Recognizing Fearful Dog Behavior

Many dog owners interact with other dogs in addition to their own - dogs owned by friends and family, for example, or dogs they meet on walks or at the dog park. Being able to recognize is useful - if only to realize that your own dog may need help to overcome his fear, or to remove yourself and your dog from a situation with another fearful dog.

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Dogs can fear many different things. Loud noises like thunder and fireworks are two common fears, but there are many others too - for example, some dogs fear men, other dogs or animals, or inanimate objects like bicycles, walking canes, or hats. Dogs who have not been appropriately socialized are more prone to being shy or scared, but fears may be also learned through bad experiences or abuse. It's not always the case that a shy or fearful dog has been abused, though... under-socialization is the most common cause. Some dogs are also just naturally more timid or cautious than others. Dogs who are ill or who simply aren't feeling well may also be more fearful since they may feel more vulnerable.

Signs of a fearful dog include:

  • Trying to avoid the situation, object, or person that scares them. For instance, the dog may look away from another dog, person, or object, or try to back away, run away, or hide.

  • A glassy-eyed look.

  • Shaking, trembling, or cowering.

  • Posture cues - tails are held low or in between in the legs, heads are lowered, lowered or crouched body posture, and ears are held flat against the head. Some dogs hackle when they are afraid.

  • Inappropriate panting.

  • Growling or baring its teeth (with or without growling). Some dogs are also fear-biters and may snap. A slowly-wagging tail does not mean that the dog is happy!

  • Submissive urination.

If your dog is the fearful dog, then work with him to overcome his fears. Obviously you need to know what it is that he fears first, before you can help him. Desensitization and positive rewards help tremendously - but be prepared for a long process. Getting over a fear is not easy in anyone, including in a dog. Many dog owners find it useful and easier to consult with a dog behaviorist who can teach them the basics of what to do to help their dog, which the dog owner can then continue on his own at home.

Another option for helping to calm dogs down during events like fireworks or thunderstoms is the use of a Thundershirt. The idea is that the the shirt applies a gentle, continuous pressure on the dog's torso which helps to calm him down (or keep him calm). Many dog owners report great success using the Thundershirt although it doesn't work for every dog nor in every situation. Still, many pet owners feel it's worth a try to see if it helps their dogs relax.

If you encounter a fearful dog that's not your own, then ideally you should remove yourself (and your dog, if he's with you) from the situation. Back away and go head back in the direction you came from. Give the other dog space and do not attempt to approach or sooth or pet him. A dog's behavior is much different from a human's. A human might think, for example, that it is appropriate and friendly behavior to approach a dog head-on to pet and talk to him to try to calm him down. However, in the dog's eyes, a head-on approach is threatening. Dogs naturally approach each other in an arc, not nose-to-nose (rather, nose-to-butt).

Dogs are very good at showing warning signals. They do a number of things to tell us that they are feeling uncomfortable. The most common of these behaviors include turning away (either his head or his entire body), licking his lips or nose (could be a single lick or a series of licks), yawning, suddenly sniffing the ground or air, or 'freezing' in place.

Dogs also often growl to show their discomfort or displeasure. Growling should not be discouraged as it is a means of communication. By telling a dog not to growl, you are removing his way of telling you that he is uncomfortable. Did you ever hear someone say that a bite happened with no warning, or 'came out of the blue'? Chances are, the dog gave warning signals that went unnoticed or were ignored, or the dog was conditioned not to growl and so could not communicate his discomfort.

Recognizing fearful dog behavior allows dog owners to recognize if their own dog needs help... plus it helps in situations where other dogs are present, too. Fearful dogs can be 'rehabilitated' with time and consistency. They may never be 100%, but any progress is always positive. Various degrees of are not uncommon in any breed or age of dog. Fortunately, most dogs can be helped with appropriate training, socialization, and medical care.