Fear and Anxiety in Dogs

Fear and anxiety can turn anyone's life into misery. Please help your dog if they suffer from it.

Living in constant fear or being repeatedly exposed to scary things is horrible. It can greatly affect your dog's health and happiness.

Some dogs show fear reactions to very obvious events such as thunderstorms or fireworks, certain types of people or specific objects which makes identifying the trigger easy. Other dogs may be in an almost constant state of anxiety.

dog cowering - scary things in background: car, kid with balloons, dog, human with hat, fireworks

Specific Fears

figure: dog cowering under a big black cloud

Constant Anxiety

Prevention is far better than treatment. Build your dog's confidence and resilience from the beginning.

Preventative measures such as extensive early socialisation including body handling and getting used to equipment and veterinary procedures are still often neglected. Ideally your dog should learn as a puppy to enjoy vet visits and grooming, be comfortable with harnesses, head collars, crates and muzzles and have no issues when exposed to new people, places or situations.

Follow these links in the Puppy Socialisation section to learn more about the prevention of fear.

Even if your dog is an adult, you can use the above links to condition your dog to cope with various scenarios at any time.

How Do I Know if My Dog is Fearful?

Being able to correctly interpret your dog's body language is crucial. Too often fear goes unrecognised or is mistaken for calmness. Sometimes fearful behaviour is anthropomorphically, and incorrectly, interpreted as guilt.

Obvious signs of fear is a dog trying to get away from whatever scares them. This flight response is usually accompanied by a low body posture, a low or tucked tail and flattened ears.

If the dog cannot escape from the scary thing, you may also see signs such as lip licking, yawning and dilated pupils.

If a dog is being forced to endure a scary situation, they may become aggressive.

Read more about fear-aggression in the Aggressive Dogs Section

Watch this entertaining video for a quick overview of dog body language:

Dog Body Language - What your dog is desperately trying to tell you! by The Family Dog

Signs of Anxiety, by Doggone Safe, a website dedicated to dog bite prevention through education

figure: dog running away from human


figure: dog cowering

Making Oneself Small

figure: dog licking lips, eyes: dilated pupils, whites showing

Lip Licking
Whale Eye*

figure: dog yawning


* dilated pupils, whites showing

Why is My Dog Fearful?

Understanding exactly what triggers your dog's fearful behaviour is the key to successful treatment and management. It doesn't matter anymore how it all started in the first place, and chances are we will never know.

There are various reasons why a dog may become fearful or anxious. Be it a genetic disposition, medical problems, lack of socialisation as a puppy, bad experiences or a combination of factors, the most important thing is to identify it and treat it.

Observe your dog's reactions to potential triggers and make a list of everything that scares or worries your dog. Also pay attention to the context and a possible combination of triggers. Once you have identified the triggers and scenarios that cause your dog's fear response you can start managing and treating it.

How Can I Help My Fearful Dog?

Make your dog feel safe at all times. Do not expose them to anything that triggers their fears.

While dogs can sometimes get used to certain things that merely worry or concern them, anxiety cannot simply be treated by repeated exposure. In fact there is a real risk that the dog gets sensitised even more, meaning they become even more afraid.

As your dog's protector you need to keep your dog away from whatever scares them. If your dog shows signs of stress, they have been exposed beyond what they can handle. Never force your dog to 'face their fears' as this will most certainly backfire. Your dog needs to trust you that you always keep them safe.

Talk to your vet about medication if your dog is always or mostly anxious. You cannot start working on your dog's fears if the dog is never or rarely in a relaxed state of mind. Please do not deny your dog this chance to feel less miserable.

figure: dog cowers, people in background, one saying 'don't approach'

Stop the trigger

figure: dog cowering in house, radio playing, thunderstorm outside

Mask the trigger

The First Step To Take To Help A Fearful Dog, by Debbie Jacobs, posted on Positively - Victoria Stilwell

Start a systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning program to make the world less scary for your dog.

figure: dog cowers while watching kids play


figure: whenever dog sees kids dog gets chicken


figure: dog happily watching kids play


The treatment protocol for fear and anxiety is very clear. Just like in humans, the individual needs to be exposed gradually and at a non-threatening level to whatever they are afraid of. Additionally to this slow and step by step desensitisation, a pleasant experience is presented whenever the 'scary thing' happens. This is called 'counter conditioning' as its goal is to change the dog's negative emotions into positive emotions.

