Many dogs experience fear, and sometimes it can be hard to tell what’s causing a dog to feel afraid. Fortunately, it is easy to recognize fear in dogs by looking closely at their body language and behavior. You also can help your own dog cope with fear by observing it, learning its triggers, and avoiding its triggers or gradually training it with ways to cope. You can also help it manage aggression caused by fear to avoid problems like biting.
EditLooking at Subtle Body Language
- Look for the whites in a dog’s eyes. A dog who’s tense or fearful may widen its eyes so that they appear rounder than normal. A relaxed dog often squints so that the eyes become almond-shaped with hardly any whites showing at all. If you can see lots of white around a dog’s eyes, the dog may be afraid or tense.
- Dilated pupils can also occur when a dog has its eyes widened and is another sign of fear or arousal. Dilated pupils become bigger and take up almost the whole inside of the eyes, making it harder to see the eye color and giving the eyes a glassy look.
- If you notice dilated pupils, avoid looking the dog directly in the eyes. The dog may perceive this as aggression from you. Instead, try to look out of the side of your eyes or use your peripheral vision to observe them.
- Watch for eye contact avoidance. Dogs who are afraid may avoid eye contact with people. This will often occur with other signals, like crouching or trying to move away from whatever it is they are afraid of. If a dog is avoiding your eye contact, it may be afraid of you.
- Avoid approaching a dog you don’t know who appears fearful of you.
- See if the dog’s mouth is closed tightly. A relaxed dog often has its mouth slightly open and may be panting. The corners of the mouth may be turned upward slightly. If a dog has its mouth closed with the lips pulled back, they may be afraid or tense.
- Frequent yawning and lip licking may also accompany this closed-mouth behavior and are signs of stress.
- Teeth-baring accompanied by a growl can be a sign of aggression that’s based from fear. There is a difference between smiling and aggressive teeth-baring, however. If a dog is showing teeth, look for other signs to tell whether this is due to happiness or fear-based aggression.
- Listen for rapid, interrupted panting and whining. While steady panting is a sign of a relaxed dog, fast panting that is frequently interrupted by the dog closing its mouth in response to environment changes signals a fearful dog. When the dog closes its mouth, it may make 1 or 2 whining sounds then go back to the rapid panting.
- Check out the dog’s ears for changes. If a dog normally has erect ears, putting its ears down or back is a sign that it's afraid. It’s a little harder to tell in floppy-eared dogs, but they may also change the direction their ears are pointing when they’re afraid or aroused. Look at the base of the ears of a floppy-eared dog to see if they are moving forward or back.
EditRecognizing Major Body and Behavior Changes
- Look for tail tucking and stiff wagging. A relaxed dog will have its tail in a neutral position, extending out from the spine or maybe a little above or below spine level. Relaxed dogs may wag their tail at a steady, relaxed pace. A fearful dog often tucks its tail down between its legs.
- If a dog has its tail tucked between its legs, held against its belly, or held low and wagging stiffly with short, choppy movements, it may be feeling fearful.
- Consider hair changes like raised hairs or excessive shedding. Similar to humans having goose-bumps, a fearful dog may experience skin changes that lead to raised hairs across its shoulders, down its spine, or near the tail. These areas of raised hairs are called “hackles,” and may not always mean immediate fear or aggression but are often a sign the dog is excited or stressed.
- A dog who’s experiencing repeated fear and stress may shed a lot. If a dog is shedding more than normal, it is likely upset about something in its daily environment.
- Look for major posture changes like stiffness, trembling, or staying low. A happy, playful dog will have movements that are loose and wiggly, with lots of activity and brief pauses. A dog who seems stiff, moves slowly, or moves away does not want to be near whatever is happening. This dog may also tremble, crouch low to the ground, or roll onto its side or back.
- If a dog is low to the ground and looking away, scratching, or sniffing, this is avoidance behavior and is a sign that it’s no longer interested in social interaction.
- Watch for freezing or frantic attempts to escape. An extremely fearful dog may freeze in place and wait for the fear trigger to pass. Or it may frantically run around, trying to get away from whatever is causing its fear. If a dog is this afraid, it may urinate or defecate if the stress trigger continues or it’s approached by a person or animal that’s causing the fear.
