Fearful dog behavior is common, as the world can be a very scary place for many dogs. Some dogs are more fearful than others, due to genetic predisposition or improper socialization. Some dogs develop very specific fears in aftermath of fearful experiences. Here are some of the causes of fearful dog behavior, and what you can do about it.
Causes of Fearful Behavior in Dogs
Often, dogs display fearful behavior due to an underlying medical condition. Disease, injury, vision or hearing impairment can all cause your dog to behave fearfully. That’s because many medical conditions can distort your dog’s ability to understand what’s going on around him. If your dog is displaying fearful behavior, you should see your vet to determine that it isn’t caused by an underlying medical condition.
Some dogs are fearful simply because they have a genetic predisposition toward anxiety. Such a predisposition might be treatable with anxiety drugs like Xanax, but it’s important to get a prescription from your vet, as human dosages might be harmful for your dog.
Other dogs may develop specific fears due to traumatic experiences in their pasts. Examine your dog’s behavior to see if you can identify which conditions frighten him. He may be afraid of loud noises, bicycles, traffic, thunderstorms or being left alone. You can combat these fears using desensitization and counter-conditioning techniques.
Gaining Your Dog’s Trust
Don’t give in to the temptation to force your dog to face his fears. If your dog isn’t ready to face what scares him, then forcing him to do so could make the fears worse.
The first step towards calming your dog’s fears is to develop a strong bond of trust with your dog. Spend time showing your dog that you are safe in his company, that the two of you always have fun together and that you are friends. Don’t try to dominate your dog; don’t frighten or bully him. Though it could take days, weeks or months, once you have gained your dog’s trust, you’ll become a source of courage for him.
Desensitizing and Counter-Conditioning Your Dog
Desensitizing your dog to his fears is easy, but can take some time. Begin by exposing your dog to a small amount of what’s causing his fear. Reward your dog for calm, rather than fearful, behavior during this minimal exposure. Gradually increase the level of exposure to the feared object or circumstances, and reward your dog for remaining calm; if at any point he resumes his fearful behavior, reduce the level of exposure immediately and resume at a slower pace.
The process of desensitization can take weeks or months. You need to move slowly enough that your dog never becomes fearful during the process. If not, you could worsen his fears.
Counter-conditioning can be used in conjunction with desensitization. In counter-conditioning, you’ll combine the fearful circumstances with dog behavior that is incompatible with fear, such as the use of the “sit” command.
Perform desensitization as described above, while at the same time asking your dog to perform obedience commands. Reward your dog for obeying commands. However, don’t punish your dog during counter-conditioning, as the point is to get him to associate the fearful stimulus with something pleasant in his mind.