Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
Why is my Dog Scared of Everything?
Gaining the trust of a rescued dog that is scared of everything is not an easy task, but it can turn out to be one of the most satisfactory experiences associated with living and sharing our lives with dogs. Watching these dogs gradually blossom into more confident beings is rewarding because it provides dog owners a sense of achievement and satisfaction that makes all the time and effort invested well worth it.
Building trust is the most important foundation in helping a fearful rescue dog gain confidence because only through trust can a dog feel protected and safe from a threatening world. It all starts with you, the provider—the person who will comfort and guide the fearful dog through many rewarding journeys. Let's face it: Life for a rescue dog that is scared of everything is not easy. Even the faintest sounds and movements can trigger a fight or flight response which means that these poor dogs are almost always in a hyper-vigilant state with few opportunities for true relaxation.
The ability to learn new behaviors (in other words, obedience training) is often impaired when a dog is in such a state; however, fearful dogs readily learn avoidance or defensive behaviors quickly so as to get quickly out of perceived threatening situations. Training a rescued dog fearful of everything, therefore, takes baby steps, lots of praise, and obviously positive reinforcement, providing rewards for desired behaviors.
Recognizing the signs of a fearful rescue dog is fairly easy and quite obvious to the untrained eye, whether you just rescued a new dog from the shelter or you're watching a recently rescued dog for a friend who has gone on vacation. The affected dog most likely will be manifesting a variety of overt signs that often can't be missed. Below is a limited list of just a few of the many.
16 Signs of Fear in a Newly Rescued Dog
- Looking away
- Ears back
- Inappropriate elimination
- Startle reflex
- Tail tucking
- Lip licking
1. See the World Through a Fearful Dog's Eyes
Seeing the world through the eyes of a fearful dog is important so to ameliorate the trust-building process and prevent mistakes that can cause costly setbacks. Fearful dogs are often hyper-vigilant dogs that have little ability to relax and therefore they often fail to gain restorative sleep. Being in this state of mind for prolonged periods of time is not healthy. A dog who retreats from everything that moves is displaying an abnormal behavior that's maladaptive, explains veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall. In other words, the dog over and over fails to adjust and cope with particular situations in a healthy, appropriate way.
On top of that, something to consider is that fear in these dogs is something that doesn't tend to remain static. Pathological, maladaptive fear can be subject to a phenomenon known as generalization where fear responses generalize or spread to related stimuli. For instance, a dog may start with the fear of thunder and then ends up with the fear of other sudden and loud noises such as a door slamming or the engine of a car.
Trigger stacking is another interesting phenomenon to become aware of which takes place when dogs are exposed to the negative effects of cumulative stress. Seeing the world through the eyes of a fearful dog, therefore, requires understanding the negative implications of chronic, maladaptive fear and understanding which triggers are perceived as fear-evoking to the dog so as to prevent full-blown exposure which may only aggravate the dog's current situation.
2. Compile a Hierarchy of Triggers
Writing down a list of triggers may be helpful so that you can make a mental note of what evokes fear responses in your dog and you can take steps in reducing full-blown exposure to such triggers. Compiling a list may also help other family members stick to a plan.
There may be many triggers initially in newly adopted dogs as they are in a transitional state where they are learning about their new surroundings. New dogs may startle from indoor noises, outdoor noises, and sounds and movements coming from people and other animals sharing the household.
For instance, when it comes to indoor noises, a dog may startle when the dishwasher is turned on when the vacuum is passed around, when a door is closed or when an item falls to the ground. Outdoor noises that may be perceived as scary may include car sounds, other dogs barking, or sounds produced by people living nearby.
Many new dogs are fearful of movements carried out by new owners. Some dogs may cope just fine with the new owners sitting on a couch, but may startle when the owners get up and walk around or enter and exit doors. Other dogs may be uncomfortable with the owner coughing, sneezing, or laughing. Some sensitive dogs may be fearful of owners coming inside a room or through a door when carrying many items. Others may even dislike certain deep voices and may have a hard time if they are fearful of men.
