Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
Why Is My New Shelter Dog Scared in the Home?
If you have recently adopted a dog from a shelter, you may already know that, in some cases, little is known about some of the dog's history. The dog could have been kept outdoors all day in a farm, could have been switched from one owner to another, or, unfortunately, the dog may have been neglected or even abused. The following are some possible reasons as to why a dog may be slightly fearful or terrorized of living indoors.
Your New Dog Never Lived in a Home Before
If your dog has never lived in a home before, adjusting to an indoor environment may require time. Some dogs take several days, others take weeks, some even months. To a new dog, there are many things happening all at once: he has to get used to new sights, new smells, new noises, and new people touching him. This can be overwhelming and intimidating.
If the dog was an outdoor dog previously, the are many new stimuli in the home that can be frightening. Things in our daily lives that we often take for granted can be quite threatening to a new dog in a new home. A dog used to live outdoors may find the noise of the refrigerator frightening, if you have some form of heater blowing to warm up your home that may be scary, coffee machines and microwave ovens often make odd sounds and beeps, not to mention the television, hair dryers, vacuum cleaners, and all the alike. Getting used to all of this takes time. Indeed, it is a good practice for reputable dog breeders to get puppies used to common household noises before allowing them to go out to new homes. This helps puppies adapt to their new homes without getting terrified of normal household noises.
Your New Dog Feels Trapped Indoors
On the other hand, some dogs have more problems being approached when indoors. Many dogs, indeed, have more problems being approached indoors versus outdoors. This can be due to space issues. Outdoors, dogs have more space and they feel more safe. Indoors, dogs may feel cornered and trapped, almost as if they have no escape routes. if your dog does well outdoors but is fearful indoors, space may be an issue .Indoors, noises are also louder than outdoors, if there are more members in your family your dog may feel crowded and overwhelmed by hearing and seeing every body move in such a small space at once. If there are no places to hide or escape, again, your dog may feel trapped.
Another possibility is simply that your new dog is genetically wired to be fearful or has had negative experiences to such an extent as to make him terrified of situations and novel stimuli. Only time will tell if this dog will recover from its negative past (if this is the case) or if his genetic tendency to be fearful can be managed and made better through positive experiences (if applicable). There are countless success stories of fearful dogs gaining confidence and I have rehabilitated some dogs that were even unable to walk from fear, so I always think on the bright side that there is hope, especially when the dog is young.
However, investigating into the dog's past is quite pointless at this point. All the energy must now be spent on rehabilitating your dog and making him feel safe and comfortable. This of course requires time, patience, and determination. As much as this sounds like a lot of work, the best part is that there are not many things in life that feel better than seeing a previously frightened dog gain confidence and bloom into a wonderful companion.
A Treatment Plan for Scared Indoor Dogs
As mentioned, to a new dog, there are many things happening all at once. He has to get used to new sights, new smells, new noises, and new people touching him. This can be overwhelming and intimidating! It is not uncommon for a new dog to feel so scared that he shuts down; refusing to move and walk around as a normal dog. How can these dogs be helped? You have the keep the dog indoors, so what are your options? There are several options to help such dogs. The main key is to go very slowly in training.
How to Help Dogs That Are Scared of the Indoors
- Invest in Calming Aids: At times, all it takes is a little bit of help to help your new dog deal with so much new stress. A helpful product is a dog pheromone diffuser. Pheromones are chemicals that dogs release and that make them feel calmer. To be more specific, mother dogs produce a dog appeasing pheromone (DAP) when they are nursing, which help the puppies feel more safe. A pheronome diffuser can be purchased in pet stores under the form of collars or plug-ins.
In cases where strong fear is present, the use of anxiety wraps or Thundershirts may help take a bit the edge off so the dog feels a bit more safe and is able to cognitively function.
In severe cases, a dog may require the intervention of a veterinary behaviorist which may prescribe medications to help the dog calm down enough so to cognitively function along with a behavior modification program. Over the counter, some dog owners have seen calming results with a product known as Composure.
- Observe What Triggers the Fear: Is your puppy fearful of something specific or is a certain noise creating a fear reaction? Observe your puppy carefully and see what causes him to react fearfully. Is it foot steps? Hearing your family talking or raising their voices? Does your dog freak out when something falls on the floor? Is it the dishwasher? If you identify what causes fear you have something to work on. There could be one trigger, or a combination of triggers. Your dog may be in such a state of alert that almost anything creates a fearful response. If so, your dog is overwhelmed and is incapable of learning. In this case, you need to take a step back and work on desensitizing.
- Desensitize to Triggers: If your dog is overwhelmed and is fearful of being indoors, for the first few days, find a room where it is more quiet and the sounds are a bit muffled. Keep your dog in this room and allow him to relax a bit. With all the scary noises away, your dog may be able to take some treats and learn that there is nothing to be afraid of. Approach your new dog by sitting on the floor. Fearful dogs are intimidated when people walk over to them and cower or loom over them petting them on the head. Avoid giving direct eye contact. Any attempt the puppy tries to make towards you, reward by dropping high value treats. After spending some time in this room, he may habituate better to all the noises that were overwhelming him causing him to freeze. Once more relaxed, you can then open the door slightly, so more noises are perceived. Gradually, as your dog adjusts then keep the door open, then bring in another room where there are more noises and then gradually incorporate your dog into your daily activities.
- Countercondition to the Triggers: If you know there is a specific noise that triggers fear, try to counter condition your dog to actually look forward to that noise. If for instance, your dog is scared of foot steps, have somebody walk from a distance and drop treats every time you hear the steps. Steps, treat, steps, treat, steps, treat... With time, your dog will look forward to the steps because they have become a predictor of good things. If your dog is afraid of a continuous noise say, the dishwasher, try to offer the food of bowl every day upon turning on the dish washer. Of course, keep your dog at a distance where he is not reactive to the dishwasher noise. With time, the dish washer becomes a cue that mealtime is coming!
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.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 02, 2012:
Thank you for commenting on my dog scared of the house hub. Many dogs have space issues in the home due to tighter quarters. When we moved to a small home with my in-laws a while back, my male was reactive to sounds and voices, but then outdoors was perfectly fine. Moving to a new home can be stressful on dogs especially dogs with a history of living outdoors or that do not trust humans due to past negative experiences.
wetnosedogs from Alabama on May 01, 2012:
Interesting article. I really enjoyed the paragraph about dogs feeling they have more space outdoors. My dogs do act different a bit outdoors. But they are indoor dogs and can come in whenever they want. sometimes when all 3 are in, the youngest puts on her act of being the pack leader. She doesn't do that outside. But she does get worrisome when another dog is out and she wants us(her and me) to check up on the dog that wants to stay out a little longer. I do have to say my dogs are not fearful of the house, but they do like that extra space outside.
jaswinder64 from Toronto, Canada. on May 01, 2012:
Good article, and pictures are beautiful.