Why is my dog afraid?

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What is fear in dogs?

Fear is a physiological response that occurs due to a person, situation or object that represents a threat to the dog (real or perceived). On the other hand, anxiety is anticipation of danger, future or unknown. Adding to these two concepts, we can still add the concept of phobias. Phobias occur when the fear of certain stimuli is persistent and exaggerated.
In other words, a dog with fear is reacting to something in the present. On the other hand, an anxious dog is anticipating something in the future. And a dog with a phobia is overreacting!

Fear in dogs can be difficult to manage. But first, it is important to identify the source of fear or even to acknowledge that the source of “bad behaviour” comes from fear and is not something your dog does willingly.

Why are dogs afraid?

A lot of dogs are afraid of something. Some dogs are even afraid of MANY things. Some dogs tend to be more fearful, so there is not always a traumatic experience at the root of fear. The main causes of fear in dogs can have their origin in lack of socialisation in puppies, or even be health-related (for example, conditions that cause pain or dementia) or even in the dog’s own genetics (some breeds of dogs are more prone to fear).

Recent studies show that lack of socialisation, physical activity, genetics and urban life contribute to the fact that dogs have more fears, nowadays. Therefore, fear in dogs is a complex reaction that cannot be attributed to a single cause.

What are the most common fears?

Surely, you know or have met a dog with fear of:

  • Unknown people (can be subdivided into categories, e.g. only men, only men in hats, only children, etc)
  • Other animals (can be further subdivided into: only male dogs, only dogs of a certain size, only dogs of a certain colour, etc)
  • Loud noises (e.g. fireworks, hoover, hairdryer, etc.)
  • Unfamiliar situations (being alone, getting into a lift, riding in a car for the first time, going to the vet, etc)
  • Unfamiliar pavements (there are floors whose texture, shine or unusual look are enough to trigger fear in some dogs)
  • Heights

If you have a dog with any of these fears, do not despair. You are not alone. Many dogs have one or more of these fears. It is believed that the prevalence of at least one fear in dogs can be as high as 44%!!!

Common signs of fear in dogs?

  • Shaking
  • Tail curled up between their legs
  • Hiding
  • Reduced activity
  • Avoidance behaviours
  • Panting
  • Moving from side to side
  • Diarrhoea without gastrointestinal disease
  • Self-injury (excessive licking or biting)
  • Running in circles or chasing their tail

What to do when your dog is afraid?

Owners, in an attempt to help their dogs overcome fears, sometimes make the situation worse. For example: FORCING dogs to deal with unfamiliar situations doesn’t help them overcome the initial fears and will most likely perpetuate the feeling of fear in, whenever faced in similar situations. Imagine, for example, that your dog is faced with an unfamiliar pavement. The tendency might be to pull on the lead and force the dog to tread on the unfamiliar ground, in an attempt to show that there is nothing to be afraid of. But this action might worsen the fear because it removes the chance to escape, the first option for a frightened dog. In these cases patience is the word. Rather than forcing the dog to deal with the situation, we should introduce them to whatever they seem frightened of, slowly; positively reinforcing them whenever they are relaxed. If your dog shows curiosity by sniffing around and eventually takes the initiative and treads even just a little, then you’re on the right track. You may try to coax the dog onto the paving progressively, by placing rewards on the ground, a little bit further each time. By stimulating small steps onto the unknown pavement and associating that behaviour with something positive, your dog will soon make the necessary connection that the pavement is nothing to be afraid of.

If your dog has fears or even phobias or shows any sign of anxiety to the point where his (and your family’s) quality of life is affected, you should seek professional help. First, seek a veterinary doctor that will rule out physical or health conditions that may be at the root of the fear. Next, seek a canine behaviour specialist to begin a plan on how to address the fear. From the union of medical and behavioural monitoring, a training plan will be outlined. This plan may or may not include medication, depending on the type and cause of fear in the dog.

Often, it is not the fear itself that leads to seeking help, but rather the negative behaviours that stem from that fear. Unwanted behaviours that stem from fears, are amongst the main causes of abandonment and even euthanasia of dogs worldwide.

In addition to professional help, you can (and should) consider increasing your dog’s activity level and providing some training sessions both behavioural and with a view to physical exercise (e.g. agility). Studies have shown that dogs that participate in activities or have some form of training are less likely to be afraid!

So that you don’t miss a single training session or record your dog’s scary moments to later report to the vet or trainer you have the Petable App where you can create reminders or take notes of all the events in your pets life:

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