins to fall apart, remove the dog from the situation and praise him or her for the progress made. Reward each little step as your dog progressively gets closer and closer to the goal.

For more information on socializing your dog to relieve his or her anxiety, read this article from our doggies den or this one from veterinary partner.

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