When compiling a list of startling, fear-evoking stimuli, it may help to place them in a hierarchical order so as to know which ones need to be worked on the most. At the top of the list, therefore, it would be important to place stimuli/happenings which trigger the dog to bark, retreat, and hide, while at the bottom are those that may just awaken the dog from sleep, triggering a slight orienting response and then the dog resumes back to sleep.
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Chances are, the dog's response to stimuli listed at the bottom of the list may lower as the dog's senses habituate and the dog no longer responds to them. However, it's always a good idea to keep an eye on how the dog responds to these triggers overtime just to ensure progress.
While a newly adopted dog may eventually adjust to several stimuli if they aren't too intense, you may need to step in to help to make the process easier. Of course, the top triggers will often require intervention.
3. Provide an Avoidance Safety Zone
On top of compiling a list of fear-evoking triggers, it's important to provide the dog with a safety zone. A fearful dog needs to learn to relax, it's fine therefore to allow the fearful dog to retreat to a safe zone where he or she can practice avoidance and gain a sense of relief and possibly, eventually relax, even if just a bit.
There's an outdated school of thought that believes that direct exposure to triggers (flooding) is the best way to deal with fear in dogs, but this could potentially mean exposing the dog to overwhelming situations that may only exacerbate the fear and lead to a state of learned helplessness.
A safety zone is a hiding area where the dog is free to retreat to in case he or she feels threatened or overstimulated by a specific trigger. It's therefore perfectly fine for the dog to hide under the bed when the kids come home from school (the kids should be instructed to respect the dog's desire to be left alone) or just to retreat should the dog appear frightened or intimidated from any member of the family or friends coming over.
It might be a good idea to set up an indoor area secluded with a baby gate so to protect the dog from accidental "invasions" from certain family members, visitors, or other animals sharing the household that may exacerbate the fear.
Along with providing a fearful rescue dog with a safety zone, it's important to add some steps to prevent direct exposure to triggers. This may include blocking access to windows or placing a layer of film on them to reduce outdoor visual stimulation, disabling the doorbell for dogs reactive to doorbells, playing white noise to mask noises that may disturb the dog, and setting an indoor potty area should the dog be scared of going potty outdoors.
Walking the dog in remote, quiet areas or exercising the dog in the yard may be a temporary option if the dog is scared of going on walks. Of course, avoidance need not be a long-term solution. Its primary goal is to provide rescue dogs scared of everything a break from daily anxiety-provoking stimuli and prevent rehearsal of fearful behaviors until behavior modification can take place.
The use of flooding is almost always inappropriate... exposing a fearful or fearfully aggressive dog to a stimulus of which he is afraid of but cannot escape, will make the fear worse.
— Karen Overall
4. Allow Gradual Exposure Through Desensitization
In behavior modification, systematic desensitization involves presenting less intense forms of fear-evoking stimuli. In other words, they are presented in a systematic way that does not cause the dog to feel fear and to go over threshold, and therefore, react. When desensitization is not implemented, it's important to try as much as feasible to continue preventing direct exposure to intense stimuli that evoke fearful responses that risk exacerbating the dog's fear.
If you are scared of spiders, most likely you'll react less if you are first shown a picture of a spider and then perhaps a spider at a distance. Presenting stimuli in a less threatening form often entails strategies based on reducing proximity, reducing volume, reducing mass, and reducing the intensity of the stimulus. In the chart below are some examples of each.
Reducing proximity is one of the most common facets of desensitization. A common situation encountered in rescue dogs is fear of strangers approaching, making eye contact, looming over, and reaching out towards the dog often being at the very top of the hierarchy of fear-inducing situations.
In such a case, increasing distance to such a point that the stranger is present, but at a distance far enough that the dog doesn't hide behind its owner may be a good starting point. Afterward, distance is gradually decreased, preferably by having the dog approaching the stranger versus the stranger approaching the dog which may cause the dog to feel trapped and anxious.
