Editor of Spinditty & Reel Rundown and owner of three dogs, each of whom has unique fears and ways of coping with anxiety.
I'm the caretaker of three dogs, one of whom is terrified of fireworks, one of whom hates the vacuum, and one of whom is scared of her own shadow. That last dog is also scared of fireworks.
My wife and I have to tranquilize two of our dogs on the Fourth of July otherwise they shake and urinate while burrowing into us. Fortunately—fortunately being relative, of course—the third dog is so old and deaf he thinks fireworks are his own farts.
An older dog of ours, who has since passed on, was also terrified of fireworks. With her, we actually had success using a weighted blanket.
One Size Does Not Fit All
If you're a dog owner, you know there's no one size fits all approach to ownership. When we take our dogs for a walk, Archie wants to march forward like he's leading the Iditarod. Meanwhile, Cindy finds every bush endlessly fascinating.
The same is true of fear. Archie is curious but confident going into every situation. On the other hand, Cindy tends to act like she's about to get mauled by a bear. The obvious question is, "Why?" Why is one dog afraid of the stuff you expect dogs to be afraid of, and the other is afraid of balloons, hats, and lettuce.
Why Are Dogs Afraid of Strange Things?
There are three main reasons dogs are afraid of the weird, the bizarre, and the strange:
Lack of Socialization
There's a socialization window between 3 and 16 weeks that is absolutely critical for young dogs. This is the period when they start meeting other dogs and people and smelling the various scents in the neighborhood. Socialization is a process that allows dogs to get acclimatized to the world around them.
It's common for dogs to backslide socially following a traumatic experience. It could be a fight with another dog, abusive owners, neglectful owners (leaving them alone all day), or a particularly violent thunderstorm. It could even be a balloon popping at a child's birthday party.
But, there is nothing that raises as much panic in my dogs as fireworks. (OK, and the mailman.) Every year in our neighborhood, July 4th is a major event. My dogs hate July 4th, and I know they are not alone.
According to the 2020 Science article, "Is your dog anxious? Genes common to its breed could play a role":
"Noise sensitivity was most pronounced in lagotto Romagnolos (a large, fuzzy retriever native to Italy), wheaten terriers, and mixed breed dogs. The most fearful breeds were Spanish water dogs, Shetland dogs, and mixed breeds. And nearly one-tenth of miniature schnauzers were aggressive and fearful toward strangers, but such traits were virtually unheard of in Labrador retrievers."
Hannes Lohi, a canine geneticist at the University of Helsinki and part of the study behind the Science article, was quick to note that mixed breed dogs often grow up in shelters, so their anxiety was far more likely the result of environmental factors, and less their genetics.
Most Common Fears in Dogs
Going to the vet
Funny Things Dogs Hate
Their own farts
What to Do if Your Dog Is Scared of Everything
If you're dog is a scaredy cat, all is not lost. But, it will require patience, dedication, and encouragement (i.e. treats). You can try three basic strategies:
Positive Reinforcement Training
If you're dog is scared of tangible objects like strollers, balloons, and the hose, you can slowly and gradually wean them from the fear. I have literally seen someone put on a hat and their own dog started barking at them because they did not know WTF was going on with their owner's head.
"Start off by introducing the scary thing to your dog at a distance and rewarding her with lots of treats and praise when she does not show signs of fear. This will teach her to associate yummy treats with the scary object. If at any point she starts showing signs of fear, take a break and calm her down by softly petting her. Start again from the last point when you succeeded and go even slower."
Counter Conditioning and Desensitization
If loud noises like fireworks trigger your puppy, counter conditioning and desensitization is the way to go. According to the Animal Humane Society:
"Counter conditioning means training an animal to display a behavior that is different than his current reaction to a stimulus. Desensitization is the process of exposing the animal to a stimulus beginning at a very low intensity. Counter conditioning and desensitization need to be used together to be effective."
For example, to desensitize your dog to fireworks, go to any fireworks channel on YouTube. Start a video with the sound way down, and slowly introduce the pops and bangs of July 4th to your dog.
Learning to Tolerate Fireworks Takes Time
As the fireworks go off you give your pup treats, so slowly, over multiple sessions and several weeks your dog is counter conditioned to associate fireworks with tasty treats. They're not learning to like the fireworks, they're learning to tolerate them. So, be mindful of their behavior during training.
