Aside from barking, dogs communicate even more using body language. Common gestures are bared teeth or a wagging tail, which can often be misconstrued; bared teeth do not always mean a nasty vicious dog and a wagging tail does not always mean a happy dog!
There are many contributing factors as to why a dog may be fearful, so identifying the root cause and managing the fearful behavior reduces the stress levels for both the dog and their owner and, above all, keep everyone safe.
Dogs go through a critical period of development when they are between the ages of 8 and 16 weeks. The more different environments they are exposed to during that period the better equipped they are to handle new things later in life, such as traffic, meeting strangers, riding elevators or climbing steps.
Genetics can also be a reason for fearful behavior. As well as eye and coat color, dogs can inherit personality traits a from their parents. Certain breeds are known to be more skittish and it is quite likely that a shy timid mom will produce shy timid offspring. It is certainly harder to determine an inherited fear but a general clue is that a dog whose fear stems from genetics tends to be fearful of a variety of things, rather than having a single specific phobia.
Recognizing the signs and symptoms of a fearful dog can help you to help them address their fears and phobias – before they escalate. Sometimes it’s obvious, for example, when thunder and lightning or fireworks send your pooch diving for cover in the nightstand or cowering under your bed. But it’s important to also be aware of the following, much subtler, signs of fear in your dog, so you can understand when your furry friend is anxious and stressed aboutsomething in that particular environment.
- Flattened ears
- Tail tucked between the hind legs
- Lip licking
- Raised hair on the back of the neck
Behaviors of a Fearful Dog
In addition to showing fear through body language, some dogs exhibit one or more of the specific behaviors below, which are basically symptoms of fear or anxiety:
- Clinginess to owner
- Submissive urination
The dog’s fear may also manifest in some physical signs that it is unable to control, such as:
- Dilated pupils or seeing the whites of a dog’s eyes
- Loss of control over bowels or bladder
Treating Fearful Dogs
One thing for sure in my experience though, is that recognizing the symptoms, and therefore rehabilitation, of shelter animals is often harder, because we don’t know enough about their history or specific details of physical abuse they may have suffered. It’s times like this that I wish dogs could really talk!
Often, an adopted dog realizes it has found a new loving owner and can overcome its fear or anxiety fairly quickly. However, patience is key when it comes to helping a dog that has suffered long term abuse or neglect and professional help may be needed.
It really great that there are also many reputable rescue centers that will work on any known issues, to ensure they make their charges as ‘adoptable’ as possible.
These are some of the most common steps to help our furry friends overcome their fears and/or correct any undesirable behaviors:
- Give the dog space and time to acclimatize to their new environment.
- Provide them with their own ‘safe place’, such as a crate, where they can retreat to like a den.
- Encourage them to come to you with treats and gradually gain their trust.
- Distract them by playing with them or practise obedience commands.
- Joining a good dog training class will provide extra support and also help with the dog’s socializing skills.
I can’t stress enough how essential positive reinforcement is – whatever the dog, whatever the circumstances. Punishing a dog who has committed some act of aggression or engaged in destructive behavior is rarely successful. In a sense, a fearful dog expects to be punished. That’s why it’s fearful and that’s the connection you need to break without punishment.
Like many dog owners, I resist the use of medications such as anti-depressants, to treat fear in dogs, as they are not a cure. However, for severe cases, this is often an option people use to reduce the anxiety/fear to a level where the dog would be calmer and more receptive to training.
I have found the more time and dedication I have put in to my rescued pups, the more rewarding the final results have been. I am always amazed at how dogs have the ability to not only forgive past human treatment, but then continue to give us their unconditional love.
The world is certainly a better place with dogs in it and I, for one, couldn’t imagine a life without mine!