How to Help Your Dog With Fears and Phobias - PetHelpful - By fellow animal lovers and experts
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How to Help Your Dog With Fears and Phobias

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Whitney has over 10 years of experience in dog training, rescuing, and healthcare.

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Fearful Dogs

A fearful dog is a challenge to own and train. In familiar settings, the dog may be a sweet, wonderful family pet, but in new places, he may turn into a jittery mess. If your dog is like this, it is important to help it become less fearful and more confident.

The most common things that dogs are afraid of are:

  • Thunder
  • Rain
  • Loud noises
  • Large groups of people
  • Slick floors (hardwood, tile, etc.)
  • Other dogs
  • New places
  • New people

It may seem like your life revolves around your dog, especially if he or she has a major phobia. I mean, you may not be able to take him out or bring people over. But it's time to find a way to correct the problem.

Make a Commitment

Fearful dogs do not suddenly become confident. Training a fearful dog to become more confident is a time-consuming task that is best undertaken with a determined attitude.

  • Being specific about how you want your dog to react and behave is a huge step toward making it reality, so have a plan set out.
  • When training a fearful dog, it is important to be flexible. Sometimes it may seem as though you're taking one step forward and ten steps back.
  • You must be able to realize when you are pushing too hard and what changes need to be made.

Fearful dogs operate on emotion. They are not really thinking about what they're doing, so no amount of correction or comforting will help them. If you take on working with a fearful dog, remember to have patience and be flexible.

Be Organized and Consistent

Have a regular training schedule and break down your goals. For instance, maybe your dog is afraid of strange men.

You may start off by using a male member of your family who your dog likes and teach it to target the person's hand. Targeting involves the dog approaching a strange person and touching his hand. This would need to be broken down into steps:

  1. Have the person sit in a chair and ignore the dog, at first.
  2. Then, you could have the stranger drop small pieces of treats all around their feet and let the dog take his time about going up and eating them.
  3. If the dog is still too scared, break it down even further. Have the person lie on the couch or sit further away.
  4. Your dog's appetite is a good indication to his comfort level, and if he is too stressed to eat, you need to make changes in order to see any progress. Gradually, you would make it so the dog would be able to go up and target the person's hand.

Using targeting to help with a dog's fear will give the dog something to do instead of being afraid. Taking the time to teach your dog how to target will be one of the most important techniques you can teach a dog to get over his fears.

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Genetics, Abuse, or Lack of Exposure

People often assume that fearful dogs have been mistreated by a prior owner, but more commonly, dogs are fearful because they lack early experience with other people, sounds, and situations. Genetics can also play a role in fearful behavior. It is possible to acquire a dog who has been mistreated by someone that has come in contact with it, but most commonly the cause is the lack of socialization as a puppy or young dog. The best way to overcome a shy and fearful dog is to set a plan.

Breeding

Some breeds are naturally shy, but due to puppy mills and inbreeding, these traits can be increased. Before you buy a puppy from a pet store or a breeder, research the place or person. A good breeder is committed to turning out puppies who are healthy, well adjusted, and ready for life. A lot of love and care goes into each puppy if the breeder does his job right.

If you feel like your puppy is shy because of a genetic trait, it is still possible to train him. Even well-bred puppies with good breeders can be more fearful than their litter mates. If the shyness is caught early enough, intensive socialization and training should be taken up. The earlier the problem is identified, the easier it is to deal with. Certain breeds can be more prone to fearfulness, but any dog can grow up being fearful of new people and experiences. Before buying a puppy, research the breed and ask the breeder about the parents' temperaments. It is also a good idea to meet the parents of the puppy.

Socialization

If you feel that your puppy has become fearful because of a lack of socialization, get started now. The sooner you realize this, the better. Consider enrolling your dog in training classes or doggie-day care. Take him or her to dog parks.

If a puppy misses early socialization, he will become a fearful dog. The critical window of early socialization is from about eight weeks to about eighteen weeks, but if doesn't close there, but puppies need to be in an environment that will stimulate him to learn about life. The lack of early socialization can result in shyness, fear, and fear-related aggression. Develop a plan to help socialize your puppy early.

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Training

When you begin to train a fearful dog, you need to make sure it has a structured environment. The more predictable the training sessions and rules, the better the dog will be able to cope. Spoiling fearful dogs will make them worse, because a fearful dog needs a strong and consistent leader. Rules are a must!

