How do I know if my dog is afraid?
Sometimes our dogs give us really clear signs when they are anxious, but other times it can be difficult to recognise if they are afraid. It’s important to look out for common signs of stress in your dog, which might include:
- Avoiding things
- Flattening their ears and tucking their tail between their legs
- Hiding away
- Being off their food
- Being distracted
- Yawning and licking their lips
If your dog is showing any of these signs, chances are something is happening they don’t like.
Finding out what they are scared of is the first step towards helping your dog with their anxiety. Try to identify the source (for example, it could be a thunderstorm or they could start showing these behaviours when you turn the washing machine on).
It’s really important to take action quickly as fears and phobias tend to get worse over time. When pets are scared by the same thing over and over, this often worsens their fear. No matter how strongly they react they can’t stop their fear, especially as they often have no control over what’s frightening them. This makes each bad experience feel even more terrifying than the last.
Even if you’re only seeing the earliest signs your dog might be starting to feel nervous, it’s best to get help sooner rather than later.
Why is my dog scared or anxious?
There are lots of things that can cause your dog to feel nervous or frightened. Sometimes your dog will be nervous of something from a young age, whereas others may start to become anxious gradually or when they are older. You might never find out exactly why your dog is afraid, but the most important part is to work out what is scaring them so you can help your dog cope and hopefully they will become less afraid over time.
Some of the most common causes of anxiety in dogs include:
What can I do to help when my dog is scared or anxious?
The most important thing to do if your dog is scared of something and feeling anxious is to stay as calm as possible. Every dog copes differently – they might come to you for comfort, they might be unsettled or they might prefer to hide somewhere they feel safe.
To help your dog cope, wherever possible try to avoid the thing that’s frightening them. For example if you come across it while you’re out and about, then it’s best to stay as far away as you can. Sadly, this isn’t always possible, especially if your dog is scared of something like thunderstorms which you can’t avoid or control.
When your dog feels scared or nervous, it’s normal as an owner to want to comfort and reassure them and we recommend that you do. There is a myth that you should not comfort your pet when they are scared, as people worry that they are encouraging the fear. However in these situations, we are dealing with an emotion. You can’t reinforce (encourage) an emotion, only a behaviour such as jumping up or barking at the door. It is absolutely fine to comfort your pet, especially if they come to you for reassurance, as this will help to calm and relax them.
Once they’re calm and whatever they are scared of has gone, it’s time to start preparing for the next time. Whether your dog is afraid of storms, fireworks or something in the home (such as the vacuum or washing machine) you’ll need to help them learn to cope and feel less anxious (especially as it's often impossible for your dog to completely avoid what is frightening them in the future).
What is de-sensitisation?
'Behaviour modification' is when training is used to change the way your dog reacts to things and includes de-sensitisation and counter-conditioning.
Put simply, counter-conditioning is changing the way your dog feels about something. For example, changing strangers from something to be scared of to something your dog doesn’t mind or sometimes even enjoys!
De-sensitisation is gradually exposing your dog to something to build up positive associations in a slow and controlled manner. These methods are a way of training your dog to be OK with the things they are scared of.
If your dog is afraid of something or has a phobia, your vet or behaviourist may recommend de-sensitisation and counter-conditioning them to the cause of their fear. This means they see or experience the thing that scares them at a very low, safe level that doesn’t cause them to react with positive training such as treats.
The most important part of de-sensitisation is to make sure that your dog stays calm and happy throughout the process. If they show any signs of being stressed or uncomfortable, you may be moving too fast and this can make their fear worse. The amount of time it takes for a dog to become desensitised will vary but preparation and patience are key.
Some people believe that exposing their dog to something repeatedly will help them learn that it isn’t scary. This is often termed “flooding” and can cause the dog to become more scared as the thing they are scared of does not disappear. Never use flooding to try to help your dog with their fear. Dogs need to be exposed to their fears slowly, with a positive experience under a behavioural management plan.
How can I prepare and help my dog become less afraid next time?
Depending on what your dog is afraid of, there are a few things you can do to help them:
- Always make new things a positive experience. Make sure your dog sees new things and experiences as really positive. Praise them and keep your tone happy if they react to new things in a way you like. As your dog becomes more confident, new things probably won’t scare them as much.
- Avoid or reduce the things that scare them. If it’s possible to avoid or reduce the cause of their fear this will often help to stop their nervousness getting worse. If your dog is afraid of noises, you can leave a radio or TV on as a distraction and to drown out the sounds. With storms and fireworks, your dog may get scared of the lights as well as the noise, so close the curtains or blinds in the room your dog is in. You can even build them a den to hide in to help them feel safe as this will often help your dog feel less frightened whatever the cause of their fear. If you see something that you know they’re scared of when you’re out on a walk, try to go the other way before your dog notices and starts to become nervous.
- Introduce new things slowly. Sometimes new things can surprise your dog if they aren’t used to them, so try to introduce any new sights, sounds and experiences to them as slowly as possible.
- Praise calm behaviour. Praise your dog calmly to help keep them relaxed if they are managing to stay settled despite a scary noise or sight. If your dog is worried at first, let them hide if they need to and give them lots of praise once they’re calm.
- Always stay calm. The more worried you get, the more worried your dog is likely to get. If they are showing signs of stress and being afraid, stay as calm as possible as this will help them feel more at ease.
- Get a sound CD. You can buy special CDs that have common sounds on them which can be played to help your dog become used to noises that worry them. Start with the volume very low and praise and reward your dog for calm behaviour. Over the course of several months you can gradually increase the volume by small amounts each time you play the CD, again praising calm behaviour. If your dog becomes stressed it’s best to start again with the sound very low, and focus on building confidence at each step of increased volume. Use lots of positive interaction such as playing with your dog and giving them their food or treats while the CD is playing so they associate the scary noises with good things.
- Try a pheromone plug-in or collar. These products can help your dog feel calm.
- Contact your vet and an accredited behaviourist. If your dog is struggling with anxiety it’s important to get them professional help as soon as possible. Fears tend to get worse over time and if you wait too long your dog’s behaviour will often become more and more extreme. It’s especially important to get your dog checked if they have suddenly started showing signs of fear or if they are starting to be afraid of lots of different things. We also recommend contacting a behaviourist accredited with the ABTC.
Socialisation for puppies
The best way to prevent fears and phobias is through socialisation. When your puppy is young they find it much easier to learn how to respond confidently to different situations so they become happy adults.
During this time, it’s important to introduce your puppy to lots of different experiences in a positive way, including things like loud noises, new people or friendly dogs, as it will help them learn how to respond when they come across them in future. This process is called socialisation. If your puppy doesn’t have experiences when they’re young or they have a bad experience during socialisation, this could lead to fears and phobias. You can find out more about socialising your puppy in our guide.
Does my dog need medication to calm them down?
Medications often need to be used alongside behavioural treatment plans. If a dog is feeling stressed they are unable to learn and the use of pheromones and medication can help with counter-conditioning and de-sensitisation. There are a number of different medications that are licensed or recommended for dogs and most are used for a short time alongside training to help with their fear.
Never use human anti-anxiety medications on your dog. They can have side effects (including sometimes making your dog’s anxiety worse) and some could be dangerous to your pet. Speak to your vet if you think your dog may need medications to help with their fear.
How to build a den for your dog
Dens can help give your dog somewhere they feel safe if they are afraid. Check out our video below for tips on making the perfect doggy den!