Depending on the severity of the case, the input of a veterinary behaviourist or good dog trainer may be essential for success.

It requires dedication and commitment to help your fearful dog. Check out the website and Facebook page below for information and support:

fearfuldogs.com, by fearful dogs expert Debbie Jacobs

Debbie also runs an excellent Facebook support group for people with fearful dogs: Fearful Dogs Facebook Support Group

Train your dog using lots of positive reinforcement to help them feel more in control of their lives.

Dogs feel more confident if they know how to make good things happen in their lives.

Read more about training in the 'Dog Training' section.

Training games for shy dogs, fearfuldogs.com

What if I Have to Take My Dog to the Vet?

Your dog should not have to fear the vet. Never accept that this is normal and can't be avoided.

Stressful experiences at the vet not only affect the dog, but can be stressful to you and the veterinary staff and can make diagnosis and treatment difficult.

Read this excellent article by veterinary behaviourist Valarie V. Tynes on the need to address fear and anxiety in pets and help them feel more comfortable during vet visits:

The physiologic effects of fear

(she also provides definitions for the terms fear, anxiety, stress and phobia)

A good vet will always have your dog's mental well-being in mind and do everything they can to help your dog relax. You can assist them by desensitising and/or conditioning your dog to equipment, procedures and veterinary staff. Muzzle training is also a great idea, not just for dogs who have already bitten someone.

Follow these links to learn more about the benefits of muzzle training:

Muzzle Training for the Vet: a "Must" for every Dog Owner, by Maureen Backman, The Muzzle Up Project

Muzzle Q and A, by Dr E'Lise Christensen Bell

Teaching Your Dog to Wear a Muzzle, YouTube video by Chirag Patel

figure: dog sitting on exam table, looking concerned at vet holding a syringe

Your dog can learn to tolerate or even like the vet with a step-by-step desensitisation and counter conditioning program.

A good dog trainer or veterinary behaviourist can be of great help as desensitisation and counter conditioning requires proper execution, time and patience.

Also talk to your vet about your intention to condition your dog to feel more comfortable during vet visits. Most vets will be happy to assist and allow you access to empty exam rooms to practice with your dog.

Your vet, groomer or anyone else who handles your dog should be willing to assist with your efforts to make your dog more comfortable. Beware of anyone who tries to counter fearfulness in your dog with obedience or dominance. Always remember that your dog is neither stubborn nor defiant. They are afraid and need your help.

For more information on how to desensitise and counter-condition your dog to vet visits, see Vet Visits

Separation Anxiety: The Fear of Being Abandoned

Separation anxiety is a terrible condition to live with so get help for your dog immediately.

Your dog panics every time you leave them alone and the longer this is allowed to continue the more serious it will become. The psychological and physical effects on your dog not only make them miserable but can compromise their health.

Separation anxiety can be treated but it requires dedication and commitment. The goal is to teach your dog gradually to cope with your absence.

As with every behaviour problem it is important to manage the situation so the dog no longer has the need or opportunity to enagage in the behaviour. In this case the dog can no longer be left alone until the behaviour modifcation has succeeded.

Rally your friends, family and neighbours or consider doggy day care, dog sitting and walking services to keep your dog company.

Read more about this anxiety disorder here:

Understanding Separation Anxiety, by Malena De Martini-Price, expert in treating separation anxiety (includes link to her excellent book)

Separation Anxiety in Dogs - A Consultants High Tech Toolkit by Jennifer Cattet, PhD.

Living With Dogs Who Suffer From Severe Separation Anxiety by Sandi Thompson, CPDT-KA. A dog trainer's tale of adopting a dog from Thailand and dealing with his severe separation anxiety.

Signs that your dog may suffer from separation anxiety are destruction - in particular around doors and windows and possibly leading to self-injury - and house soiling during your absence and if the dog nervously follows you around and appears stressed when you get ready to leave.

figure: dog inside house scratching frantically at door, puddle on the floor

House Soiling

figure: dog panting, salivating, following human around

Pre-Departure Anxiety

Always consult with a suitably qualified professional to determine if your dog suffers from separation anxiety.

A vet consult may also be a good idea to discuss possible medication to assist with the behaviour modification program.

Once management and possibly medication have been arranged start a separation anxiety treatment protocol with the help of a suitably qualified professional.