  • Avoid reinforcing fearful behavior. Petting and talking soothingly to the dog or picking hum up reinforces the fearful behavior. A more hands-off approach will send the message that there is nothing to fear. Yawn, stretch, or just flat-out tell the dog there's nothing to be scared of.
  • No punishment, ever! There is never a reason for punishment in a situation where a dog is fearful. When a dog is frightened, it is not able to learn, so punishment will make things worse.
  • Safety first. Keep the leash on at all times in public and make the house escape-proof.
  • Exercise and mental stimulation. Exercise will help your dog develop confidence.

Confidence Training

With lots of patience and careful training, a fearful dog can gain confidence and, in turn, will be able to live life happier. This is a time-consuming task, so do not rush the process. Teaching a fearful dog to target is a great way to build his confidence if you make a game out of it. Start with teaching the dog to target your hand, and then move to other objects. Eventually, the dog should be able to target or touch objects that he has previously feared.

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning causes the dog to perform a certain behavior, so it can help you cover more ground more quickly. This can be helpful for dogs who are too scared to work at all or for those with noise sensitivities.

Systematic Desensitization

This technique involves playing a noise at a low volume or keeping the scary person or object at a distance so that the dog notices it but does not react fearfully. If a dog won't take a treat from you, then the volume is too high or the person is too close. Increase the volume gradually, or decrease the distance between the dog and person. Eventually, the dog won't even notice the noise or person and will continue to play and take treats.

This process involves interaction with a fearful dog in a positive way. The dog starts to associate the feeling of being relaxed around the loud noise or person, and eventually it will be accepted as a part of the environment and nothing to be scared of.

Flooding

This technique is the complete opposite of desensitization, and involves throwing everything you've got at the dog all at once. For example, if the dog is scared of cars, walk him on a busy road until he realizes that there's nothing to be scared of.

Many trainers do not approve of this method, as in some cases it can be more detrimental that anything. In some cases flooding the dog with his fear can make him fear more. Flooding should only be attempted by an experienced trainer.

Alternative Solutions

Fear is an emotion that can get in the way of training. If nothing else has worked, you may want to consider another method of treatment. Fears can be a result of an injury or a medical problem that can be detected through chiropractic or acupuncture. Massage techniques are also available for dogs. These can help dogs become more confident and aware of their bodies. Regardless of what you start with, remember not to do any harm on your dog. The more open-minded you are, the more your dog will benefit.

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.

Comments

Dorothy D. Haines on December 22, 2019:

We have adopted 2 Australian Shepherds who spent the past 8-9 years cooped up in a cement floored kennel in a back yard. They are selectively fearful (but not aggressive at all) of my husband who is one of the least threatening men around. They are brother and sister. They have slowly become accepting of me, but it's still a toss of the coin as to whether they will come through the wide open door when returning from outside if we're standing there. My main concern is that they don't seemed to have learned to "play". We're on the side of a mountain in WV and the very infrequent traffic is a focal point for their attention. They've learned the 2-3 vehicles who are residents, and bark at any new ones. They no longer bark at the Elec. Co. meter reader, UPS or Fed Exp trucks.

We got the male in July and returned for another in Sept. He has 3 sisters. We now have one of them also; for familiar companionship. He, and now they, won't "play" with our little terrier type ball of energy, although they have no problem co-existing with him. We've tried to get them interested in toys, balls, etc., but after they sniff them out, they'll step back and look at us as much to say: "and?" They have no idea what they're about. In the past 3 years we have sent 2 female white boxers and two Siberian husky/Lab brothers over the rainbow bridge and still miss their exuberance, joy, playfulness, and creative thinking. Our new furbies seem so sad it's demoralizing for us. Can you give us some tips, or suggestions on how to help them become confident, active participants in life? We would be beyond grateful. My e-mail is bellachqueend3@gmail.com. Thanking you in advance, I am, Dorothy D. Haines.