As the dog habituates to less intense forms of the original fear-evoking stimulus, then gradually slightly more intense forms can be presented, but always paying attention to the dog's body language and preventing the dog from going over threshold.
|Reducing Proximity||Reducing Volume||Reducing the Mass||Reducing Intensity|
Presenting the trigger at a distance makes it less scary
Playing a recorded sound at a lower volume makes it less scary
Presenting the trigger in a smaller size makes it less scary
Presenting the trigger in a less intense version makes it less scary
Example: if the dog is scared of a person approaching, have the person walk at a distance
Example: if the dog is scared of thunder, play recordings of thunder at a low volume
Example: if the dog is scared of large black dogs, present small black dogs
Example: if the dog is scared of a person looming over, have the person loom less
5. Create Positive Associations Through Counterconditioning
Systematic desensitization is often used along with counterconditioning (when both are used, it's often abbreviated as D&C) in order to treat anxiety and fear-based problems in dogs. Counterconditioning entails creating new positive associations with the trigger.
How do these work in combination? Right after the less intense version of a fear-evoking stimulus is presented through desensitization, a pleasant thing (often, under the form of a high-value treat) is offered for the goal of creating a new positive association.
A dog who is, therefore, scared of bikes, may be shown a bike at distance and is fed many tasty morsels until the bike is out of sight, in an open bar, closed bar fashion that emphasizes that, great things happen in presence of the once, fear-evoking stimulus. With time and several repetitions, the dog appears more relaxed and even happy to see the stimulus and therefore develops what is known as a new conditioned emotional response.
Once, this conditioned emotional response happens predictably, it is time to gradually increase the intensity of the trigger until the dog exhibits again a new conditioned emotional response to this level of intensity, and so forth, the process is repeated until the dog can be exposed to the direct, full-throttle level of intensity without exhibiting any fear. The fear should, therefore, be replaced by happy anticipation upon seeing the previously fear-evoking trigger.
When implementing D&C, it's important to acknowledge that setbacks (dog shows the original reaction to the trigger) are often triggered by going too fast through the process. The dog may not be ready for exposure to a certain level of intensity of the fear-evoking trigger, and therefore, a step back in the process is required.
6. Reinforce an Alternate Behavior
Once the fearful dog has learned better coping skills, it's a good idea to implement response substitution. In response substitution, the dog is trained to replace an undesirable response with a desirable one. For example, a dog who lunges and barks at strangers out of fear may be trained to heel and look into the owner's eyes instead. This behavior must be heavily rewarded so as to gain a strong reinforcement history.
In a dog fearful of thunder, the dog can be trained to play with the owner in a fun game of fetch or can be instructed to start searching for treats at the first rumble of thunder instead of displaying the anxious behavior of hiding under a desk.
A dog who loves attention and being a pet may be asked to perform a behavior (like a sit-down or a trick) and then can be provided all of that once the behavior is performed right when the storm rolls in. The rumble of thunder therefore eventually becomes a cue that something great is about to happen. Fun games and training sessions can be initiated during storms. And for those wondering, contrary to what was once thought, you cannot reinforce fear in dogs, as fear is an emotion and not a behavior.
7. Invest in Calming Aids
Sometimes, dogs need a little help in order to learn coping skills and form new associations. Nowadays, there are many calming aids on the market and these can often help take the edge off, paving the path towards behavior modification. Many are available over the counter for mild cases, but more severe cases may require prescription medications from a veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist. The following list contains some calming aids for dogs.
- OTC Calming Supplements: There are several over the counter calming supplements for dogs nowadays. Several contain L-Theanine, an amino acid that works by increasing GABA concentrations and therefore modifying neuron firing patterns in response to changes in the dog's environment. Other calming aids may contain alpha-casozepine and tryptophan.
- Adaptil. Adaptil is a plug-in diffuser offering the synthetic version of a pheromone known as DAP (short for dog appeasing pheromone) which is released from the mother dog shortly after whelping and that is meant to provide the newborn pups with a sense of reassurance and comfort. The goal of the plug-in is to ease the anxiety associated with new environments and stressful situations, such as noise phobias, traveling, being introduced to a new home or other causes of stress. Adaptil also comes in the form of a collar that releases pheromones, calming tablets, and a spray.
