For any dog owner, seeing their furry friend in distress is upsetting, particularly if this leads to anti-social behaviour. While some fear responses can be easier to manage such as hiding during thunderstorms, fear biting in dogs can be harder to overcome.
Thankfully, there are several steps you can take to help your dog deal with its fears. While there are generally no quick fixes, with some persistence and patience, your dog can learn to master their fears for a more relaxed and happier household.
What Causes A Dog To Be Fearful?
Why are some dogs so much more easy going than others? What causes some dogs to exhibit fearful behaviours in situations that other dogs ignore?
It can be hard to pinpoint exactly why your dog is fearful of certain things or environments, however, some common causes include:
- A lack of socialisation or environmental exposure in the first 14 weeks of life.
- A history of abuse, mistreatment or abandonment.
- Negative experiences such as at the vet or a boarding kennel
- Being attacked by another dog
- Having experienced multiple owners such as in the case of rescue dogs
- Being unable to escape something they are afraid of or being forced into an unfamiliar or frightening situation.
Illness, pain or changes that come with age can also contribute to increased fear in your dog. Some dogs are simply more sensitive to stimuli, just as human beings can be.
Regardless of the reason behind your dog's fearful nature, it is vital to address it and support them to feel more confident.
Fearful behaviour rarely resolves on its own and can often escalate if left untreated.
Common Causes Of Fear In Dogs
Dogs can develop fears or phobias about virtually anything. Common fears include thunderstorms, loud noises from fireworks or cars backfiring, car trips, visiting the vet, strangers and men among others.
However, some dogs may be fearful of more unusual things such as balloons, using stairs, hats, vacuum cleaners and men. No matter the cause, the body language of fear in dogs is quite easy to read and recognise.
Recognising Fearful Behaviour In Dogs
Have you witnessed your dog shaking in fear, trying to escape during storms, hiding, panting, pacing, tucked tail and ears or similar? These are all signs of fear-related anxiety in dogs.
To help you better recognise fearful behaviour in your dog, you can also refer to the 4 F’s Of Fear:
This may look like hiding and refusing to come out when called or sitting down during a walk and refusing to continue.
Running away from fearful situations is linked to the autonomic nervous system response. This is normal behaviour and one that is in-built into humans and animals alike to ensure their survival.
Less common and harder to identify as a fear response, some dogs will become over the top in their responses. Constantly jumping up on a person, intense licking, and bothering visitors with a ball or other toy can be employed as coping mechanisms for fear.
When overcome by fear and anxiety many dogs will lash out by biting, snarling and lunging. Fear aggression in dogs towards other dogs can also extend to strangers and even their much-loved owners.
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How To Stop Fear Aggression In Dogs
Arguably one of the most concerning fear responses, fear aggression in dogs towards strangers and other dogs can be dangerous for your pet and the other party. Seeing an aggressive dog is both confronting and upsetting, especially if it is your dog!
Consistency is key when it comes to eliminating fear aggression - this means practising the same response each time the fear appears. The main thing is to keep yourself calm as your dog is very aware of your body language and will feed off this too.
Try to avoid the fear trigger as much as possible, fear aggressive dogs hate surprises, so a consistently predictable environment free of the trigger can help to build their confidence.
If out of yor environment and the fear trigger presents itself, you should turn away from the situation and actively ignore it. Repeat the command ‘leave it’ or ‘look at me’ to break your dog's fixation on what is happening. Always reward positive behaviour and redirection with treats, verbal praise or pats.
Another way to manage fear aggression is to create a ritual of behaviour. This involves a routine you follow each time the fear occurs, for instance, if thunder causes fear aggression, you may like to create a habit around these situations.
Consider a weighted thunder jacket, securing them in a safe, cosy environment such as their bed or a crate. You will then repeat these steps during every storm. This will reduce your pet's stress threshold and can help to avoid aggressive responses.
Building Confidence In Your Dog
Helping your dog develop a confident and relaxed personality starts from the time they are a few weeks old. Socialisation is key to reducing a dog's overwhelm or fear while out in the world.
Between 3-14 weeks dogs should be actively exposing your dog to a variety of situations and environments. Doing this from a young age helps dogs adjust to unusual sounds, smells and sights.
Positive reinforcement such as treats, praise and pats is also key to their development of confidence. All dogs seek to know they are loved and ‘good’ and thrive in environments that deliver this.
Fear Stages in Dogs
As your dog grows it will go through two recognised fear periods. Fear periods in dogs, also known as fear stages, occur between 8-11 weeks and 6-14 months.
An evolutionary tool, these fear stages are designed to help dogs protect themselves in the wild. While your pet is wholly domesticated, this evolutionary component is still present.
The first fear period usually coincides with a puppy's transition away from its mother to a new home and family. It is critical during this time that your puppy be allowed to explore and be protected from scary situations as much as possible. Carefully monitor any interaction with children and other pets and allow the puppy to retreat and find a safe place if desired. Do not force any interactions.
The second fear period most often relates to exposure to situations rather than people. For instance visiting a new place such as a dog park, beach, friend's home or similar can all present new and scary situations. Never force your dog into these situations but allow them to explore in their own time. Never force them into situations where they are demonstrating a fear response and always reward positive behaviour.
So how long does a fear period in dogs last? Well, while you could say they only exist between the ages outlined above, ultimately, socialisation is a lifelong process.
Fear, anxiety and fear aggression in dogs can develop at any stage of life. However, a positive and relaxed environment during these key stages can go a long way to minimising the development of fears later in life.
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Can A Fearful Dog Be Cured?
Knowing how to build confidence in a fear-aggressive dog or fearful dog with anxiety can go a long way to minimising their negative behaviours.
Some challenging behaviours such as how to get a fearful dog in the car can be overcome through repetition and reward. Also known as desensitisation, the constant exposure to these situations and consistent positive reinforcement can see these behavioural concerns reduced or eliminated over time.
Fear aggression in dogs towards owners, strangers or other dogs can be significantly harder to overcome. Even if this behaviour cannot be eliminated, it can most definitely be managed and the aggression minimised.
Desensitisation, or counterconditioning involves exposing your dog to its fear trigger in different ways with the hope that over time, they care less about it. This is done by exposing them to the stimulus at a low level that emits little to no response and gradually increasing to more intense levels of stimuli.
Effective in some instances, it can also escalate negative behaviours if not done correctly.
If in doubt, speak with your vet or a professional trainer about how to best approach desensitisation with your dog.
When To See Your Vet
If your pet is experiencing fearful, anxious or aggressive responses to certain situations or environments, it is always recommended to speak with your vet. This is particularly true if the dog is older or has suddenly developed a fear of something they were not fearful of in the past.
Your vet will perform a thorough check of your dog to eliminate any physical or psychological issues that could be contributing to their fear response.
Infections, viruses, pain and other issues can all contribute to a fearful pet, so it is best to rule these out as possible causes before reviewing the next steps.
For persistent issues with fear and anxiety that do not respond to training, your vet may suggest a supportive pharmaceutical approach such as anti-anxiety medication.
Recognising the causes of fear in your dog and taking active steps to help them is an important part of being a dog owner. For assistance in navigating fear in your dog and building their confidence, speak with your vet today.