Lynley Riini on September 12, 2016:

Our dog lets some people in the gate and others he won't we always get the person to put there closed hand up to him and he lets them in but after they in he growls and jumps at them so then I have to trie him up growling and barking

lilly on April 21, 2012:

my dog is soooooo afaid of cars and i cant find what it is so what should i do

andrea on April 14, 2012:

It's a sat. Night and outside it is raining and thundering and my dog is going crazy he looks like he just got out of the doggy beach looks really thirsty and is shaking and won't get off of my lap...is this normal?? its starting to freak me out

alex on February 13, 2012:

I have moved house and my dog wont walk anywhere in the area i now live, as soon as we get out of the house she either sits or lies down and will not move until we go back into the house or get in the car.I have been driving to places to walk her but this is not always convenient and she has also started refusing to walk when i have driven to a place that i know she has liked to go. Im at my wits end and do not know how to solve this problem

Rhonda on November 13, 2011:

My 12 month old Maltese x Shitzu has developed a phobia about her collar or even having her Frontline treatment on the back of her neck. She will growl and snap and has once bitten me. On a recent trip to the vet, they could not get an Elizabethan collar on her so she wouldn't lick her tummy wound. The only thing I can think of that would have started this is that her first Frontline treatment stung her neck...she hid for hours afterwards. How can I help her over this??

cheryl on August 30, 2011:

My dog is 5 years old and has been increasingly showing fear of stairs and open doors. He will get to the bottom of the stairs now and moan. Cannot come up on his own. Same goes for going downstairs when were down there. Must be coaxed to come down. Also, our back doors is often propped open. He will not come through from the outside now without prompting.

stuart on April 03, 2011:

adopted a 2yr old staff last oct. he was confident when out meeting other dogs,but as developed a fear of a particular dog. it is an unimpressive mongrel but it trys to mount him every time he comes into contact with him. He runs home and will not listen to my command to stop.he really gets himself into a state and shakes fearfully.

nestor on January 22, 2011:

hi i have a dog 6 months old and he is afraid of the car, he gets sick when i drive for a few miles what can i do? is a hunting dog

Julie on September 04, 2010:

I have a male staffy who is terrified of fireworks,wind, rain and thunder and lightning storms. Not only does he turn to a quivering mess it has gotten to the stage that if I am not home when the storm hits he destroys door jams and the architraving around it. He has also ripped a curtain off its rod in the laundry as well. The turning point was when he was downstairs oneday under the house on his long chain as it was a rainy day (his yard was all muddy) he could he could thunder, he got that scared he broken off his chain and ran upstairs detroyed the door jam on the front door and then got so distressed forgot that there were stairs back downstairs so he jumped over the verandah. The neighbours rescued him and I came home from work to take him to the vet. Nugget didn't receive any injuries at all but he now takes anti anxiety tablets to calm himself if there is any wild weather predicted!!

puppy576 on June 01, 2010:

Have one hear afraid of ceiling fans; another is afraid of storms. CUte pair, though >)

Melody on March 23, 2010:

My 1 year old Aussie is camera shy & he's adorable. It could be my son's toy camera or mine, doesn't matter. If he even hears us talking about pictures he runs to the door to get out or hides in a corner all nervous & wiggling. I've tried leaving the camera in the middle of the floor for him to check out....

Whitney (author) from Georgia on January 18, 2010:

Do not coddle her and talk like she's a baby, ooo it's ok, kind of thing bc you're telling her it's ok to be scared. She could have been kept inside, but not socialized or had a bad begining before the rescue got the dog. Socialization is a must, it will just take time.

Christine on January 17, 2010:

Recently we adopted a new puppy(6months old) from Tennessee they shipped her up Jan 4 and she had a few health issues. They said that she was an indoor dog which we believe is false. Initially she would be scared of clothes in the laundry basket, hanging clothes up, and different situations. When walking her there are a lot of things that she is scared of people, garbage cans etc. But, the real problem is that when anyone comes to the house she hides behind the couch. We are assumming it is just going to take her time to adjust but, are unsure. We are not sure how to help her? We just signed her up for basic training classes so hopefully that will help. Does anyone have any hints that might help us help her?

