Have you ever wondered, “do dogs get scared too?”
Well, if you're a pet parent whose dog seems to be afraid of everything, you know the answer to be absolutely, yes.
So if you’re wondering how to help your nervous puppy, and what training a fearful dog looks like, continue reading for some insights into how to get a scared dog to trust you and how to help a fearful dog.
What’s up with your scaredy dog? Why is my dog so skittish?
All puppies go through a period of heightened anxiety at both 6-8 weeks and again at around 6 months old. Scared puppies show their fear in a variety of ways, so if you find yourself wondering, “why is my dog acting scared and shaking?” or observing your pup and thinking “my dog is acting strange,” there are a lot of things to consider in deciding how to help your scaredy dog through their fears.
Some dogs, especially rescues who have lived through the trauma of rejection (some experiences scarier than others) might take a long time to warm up to new places, people, and unfamiliar objects. If your scared puppy is a former shelter animal, be sure to give them lots of time and patience to overcome their fears or anxious behavior.
Sometimes changes in environment, loud noises, or people who startle your dog, or similarly traumatic events can turn your brave furry friend into a dog suddenly scared of a room, a sound, other pets, or certain locations on your walk route. Pay attention to other changes in your dog’s behavior, as new or sudden fears or skittishness can sometimes indicate other things, like acute pain or an underlying health condition.
Sometimes fearful behavior can manifest in destructive behavior like chewing or digging. Observe and get to know your dog's body language so their fear response becomes more obvious to you as well.
Why is my dog afraid of me?
If you’ve recently become a new pet parent and are wondering, “why is my dog afraid of me,” you’re not alone. Many dogs, like people, take time to adjust to new people and surroundings. This is especially true for your shelter pet, or your puppy between the ages of 8-12 weeks and 6-14 months.
If you don’t have a puppy and are of the “why is my family dog scared of me suddenly” camp, there are several explanations for this as well.
Sometimes when family members leave home and return from long trips, it can take time for dogs to adjust. Separation can be confusing for pets, especially considering they have no understanding of your life outside of the home, or of your life apart from their role in it.
Dogs might lose confidence in their owners after a traumatic event like a close-call type of accident, something startling, sudden, loud or traumatic that happens on your walk with your pet, or after multiple periods of separation. Some of your dog's fears are rational, while some are simply due to confusion or uncertainty. Take your time to resocialize your pet with patience and positive reinforcement.
My dog is scared of other dogs
Is your puppy scared of other dogs? Truthfully, that’s probably more common than you think. Puppies need lots of supervised socialization with other dogs to understand their dynamic in different friendships, both with humans and other dogs.
Start socialization slowly, use positive reinforcement and treat reinforcement to reward good behavior, and remember that your dog will always perceive, and react to, your mood and body language. If you’re nervous, your puppy will be too.
Is your adult dog afraid of other dogs? Don’t worry, there’s probably still time to correct that by encouraging supervised socialization with other dogs in controlled environments. The dog park may not be an immediate solution, as too much attention, space, or chaos might trigger an already nervous pet. But introducing your dog to other dogs slowly can help your furry friend relearn socialization.
Sometimes using a smaller dog with a friendly and submissive personality can be a good segway into regular socialization. Be sure to supervise your dog carefully if you do try to help them resocialize, and monitor their body language and behavior for increased anxiety or aggression.
Fearful dog aggression and aggression caused by pain
Sometimes scared animals are trying to tell you something about their health. You may have seen an injured wild animal act very strangely, or try to recede to protect its body from further harm, even when you want to help.
Dogs can sometimes react similarly when they’re not feeling well. When a pet suddenly or drastically changes their behavior, especially after years of good or “normal” behavior, it could be because they’re in pain. That’s why sometimes, behavioral changes warrant a trip to the vet.
If your dog recedes from your touch or pays special attention to a body part while cowering away, they may require medical assistance. Dogs that are injured or in pain may also become aggressive, as a way to keep people and other animals from getting too close and potentially causing them further discomfort.
This is another reason why it's important to really get to know your dog’s body language and to understand their typical behaviors so you’re immediately aware when something is causing them pain or discomfort.
How you can help your skittish dog gain confidence
Okay, now you’re probably wondering how to help a scared dog, or how to train a fearful dog.
Training fearful dogs requires time, patience, and understanding. Like people, every pet is different. But you can learn how to help skittish dogs by again observing their behavior and responses to certain stimuli.
Many skittish dogs can be resocialized around people and other pets successfully, as discussed above. But what about dogs that are afraid of objects?
If your dog has a fear of anything new, this simply means they need introductions and even more patience when figuring out their surroundings, new toys, or new faces. If it’s inanimate objects your dog seems to fear, you can help them get comfortable with these objects by using the same positive reinforcement methods you use during socialization.
Behavior modification is simple enough when you begin by building a positive association to the object. Gradual exposure to the object coupled with positive feedback, affirmations and body language from you can help pet owners fight pets' common fears and behavioral issues.
Don’t encourage or increase your dog’s anxiety by overreacting to a situation. When your pup pal is scared of something they shouldn’t be, do not react emotionally to the situation. Pets are very sensitive to their social environment and will immediately sense your frustration, anger, or anxiety.
Help your pet manage nervous energy by taking them for a long walk, taking them to a dog park or outdoor space where they can run, or hiring a dog walker to give them the extra outdoor time they need. Pets that are not active often have higher rates of anxiety as well as other health conditions.
Some smaller pets respond well to swaddling if they’re especially anxious. Your scared chihuahua or other small breed dog might love a doggie swaddler or pet carrier that keeps them bundled up and close to your body, like this one. If your pet has severe anxiety, your vet might prescribe one of several anti-anxiety medications available for dogs.