- A dog may also have a frequent hiding spot that it runs to, such as to the basement during a thunderstorm.
- Notice food refusal. If your dog is suddenly refusing food but was hungry earlier and is moving away from you or the source of the food, it’s probably alarmed about something. Notice what is causing the fear and, if this is a frequent stress trigger, you can begin helping your dog to cope by calmly talking to it and offering treats whenever that trigger is around.
EditHelping to Calm Your Fearful Dog
- Observe what’s happening each time your dog becomes afraid. Certain loud noises, such as fireworks, are common fear triggers for many dogs. Other dogs may have more particular fears of things that are “normal” to most other dogs and people, like people wearing hats or baby strollers.
- Watching your dog and the environment closely each time it becomes afraid will help you to determine its triggers, or things that cause stress or fear. For instance, during walks, if your dog repeatedly becomes afraid near a certain house or other location there is probably something there it is afraid of.
- Write down things you notice that cause your dog to become afraid. You may start to notice a pattern that will make it easier to deal with avoiding these things or training him to no longer be afraid of them.
- Rule out medical issues. Many dogs experience fears when they are medically sick or injured. Because they don’t understand why they feel bad or hurt, they become stressed and afraid. Call your veterinarian or schedule a vet visit to discuss any sudden increases in fearful behavior in your dog, especially if it is hard to determine any type of trigger pattern.
- If your dog suddenly seems afraid of everything or of things that never caused it fear before, this is a sign of a medical issue requiring a visit to the vet. Conditions like arthritis or other pain-related complications may cause this kind of fear.
- Allow your dog space from known fear triggers if possible. Once you have observed your dog’s fear and tracked the things that are triggers, make a list of these things and make some adjustments. For example, if you know your dog doesn’t like people in hats, ask guests coming to your house to remove their hats when they come over.
- When you're out, try to cross the street if you see someone walking toward you who’s wearing a hat if this is your dog's trigger.
- It won’t be possible to avoid all triggers in some cases but trying to avoid them as much as possible builds your dog’s trust in you, which will make it easier to eventually train it to cope with the triggers.
- Expose your new dog to new environments gradually. If your dog is young or has had a very limited outside environment before becoming your dog, it may just need more experience with new environments. Stick to a regular walk route normally, but bring your dog on walks to new places and encourage social interactions occasionally. Each time it interacts with new people and other dogs successfully, offer praise and treats.
- The only time to avoid new environments is if you know that strangers and other dogs are some of your dog’s triggers, especially if it becomes fear-aggressive around new people or dogs.
- Teach a specific behavior to help your dog cope with triggers. When your dog sees a known trigger, teach it to do something specific like to look at you or to sit. This is often easier if your dog has a bit of training already. Keep treats with you when you go on walks to make it easier to do this training when your dog sees a trigger.
- For instance, if you see a bicycle coming and you know your dog is afraid of bicycles, move in front of your dog to block its view a bit and say, “Look at me. Now sit,” then immediately give your dog a treat if it looks at you and sits.
- Work with a trainer if your dog becomes aggressive when afraid. If your dog shows signs of aggression when it’s afraid, such as growling, barking, chasing, or snarling, contact a trainer to help you work with your dog on these issues. This is also a good idea if your dog is afraid of a wide variety of things and it becomes difficult to complete normal tasks at home or to bring your dog anywhere.
- You can find out about trainers through local animal shelters or by searching online for professional dog trainers in your area.
- Avoid overreacting when your dog becomes afraid. If you become extremely affectionate and attempt to "baby" your dog through its fear, this may reinforce the fearful behavior. On the other hand, punishing your dog for being afraid is also never a good idea. Do not yell at or hit a dog when it's afraid, because this will only increase your dog's fears, especially of you.
- Try to remain calm and get your dog away from its source of fear as soon as possible. Or, if you are training your dog to cope with fears, offer praise and treats immediately if it listens to your commands.
- Do not attempt to approach a dog you don’t know. Some dogs are afraid of strangers and are more likely to become aggressive if a stranger approaches them. Speak with the dog’s owner first or contact animal control if you encounter a stray dog.
EditSources and Citations
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