Whitney (author) from Georgia on January 02, 2010:

What material is the bowl made of? What were the other two made of? Have you tried just using the other bowl? Is there any reason why you changed? Does the bowl make any weird noises if his tags or something hit the bowl while drinking (I have a dog that won't drink out of metal bowls because his tags hit and it hurts his ears). If it's metal and he's not used to it, the metal may cause the water to taste different. There could be any reasons as to why he's scared of the bowl. It's hard to get him used to it except he's going to need water, so he'll use it eventually unless he opts for the toilet.

ruthie on January 02, 2010:

ya so we got my dog a new water bowl and he won't go near it. i thought he might be scared of it but theres not much that he is scared of, really nothing except his gate that we put in the washroom at night to keep him out of things what should i do? this is his 3rd water bowl and he wasn't like this to the other two

Whitney (author) from Georgia on October 21, 2009:

Just work with him. It may take time. At least he's already gotten a tad better than when you first got him. New places can be nerveracking to some dogs.

mward1125 from Arizona on October 21, 2009:

Just found this--I got some good information out of it. I have a beagle I adopted from the Humane Society who was very fearful of people at first, including me, but we've been working on her socialization. She's also afraid of the dark for some reason; I've never had a dog that had to be escorted outside at night to take care of business! She's a bit better with that now though, and she's mostly an indoor couch potato anyway...I always seem to find the special needs pets lol.

Whitney (author) from Georgia on June 19, 2009:

If the dog is so scared of rain and thunder that it becomes a danger to itself or others you may want to talk to your vet about an anxiety pill. Otherwise try to desensitize the dog by playing storm sounds softly and slowly raising the volume as she becomes more comfortable with the sounds. You can do this with sprinkles to rain as well, start on the leash since you know that she's fine with that.

toto2096 on June 18, 2009:

my dog is afraid of rain and does not like wet grass. if she is on a leash, no problem though. When it rains and we want her to go out on the side of the house, she will not go or will hang out by the door to come in. She also panics with heavy rain, thunder and lightening. When this happens, she will find somewhere to hide out in the basement where it is quieter. Any suggestions??

Whitney (author) from Georgia on May 27, 2009:

tranquelizers and anxiety pills. Ask your vet. They may not be good since the dog is vry old.

bunnie954 on May 26, 2009:

My dog is 12 going on 13, and thunder, storms, guns, fireworks all drive him crazy. If I have any doors closed in the house he will chew them along with the molding. But due to his age is there some drug I can give him in stead of desensitizing him.

Whitney (author) from Georgia on April 04, 2009:

It's not thyat he's scared of them; it's that he can't get a good grip on them to walk. I have 3 inside dogs and wood flooring. It will take time, but he should get used to it. You may consider adding carpet runners to pivital points and walkways.

kerryjkoch99 on April 04, 2009:

My 2 1/2 yr old lab is terrifeid of our new wood floors. He will only walk on them when necessary ie: to get outside, to his food bowl or back to dog bed. But he wont walk to his water dish and if he does make it to a destination he will back up rather than turn around. It's killing us to watch this. He has never been scared of anything and has a great disposition and temperament. Any suggestions?

michelle on February 15, 2009:

My 2 year old poodle has always loved going for walks and being off the lead, but over the last 2-3 weeks she has been spooked by the slightest noise until now she won,t even leave the front of the house. She has been give something to try to calm her by the vet, but i wondered if there was anything else i could do as its such a shame she can't go out with the other one

j322 on February 14, 2009:

Great Great article! Excellent explanation of the various techniques to help my fearful dog!

gwendymom from Oklahoma on October 04, 2008:

You seem to jus be a founatin of information. Just when I think you couldn't possibly come up with another subject you spurt another one out. Great Hub!

Whitney (author) from Georgia on October 04, 2008:

Danielle, I tihnk that if you carefully read the article, you would have seen that desensitization would help your dog. There are other means besides tv thunder. You can purchase CDs of realistic sounding thunder. Otherwise, consider anxiety meds from your vet.

danielle on October 03, 2008:

my dog is afraid of thunder and fireworks, and i didn't really see anything here that would help him. He isn't naturally fearful, just the opposite. His first reaction to a stranger is to jump them with a volley of licks, same with a strange place. He is a bundle of confidence until that thunder rumbles through town. then he becomes a quivering whining mess under the nearest bed, or pair of feet. He doesn't react to television thunder, or people moving upstairs and making rumbeing noises, just real thunder and lightning storms. How can i help him?

angelb0725 on February 19, 2008:

Right again, this early socialization period from 8 to 18 weeks is called "first fear imprint". In a wolf/wild dog or even pet dog society, it would be where the adult dogs teach the pups to fear and retreat from dangerous situations such as humans or predators. Again, great job, you're an amazing educater.

Tony on October 02, 2007:

Very nice! Keep up the Great Works!