- Prescription medications: more severe cases of fear in dogs may require prescription medications. Medications may include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI), benzodiazepines, tricyclic antidepressants, and alpha-2 agonists. It's important that the use of drugs is accompanied by behavior modification.
There are several other calming aids in the form of homeopathic remedies, calming caps and calming shirts and CDs playing calming sounds and music for dogs.
8. Provide the Predictability of Routine
Among humans, mentioning the word "routine" may evoke thoughts of dull, boring events. Instead, when it comes to dogs, routines may be perceived as a cherished blessing, especially when they come to predict safe and comforting events. Many dogs thrive with the predictability of routines.
In newly rescued dogs, a predictable routine is like a fresh breeze of air after being bombarded with the unpredictability associated with a new environment. If your dog's routine encompasses events that your dog enjoys, your dog will look forward to starting the day in your company in your household rather than dreading it.
While dogs can't tell time the way humans do, dogs have an internal biological clock that causes their emotions and instincts to kick in at certain times of the day. If the day is constructed with many events and perks to look forward to, the chances are higher than the dog may feel more confident and happy.
Dogs wear an internal clock-though internally. It is the so-called pacemaker of their brain, which regulates the activities of other cells of the body through the day.
— Alexandra Horowitz
Helping a Rescue Dog That Is Scared of Everything Requires Patience
Dealing with a rescue dog scared of everything requires a multi-modal approach and implementing behavior modification is not an easy task. My heart goes out to all dog owners who commit their time and patience to this endeavor. The process may be long and many dog trainers depict it as tedious as "letting paint dry," only that it takes, days, weeks, months, and sometimes even years for ameliorating critical cases.
There are also never guarantees in dog behavior modification that things may work out as wished, sometimes even despite the help of a professional. Pointing this out is important to avoid creating unrealistic expectations in dog owners and potential frustration and heartaches.
Finally, it's important to debunk the myth that shy, fearful and reactive aren't dogs who are "just in need of some obedience training." Training is not a cure-all, a magical pill that will solve all behavior problems. Rather, shy, fearful and reactive dogs often need behavior modification first and then obedience training may follow, often at the response substitution phase.
- Author's personal experience as a dog trainer and dog behavior consultant.
- Behavior Products and Medications. Amy L. Pike, DVM, DACVB Pheromones, Nutraceutical and diet information.
- Clinicial Brief: Canine Anxiety. Terry M. Curtis, DVM, MS, DACVB, University of Florida
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 Adrienne Farricelli
George van Huyssteen on March 01, 2019:
Well done!! it is really a brilliant article
Ken Burgess from Florida on December 05, 2018:
This is a fantastic article, you have provided a wealth of information, we plan on adopting a ASPCA or Humane Society dog, we have been looking for a few weeks now... this helped make me aware that they could be suffering from the types of experiences to cause them a lot of anxiety, and when given a chance to adapt to a new home, they may become much calmer and fall into a comfortable routine given time.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 30, 2018:
We have had several dogs who were abused in the past. It took some time but eventually gained our trust and became less fearful of strangers, etc. Gradual exposure through desensitization seemed to work best. You posted some good ideas in this post.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 23, 2018:
Heidi, thanks for stopping by. You have done a wonderful job with your pups. Contrary to what was known in the past, it has been discovered that cuddling when a dog is fearful will not reinforce the fear. Us trainers, therefore no longer discourage this practice.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 23, 2018:
Thanks Trudy, I sure do hope it will help owners of fearful dogs.
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on September 23, 2018:
Though our rescue boy wasn't afraid of everything, he did seem anxious in while on walks. It took a while, but now he's one of the best loose leash walking dogs I've had.
We also had a pure bred that was afraid of thunder, which accelerated into fear of rain, fireworks, etc. It was one of the toughest. And though we got him to a point of managing it, he never really got over it and we had to consistently not escalate his fear. It was so tempting to cuddle him when fearful, as you would with a child. Unfortunately, that's a reward for the fearful behavior.
Thanks for the great tips!
TrudyVan Curre from South Africa on September 21, 2018:
What an amazing HubPage. Thank you for sharing. Super information that will help a lot of readers,