How to Help a Fearful Dog Gain Confidence

Scared Dog

Dogs experience fear and anxiety, just like humans do. It’s normal for your dog to be afraid of certain things, like thunderstorms or vacuum cleaners. But some dogs are unusually fearful and anxious, responding with fear to a wide variety of situations. This is a trait that can arise early in a dog’s life, due to a variety of factors during their development as a puppy. There are also some innate factors, with some dogs having a more anxious and neurotic personality.

Here are some of the reasons why your dog may be afraid of just about everything, as well as some methods you can use to help them gain confidence and reduce their anxiety.

Why is my dog always afraid?

To some extent, skittishness is a personality trait some dogs exhibit more than others. Some breeds can also be more prone to fearfulness than others. However, there are sometimes more specific reasons why a particular dog is unusually anxious and afraid.

Emotional trauma during a critical developmental period

Like humans, dogs can develop severe anxiety in the wake of trauma, especially if that trauma occurs when they’re young, during a critical period in their psychological development. There are several such periods, just as for growing human children.

Dogs are especially sensitive to events that cause fear when they’re between the ages of eight and eleven weeks. It’s important that no one hurts or scares a puppy at this age, and learned fear that arises at this time is very, very difficult to reverse later on.

Dogs that were subjected to abuse as puppies are particularly likely to have a fearful disposition. In many cases, they’re especially afraid of people who resemble their abuser in some way, often in gender (usually men), race, or other physical characteristics that the dog picks up on as triggers.

Physical trauma as a puppy

Physical trauma early in life can also leave a dog with an anxious, fearful disposition. This is seen in dogs who were injured in an accident, such as being hit by a car and surviving.

Specific phobias

Like people, dogs can develop a specific fear or phobia. Some of the most common phobias seen in dogs include loud noises like thunder and fireworks; fear of being separated from their owner; fear of going to the vet; fear of men (but not women); fear of strangers; and fear of vacuum cleaners.

Ways to Help a Fearful Dog Gain Confidence

Figure out your dog’s specific triggers

Many dogs get particularly anxious around specific people or specific things. They may be especially afraid of men, of children, or of strangers. Figuring out what triggers them is the first step in trying to help them gain confidence, and desensitizing them to their fears.

Manage your dog’s interactions with people

Take steps to minimize your dog’s exposure to people they’re afraid of. It’s okay to say “no” if someone asks to pet your dog. If someone approaches, put yourself between the dog and the stranger to help keep the dog calm. You can also create distance by crossing the street or changing direction on a walk.

Reward positive behaviors around your dog’s triggers

Reward your dog when they exhibit a positive behavior around strangers or other objects of fear. You can “mark” the behavior to your dog with a verbal affirmation, like “yes” or “good boy,” as well as rewarding them with a treat.

Train a “default behavior” in your dog

You can train your dog to look specifically at you, not the stranger or other trigger, in situations where they’re likely to get anxious and fearful. You can use a verbal command like “look at me,” or “eyes on me,” to do this. When a person your dog might be afraid of approaches, use the command for the default behavior. During the training process, reward them with plenty of treats.

Try to desensitize your dog through exposure

Exposure therapy can help reduce anxiety in dogs. To do this, you’ll need to expose them to their triggers, at a low level that’s not quite enough to elicit a full-blown fear response. You can do this by offering them a positive stimulus, like a treat, when a negative stimulus is present. This helps change your dog’s psychological reaction to the stimulus, helping them associate it with something positive instead of negative.

Have a lot of time at home with your dog due to the Covid-19 situation? There's no better time to start this amazing brain training system to eliminate all possible bad behaviors that your dogs may show at some point in their lives.
John at My Pet Child

is the Founder of My Pet Child, where he shares his tips on living with a dog in an apartment.

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