Also, feeding your dog extra treats will require more walks so they don't become overweight. But, this should be seen as a feature, not a bug of the training.
Three Ways to Get a Scared Dog to Trust You
1. Give Them Space
Trust starts here. A dog has to feel like he or she has ownership of their immediate space. If they don't have it, they're going to get scared. So, especially if you're dealing with a rescue dog, let them tell YOU when they're comfortable.
A lot of rescues spent time in small cages or in crates before they got to your home, and not necessarily in a malicious way. It's just the nature of rescue animals. If you allow them to use their travel crate as a safe space for a few days or even weeks, they will slowly adapt to their new environment.
2. Get Small
Humans are much larger than dogs, so you may present as a threat to a new dog simply by being tall. So, get small. Crouch down. Sit on a bench away from the dog, and let them come to you. If you don't have treats, you'll wish you did.
3. No Direct Eye Contact
Remember, a dog is a wild animal until it proves it's not. And to wild animals, direct eye contact mean confrontation. So, be smart with your eyes. You want to watch the dog for subtle (or not so subtle) social cues that tell you they're letting their guard down. Look to the side as you pet the pup and tell her how good she is.
Why is my dog scared all of a sudden?
Because there are so many reasons a dog might suddenly act scared, I'd like to mention two obvious things that I've yet to mention.
- Pain: It could be something as simple as your dog eating something he shouldn't. Unfortunately, it could also be something more complicated. Sometimes what presents like fear is actually pain, so getting your vet's sign off for any number of reasons is always a good thing.
- Neighbor Dogs (or Worse): There is a chance that neighborhood strays are lurking around your home and your dog has picked up their scent. Where I live, coyotes roam the streets, and when they do the dog howls sound different.
Why are dogs afraid at night?
As the caretaker of a senior dog, I'd like to answer this question from their perspective. Sometimes older dogs develop nighttime anxiety as their eyesight and hearing begin failing because they're starting to not trust their own instincts.
This is how noise phobias develop, so this is another case where checking in with your vet is the best course of action.
How do I help my dog with separation anxiety?
Let's set aside dogs whose anxiety requires medication because they may have comorbidities in the same way senior dogs often have overlapping conditions.
There are three surefire ways to curb separation anxiety and not one of the methods is explicitly psychological.
- Walk him at dawn and dusk – This is good advice for every able-bodied dog. Taking a dog on a walk is like letting him scroll through his Tik Tok feed. Once in the morning and once at night, like clockwork.
Run him till he quits – Not every dog needs a good run. Some can get away with a pair of walks. My dog Archie, half-Jack Russell, half-chihuahua (aka the Jackhuahua), needs to run till he quits.
We have a back wall and my wife and I throw rubber balls that he chases down until he brings the last ball back, drops it at our feet, and lays down. It's super cute, but it's also him telling us that we can check off the second box.
Be consistent – This is obvious, but deceptively difficult. It's easy to come up with an excuse not walk to or run—and sometimes it's legitimately too hot or raining or whatever.
Keep in mind that your dog may forgive you once, but his energy WILL get dissipated somehow. He may tear apart your cushions, shit in your shoes, or bark all day and make your neighbors hate you. Or all three. It's not personal. Those boxes need to get checked off.
How to overcome a fear of dogs?
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of mental health websites who will rightly suggest seeing a therapist to help you overcome this fear. Cognitive behavioral therapy is ideally suited to address anxieties like this.
Being familiar with CBT, this article written by a 21-year-old Brit named Rebecca ("How I learnt to cope with my dog phobia") is a practical (and courageous!) application of basic CBT techniques. She writes:
"In the end, what worked best for me was actually exposing myself to my phobia in a process called ‘flooding’. Flooding is when you expose yourself to something that causes you anxiety (in my case dogs), until your anxiety calms down and you see there is no real threat."
If you're scared of dogs and you want to change that, at some point you're going to have to get around dogs. You can talk about the issue until you're blue in the face—and poorer after successive psychiatric copays—but I'm hard-pressed to imagine a mental health practitioner suggesting anything better than Rebecca's flooding experiment (which I've also referred to as exposure therapy).
- "8 Ways to Help a Rescued Dog That Is Scared of Everything," Adrienne Farricell, Pet Helpful, July 19, 2022
- "Why Is My Dog Scared Of Everything?" Danielle Esposito, The Dodo, May 26, 2022
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.