Why Is My Senior Dog Suddenly Scared of Going Outside?

Updated on July 18, 2019
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Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and the author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

Older Dogs may get spooked at times of something in the yard
Older Dogs may get spooked at times of something in the yard | Source

Why Is My Dog Scared of the Yard?

Your senior dog is suddenly terrified of going outside in the yard. She pants, tries to hide, and is oblivious to your requests to come back inside. Anytime a sudden behavior like this takes place in a senior dog, a vet visit is recommended. All dogs over the age of seven should ideally have a geriatric wellness exam twice a year. Shaking and panting may be a sign of pain. If the shaking and panting occur only outside, it very likely is anxiety. Something may have her spooked her, and it may be hard to determine what. If there have been changes in the yard, consider that older dogs have a hard time adjusting to anything new.

It could have been that she heard a loud noise or she stepped onto a piece of glass and felt pain and, therefore, associated the pain with being outdoors, or perhaps she saw something that scared her. Smells of other wild animals (coyote, bear) can also be a possibility. There are also chances she may have an eye issue going on which may be exacerbated by the bright light. If there are steps that lead outdoors, it could be she has arthritic pain. A possibility to keep in mind may be that she is starting to show the first signs of canine cognitive dysfunction. According to Pfizer Pharmaceutical, 62% of dogs age 10 years or older will develop signs of this condition. Some dogs may appear ''disoriented'', get stuck in corners and lost in familiar places. (More about this condition can be learned by reading the list of resources at the bottom of the article).

How to Help Overcome the Fear of the Yard

If your dog checks out fine at the vet visit, you will need to work on the behavior. This may take time and may require the intervention of a reputable dog behaviorist in severe cases.

  • What you want to avoid is "babying" your dog's fearful behavior. No petting, pleading, or talking in a soft high-pitched voice, this will only tell her that her behavior is what you want her to do. Your dog may think you are telling her: "You have every reason to be afraid of going outside and I don't blame you!'' Rather, ignore her fearful responses but praise lavishly when she shows initiative.
  • Try however to not force the issue, give her time. You need to give her baby steps to avoid traumatizing her further. Don't pull her outside, rather try to start associating the outdoor with something good again.
  • You can start, for instance, feeding her tasty treats near the door that leads outdoors or leaving a stuffed Kong here. Then you can put treats more and more outside going out gradually. Use very high value treats that she gets only when heading outdoors. Lots of pats and praise for taking initiative.
  • As she gets better associating the outdoors with food, you can try to re-direct her attention from getting scared. Engage her by asking her a command, try to elicit play, toss treats all over the yard, make a path of treats that leads outside. Do anything to keep her from thinking about her fear. A dog cannot be fearful while thinking of playing or obeying a command. But if the fear is too intense, she may be unable to listen to you as her cognitive functions shut down, so you need to go more gradually.
  • Rescue remedy or a DAP diffuser may help calm her down a bit. Since her problem seems to start mostly outdoors a DAP collar may be your best bet.
  • Another helpful tool would be making her wear a ''thunder shirt'' when going outdoors. The beneficial pressure points of this shirt appear to have a therapeutic effect on anxious dogs. Statistics are encouraging with over 80% of dogs showing significant improvement in symptoms when using Thunder shirt.

Your first step therefore should be a vet visit. Again, if all checks out well, then suspect a strong conditioned fear response that you must work on by making the outside again a happy place to be.

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.

Questions & Answers

  • We have a twelve-year-old Min Pin who has recently changed behavior. We have a doggie door, and at night he has been peeing in the living room, even pooping a few times. He also yelped like he was hurt, started shaking and has become clingy and skittish. Thought he had thorn or glass in foot pad. The vet did X-rays and found nothing. Could this be old age symptoms?

    I think your dog's symptoms warrant further investigation by the vet before assuming it's canine cognitive dysfunction or perhaps some fear of something. Peeing and pooping in the house may be due to pain from arthritis or spinal issues. Abdominal pain may be another issue. Many possible medical issues can cause the symptoms you are seeing.

  • Our 14 yr old Shih Tzu is scared to go out now at night to do her duties. She will follow me outside then stop and then turn around to go back to the house. She cowers as if I'm scolding her! What does this mean?

    So sorry to hear that your 14-year-old Shih Tzu does not want to potty at night. At her age, I would be concerned whether there may be something medically going on. Perhaps it's painful for her to assume the position to defecate or maybe she has lost a bit of vision or hearing and is scared to go out. Maybe something startled her. There are several possibilities.

  • Will a fifteen-year-old Maltese dog begin having trouble holding urine?

    As dogs age, their urethral sphincters start losing tone and begin to weaken, which leads to leaking. This is often seen in elderly female dogs who are spayed, and is called urinary sphincter incompetence.

© 2011 Adrienne Farricelli


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      8 months ago

      My dog is 13 years old and very active in unfamiliar places, but when we walk near the house, she wants to go home right after doing her business. All her life I would walk her without a leash, but now she just runs home and does not respond to my commands (very uncommon for her). Could she be afraid? She is excited to go out every time and she never payed any attention to other dogs even if they bark at her. And she doesn't seem to be in any pain. Should I force her to stay outside, or adapt to her will?


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