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Q&A: Why Is My Dog Suddenly Afraid of Everything?

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Dr. Mark is a veterinarian. He has been working with dogs for more than 40 years.

Desensitization and counterconditioning techniques, combined with the right medication, can make a big difference in helping fearful dogs.

Desensitization and counterconditioning techniques, combined with the right medication, can make a big difference in helping fearful dogs.

How Can I Help My Fearful Dog?

"I have an almost 2-year-old pittie mix, Kona. We also have a 5-year-old husky/lab/shepherd mix, Bentley. We started fostering Kona when she was 8 weeks old. Due to the pandemic, we did miss out on that socializing timeframe, but she and Bentley got along and played along really well. She liked going on walks and going out back in our yard.

Fast forward to now—we can barely get her to come outside unless it's a walk, then she has no problem. And when she does go out to go to the bathroom, she goes to the bottom of the steps and just stays there until we open the door again. It's almost like she is afraid of something. She barely plays with Bentley anymore and tends to be a little short with him. I feel like all she does is sleep...unless she hears any noise outside—then she barks like crazy—or if I take her on walks (LOVES walks).

A few other things to note: We did get a higher fence put in because she started jumping the fence anytime she saw someone or an animal in another yard. We had a baby when she turned one.

I don't know if she and Bentley got into a fight when we were gone one day and she's now afraid of him (he's definitely an alpha dog), if it's the new baby, or if it's the higher fence. She just seems subdued and sad. We tried some anti-anxiety meds at one point, but that made her a walking zombie, which I didn't like.

Any idea why there's been this sudden change in her personality or what I should have checked out?" —Lauren

Reasons Your Dog Is Acting Scared All the Sudden

There are many reasons that dogs become fearful of things in their environment. As you already mentioned in your question, the lack of socialization when the dog is a puppy is one of the main causes of dogs developing fear later on. (1)

It may have been a traumatic experience in the yard, it may have been a fight with him, or it may have been something totally unrelated (like neighbors tossing fireworks over the fence and scaring her).

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How to Get an Anxious Dog to Relax

Since you cannot go back and socialize her so that she is not fearful, the best thing you can do is treat her like an anxious dog. But some of the usual ways to get an anxious dog to relax might not work with Kona.

Desensitization and Counterconditioning

What does work most often in fearful dogs are desensitization and counterconditioning techniques combined with medication. You mentioned that she was like a zombie when on medications, but there are many types that you can try if one has too many side effects. Ask your veterinarian if you can try something that does not make her so sedated.

Since you said that she likes to go on walks but is fearful mostly in the backyard, I would concentrate the desensitization efforts on Bentley and the backyard.

If you are not able to train her while on medications, you should ask your vet about referral to a behaviorist or a trainer that will work with her in your backyard where she is most stressed out. Best of luck with her.

I've also included a short video below. The technique described here does not fit Kona's situation, but it might teach you how to use desensitization with your other dog, Bentley.

Source

(1) Tiira K, Lohi H. Early Life Experiences and Exercise Associate with Canine Anxieties. PLoS One. 2015 Nov 3;10(11):e0141907. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4631323/

This article is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from your veterinarian. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2022 Dr Mark

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