How to help a scared and overwhelmed dog

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Does your dog seem to be scared of everything? While most dogs have a normal fear of loud noises, strangers or even their vet, there are times when these fears begin to take over a dog's enjoyment of life. 

An overwhelmed or fearful dog is often incapable of participating in regular activities and their behaviour can become problematic or even dangerous. 

In this guide, we’ll take a look at how to recognise fear in your dog, common causes of fear and how to support your pup to be a more relaxed and happy member of your household. 

How Can You Tell If A Dog Is Scared?

Just like humans, dogs can experience a wide range of emotions. Unfortunately, that includes fear and anxiety. It may seem pretty obvious when a dog is scared, but fearful behaviour doesn't always mean cowering or hiding - it can present as anger or over-excitement. 

For this reason, it is important to understand the signs and behaviours that indicate your dog is scared and the context in which these behaviours occur. This is one of the most vital steps towards knowing the right way to manage and soothe your dog. 

The following signs can be an indicator of fear in your dog:

  • Lip licking
  • Trembling
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Tail tucked between their hind legs
  • Pacing
  • Hiding
  • Barking
  • Cowering
  • Growling
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Whining
  • Raised hackles (raised hair along their back)

Some of these behaviours are also seen in overly excited, happy dogs. So how do you know when it’s a fear response and they’re overwhelmed? It’s best to look at the context the behaviour is happening in. 

If they’re whining and peeing themselves greeting a known family member that they usually display extreme affection for, then it's likely this is not fear. If they are growling while playfully mouthing their doggie friends, then this is also unlikely to be caused by fear.

However, strangers at the gate eliciting barking, loud thunder causing trembling or whining - this is much more obvious as a fear response than anger or excitement. 

What Causes Fear In Dogs?

Every dog is different and has different reasons for being scared. Some dogs are born more sensitive than others, others may have had a negative experience that has altered their responses. 

Here are some common causes of fear in dogs:

Noise Sensitivity 

Loud noises are a very common trigger for fear in dogs. Researchers have pinpointed that this is in fact the most common cause of fear across all breeds with over 32% of dogs assessed demonstrating fear of loud noises. Fireworks and thunder are the most common cause of noise sensitivity. 

Experiencing The Unfamiliar 

This could include, for example, a dog being scared of new people or scared of new locations. Even an unexpected addition to their usual space can cause an initial fear response. 

Some dogs will adjust quickly in these situations, others will need the support of their owner as they explore and get comfortable. 

Past Trauma

Some dogs are fearful of one gender more than another due to negative experiences or previous dog attacks. Past trauma is most often seen in rescue dogs whose history is unknown but can happen to any dog. 

Remember, that even if you have had your dog since a puppy and cannot recall anything traumatic, they may see it differently. Even dogs who have spent time at the vet being desexed may feel traumatised and demonstrate fear to return. 


This can be caused by not being able to get away from the cause of fear, such as being locked in a crate. This is also commonly seen in dogs on a lead, they may display what is known as lead aggression, but their aggressive response can often be a result of feeling fearful and unable to escape the situation. 

Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is a very common cause of fear and anxiety in dogs. Dogs are pack animals and rarely enjoy being left alone for long periods of time, when they are left alone they can quickly panic and become distressed. 

This is not to say you can never leave the house for fear of triggering anxiety in your dog. Separation anxiety can appear in dogs at any stage of life and can be triggered by something as mundane as a change in schedule or bigger changes such as moving house. 

Underlying Issues

Fear responses are often seen to develop or increase in dogs as they get older. Why? This can be due to underlying health issues such as a loss of hearing or sight. It is much easier to be fearful of things that we cannot see or hear properly and the same is true for our furry friends. 

Are Some Breeds More Prone To Fearful Behaviour?

There are different opinions on this, but research does tend to indicate that some breeds are genetically predisposed to heightened anxiety and fearfulness. However, the individual personalities of dogs and their experiences will still factor higher on the scale concerning fearfulness. 

No matter which dog breed you choose, you cannot know or eliminate the possibility of them developing fears towards things during their lifetime. 

What Is The Best Treatment For A Scared Dog?

When it comes to helping a scared dog manage their anxieties, it is important to be patient. 

Your companion is under a lot of stress and it can take time and dedication to help them overcome or change their innate reactions

For immediate and short-acting treatment, distracting the dog with treats or obedience commands may be helpful. This could include actions such as enticing your dog with a treat during a walk to keep them from fearfully reacting to another dog passing by. 

See Your Vet

For long-term treatment or support of dogs with extreme fears, you should seek the support of your vet. Vets can assist you in understanding why your dog is reacting this way and create a treatment plan to properly work on altering their behaviour.

This is especially true for dogs where their fearfulness suddenly comes on or increases with no known explanation. 

Your vet can help you to rule out any health concerns such as sight or hearing difficulties and if necessary, prescribe medications that support your dog to reduce their fear and anxiety. This could mean long-term medication use or pre-emptive dosing such as before a car trip or when a storm is approaching. 

Seek Out A Trainer

A professional dog trainer can help you to train your dog to better manage their fears. Through counter-conditioning and desensitisation, you can decrease your dog's reaction to its fear triggers (such as thunder).

Doing this can gradually help them to overcome their fears or at least have a reduced reaction when faced with them. 

Consider Supplements

If you’re not keen on medicating your dog, there are some supplements you can give them that help to naturally reduce their stress and anxiety. Using dog-safe ingredients such as chamomile, hemp seed oil, L-theanine and more, you can support your pooch to feel calm and relaxed in their everyday life. 

Create A Calming Environment

Every dog should have a space that is theirs. A spot they can go to when they want to feel safe and secure. Setting up a snuggly bed with their favourite toys and blankets in a quiet corner of your home can go a long way to helping them feel calm. 

Plush beds with sides they can snuggle into or hide their faces in are always a winner. 

Additional Tools

Aside from medications, training and supplements, there are some other tools you can try to help keep your dog calm such as:

  • Thunder jackets. These are weighted jackets worn during storms that help to reduce fear by applying gentle pressure to your dog's midsection. This mimics the feeling of closeness or cuddles.
  • Snuffle mats. A wonderful distraction, snuffle mats can be used as enrichment toys to occupy dogs when you leave the house and keep them from feeling anxious in your absence.
  • Calming diffuser. While not all essential oils are safe to diffuse around dogs, pheromone-based diffusers can be highly effective at calming them down. 
  • Pheromone collars. Similar to the diffusers, these collars emit a pheromone-based substance paired with a soothing lavender fragrance which can help to calm dogs and reduce barking, chewing, jumping and more. 

Keep in mind that while these tools can be useful and effective, seeking professional help from a vet and trainer will give you the best chance of seeing a long-term behaviour change. 

Where To Find Out More

Excessive fear and anxiety in your pet can interfere with both their enjoyment of life and your enjoyment of pet ownership.

If you have concerns regarding your dog's fearfulness or they are easily overwhelmed, help is at hand. Simply contact our team for more advice or seek out the qualified advice of your vet who will be more than happy to help you find a solution.


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