Skip to main content

8 Signs That You Own a Fearful Dog

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

A fearful dog

A fearful dog

An attentive dog expert will be able to read a dog's emotions like a book, usually because a dog's body language offers many clues. From the most evident signs of fear to the most subtle signs, canines are capable of transmitting their sensation of fear quite effectively. Indeed, dogs are quite good at picking up signs of fear from other dogs. They do so in such an effective manner that the sensation of fear is almost tangible at animal hospitals. The following are some evident (and not so evident) signs of fear in dogs.

How to Tell if a Dog Is Scared

Because each dog is different, it is important to consider that every dog will have its typical manifestation of fear. One dog may wag its tail and growl, while another dog may visibly shake. Dog owners therefore should learn exactly what body signs their dogs choose to use to manifest their fear.

  1. Submissive Posture: Fearful dogs will manifest their fear by assuming a typical submissive posture. This is characterized by a tail tucked in and kept low amid the legs, a head carried low and ears kept flat against the head. A submissive dog will also avert eye contact. Cowering is the typical lowering of the head and body, a fearful dog may do in response to being pet. This may suggest the dog has been hit in the past and is hand shy.
  2. Yawning: Tense dogs often will yawn quite frequently. This is done in an attempt to calm themselves down. Often dogs that find themselves in a new situation will indeed resort to yawning in order to release tension. This particular form of yawning has little to do with being tired or sleepy.
  3. Panting: A fearful dog, tends to be tense and more anxious than a normal dog, therefore he or she will be more likely to pant easily even without being exercised. Panting in a nervous dog is the equivalent of human ''hyperventilation'' which takes place when humans are in a very frightening situation and breath very fast or feel like they ''without breath.''
  4. Shaking: Some dogs will visibly shake when they are anxious. This is often seen in animal hospitals when dogs are about to see the vet. The shaking is often most visible in the dog's back legs, but some small dogs may visibly shake their whole body. Shaking in small dogs, however, may be attributed to ''toy breed hypoglycemia'' a condition of low blood sugar.
  5. Growling: While growling is often perceived as aggressive behavior, in reality, fearful dogs make up a great percentage of growlers. Indeed, fear growling is an effective way for insecure dogs to keep other people and dogs they do not trust away. Because 99% of the time, their growling makes the object of their fear back off, the need to growl is enforced more and more.
  6. Submissive Urination: When a fearful dog is scolded, it often will dribble a few drops of urine. This is called ''submissive urination'' and usually takes place in the most sensitive dogs when reprimanded. Some of these dogs are simply very sensible and soft, while others may have a history of having been abused.
  7. Anal Gland Emission: Some very frightened dogs may release some anal gland fluids when very frightened. Other dogs pick up this smell and often tense up as well. For this reason, often dogs become tense at animal hospitals, they pick up on this scent which is released when a pet is very frightened and in danger. The anal glands are found under the dog's tail right around the dog's rectum, exactly at the four o'clock and eight o'clock positions.
  8. Fear Biting: Sometimes, fearful dogs feel overreactive since they tend to see threats everywhere. This may lead to fearful biting, especially when the dog finds himself with no escape and cornered. The bite of a fearful dog is often swift, with a bite and leave approach, and it sometimes takes place when a person has turned its back to the dog.

As seen, a fearful dog resorts to a variety of ways to manifest its discomfort. It is up to the owner, therefore, to recognize signs of fear and work on building confidence in their fearful dog. There are many venues to accomplish this through desensitization programs, obedience training, and even fun agility classes. Severe cases, however, may require the intervention of a professional dog behaviorist.

© 2010 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on February 17, 2018:

Deb Slee, you would have to have professional help you out for an individualized play and for safety. Look up counterconditioning and desensitization. Expose her only to children who do not overwhelm her for now. Let her watch them at a distance as you feed tasty treats. Try to toss a treat at a distance every time any of you are about to get up the dining table. This will give her something else to do and may change her emotional response. Do this with the help of a professional for correct implementation and safety.

DebSlee on February 08, 2018:

We have a 1.5 year old cocker spaniel. We got her at 6 months an believe she was not well socialised or trained with her previous owners.

She has anxiety around children and will lunge and bark, but as yet has never bitten. She is more anxious on the lead around them. However some children she is fine with but others not so much.

The other sign of anxiety we see is when she is relaxing at home and, for example, we get up from the dining table. She has to quickly get up and grab the nearest toy as if to stop her barking/growling/maybe even biting?? Rather than just laying there and excepting the movement of someone.

How do we overcome these types of anxiety / behaviour? Thanks

Erindrumm on March 27, 2017:


Scroll to Continue

Read More From Pethelpful

I have a 10 month old black lab dog and he seems to growl in the evenings or if he's tired? If he's in his bed you just need to look at him and he'll let out at growl at you. If you ask him "what you growling at?" Even gently spoken he will jump out of bed and come and see you. He'll pant or keep growling but is like he's wanting pet. If you do pet him though he'll get even louder in growling.

I don't understand why he's growling? He's a great dog and it's seems only to happen at night time, I don't know what to do to stop this behaviour.

Any help would be wonderful!


Eternal Evolution from kentucky on June 30, 2011:

Nice hub with some useful info. I have a nervous/fearful husky. We are working with him and he is making progress but fearfulness isn't something fixed overnight. The signs you listed for fearful dogs are great for those who aren't failure with dog body language.

DOGS 101 from Planet Earth on March 03, 2011:

What a well thought out article. I like reading articles with lists like that. I write a lot of my hubs in that style. Keep writing that way so I can keep reading and learning.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on January 24, 2010:

Yes, just like people dogs may be born to be more insecure than others. In a litter of puppies there are also bolder pups and more insecure ones. The insecure ones are generally the submissive ones that do not make good pack leaders. However,dogs can be helped become less fearful. Try to keep the leash and collar out for all day, so they get used to seeing it. Keep it near them all day, in plain view. Let them sleep near them and eat near them. Try to put the collar on right before feeding them and let them eat with the collar on. Give treats every time you slip the collar on. Once they accept it try to keep the collar on all day under your supervision. It's all about desensitizing them to the collar and letting them know great things happen when you slip the collar on. Praise like crazy, give them their favorite treats, a collar and leash is great!

Do they like to go on walks? Or are they fearful on walks? Could be they do not like leash and collar because they associate it with walking. So make sure they see the collar often and have it on even when not going on walks. Could be the fear of collar and leash started in one and the other dog perceived the fear and became fearful of it as well. Fearful dogs gain lots of confidence with clicker training and agility training. Best wishes!

bonetta hartig from outback queensland on January 23, 2010:

great article,like your writing - tell me can a dog be born with a certain fear. I have a young dog got her as a wee daughter got her brother...they came from a good family no signs of cruelty, this I know as my granddaughter owns the mother, both dogs will not allow you to put a collar or leash on them...they go crazy.

ocbill from hopefully somewhere peaceful and nice on January 19, 2010:

yes, I have seen these man times in fearful dog. such a shame when you want to approach it to pet and it growls, cowers, stars to pee ro shakes.

Darlene Sabella from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ... on January 17, 2010:

Wow, now that is what I call an excellent well written article. It is great, thank you for sharing this with us. I truly learned a lot about my pet. Off the the vet I go.

Related Articles