How To Tell If Your Dog is Scared
You’ve heard the saying scaredy cat, but often you don’t hear people talk about a scared dog. There are some people who don’t think dogs even get scared. Well, those people would be wrong. Dogs have emotions just like humans. They are happy, they get angry, and most importantly, they can get scared.
For new dog owners, or people who don’t know as much about dogs, telling whether your dog is scared or just being weird can be confusing so I am going to break down the tell-tail (get it telltale?!) signs that your dog is scared. I will even touch on some of the steps you can tell to help your dog when he is afraid.
It’s important to remember that a scared dog is not a mean, or dangerous dog. They have phobias just like us. If there is a child who is afraid of heights, you don’t have parents yelling at them and telling them there is something wrong with them. (Okay, I’m sure those parents exist, but for argument sake, we know the majority of parents would not do that).
In fact, it is known that dogs who have come from abusive backgrounds and therefore are more fearful in shelters, often have a harder time getting adopted. This is because people will associate a scared dog with a dog who will attack. That is simply not the case, unless you are provoking it. Let’s go back to the scared kid example, if you were to make them ride a roller coaster and then they throw up. Are you going to get mad at them for throwing up? No! Because they were acting out of fear.
If a scared dog is forced into a situation that makes them even more uncomfortable, they are going to react. So it is our job to notice the signs of a scared dog, working on figuring out what caused them to become fearful, and then how we can help them lead a calmer life.
So first, we are going to talk about the body language of a scared dog. Since our puppies can’t speak, they try to tell us as much as they can with their bodies.
If nothing else, when you are learning more and more about your dog, you want to learn as much as you can about their body languages. This will help you in almost every stage of your dog's life.
But I digress. Usually, a scared dog will exhibit one or multiple fearful behaviors. Some common body languages for a scared dog are the following:
• Flat ears
• Tucked Tails
• Raised hair on their back
• Avoiding eye contact
• Hunkering low to the ground
• Showing Teeth
All of these characteristics are defensive techniques that dog use to tell humans and other animals that they are scared and to leave them alone. It is important to note that dogs have about the same intelligence level as a typical two-year-old. So, if you were to think about the characteristics of a scared two-year-old, they would probably be about the same. (With some obvious parts missing).
How would a scared two-year-old act? Well, they would probably hide, curl up into a ball with something that makes them feel safe. They would probably shake or not make eye contact. And if you were to try and force them out of their safe space, there would be screaming, or some tantrums are thrown.
If you are watching your dog’s body language and think you may have a fearful dog but are not sure, fear not. There are other ways that dogs try to tell you that they are scared. These are the physical behaviors that are associated with a scared dog. Many fearful behaviors by dogs include:
When a dog is barking excessively, especially paired with one of the body languages shown above, that is usually a good indicator that your dog is scared. They are trying to warn you that they are scared and you need to back off. This is not the time to approach your dog. You need to respect your dog is scared and give them some space.
Dogs will usually whine much like humans. If that have their tail in between their legs and are whining, that is a pretty obvious indicator that the dog is scared. This type of dog is not at an aggressive level of fear yet. The type of fearful dog is simply trying to let you know that he is scared. When your dog shows these types of behaviors, comfort, and care are usually what is best. Much like a child crying, your puppy is asking for help.
Again, we will go back to the child analogy. When a kid is scared, they may have accidents. That is not because they are not trained, or they are doing it to spite you. It is just a gut reaction. The same is true for a dog. If you see your dog is having accidents and exhibiting some of the behavior above, the dog is not acting out. They are just scared. Bear with them and remember that these accidents are an underlying symptom of a greater fear. Get to the bottom of that fear, and the accidents will subside.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. I love to compare dogs to humans. Mostly because, I think there are so many similarities between them. Ever see an expecting parent pacing in the waiting room? Or a nervous kid about to go into a sporting event? Do you ever see them walking back and forth continuously right up until the big moment? They are pacing! They are pacing because they are nervous. The same is true for dogs. If you notice your dog pacing around the house more than normal, it may be a sign your dog is nervous or fearful of something.
Now, this is an important one. Ever have a destructive puppy? No, they are not a bad dog! In most cases, they either have too much energy that you are not helping them use, or they are scared. If you are exercising your dog a lot, and still notice that they become destructive in certain situations (perhaps during thunderstorms), then it is probably a fear mechanism.
Do not give up on your dog because of this. This, along with accidents, are things that can be treated so easily once you understand the why behind them. If your dog is afraid of thunderstorms, take the steps needed to calm them down. You will never guess what will happen next. They won’t feel the need to be destructive, because they are calm! Crazy! I know.
Separation anxiety is a real issue that occurs with dogs. Especially dogs that have been taken by their mothers too early. When they have this or a similar fear, they latch onto a person that makes them feel safe. If you notice your dog following you around, whining and panicking when you leave, then you probably have a scared dog.
Finally, a panting dog could mean one of a few things. They could be thirsty, or they could be tired from running around. If your dog is not thirsty and has not been running around a lot, then your dog is probably trying to tell you that they are scared.
How to Help a Scared Dog
Once you have identified that your dog is scared, what’s next? Do you just give up on the dog? Do you return them back to the shelter? No! Absolutely not! Take the thought out of your mind right this second! If there is one thing that boils my blood, is when people give up on their pets.
You decided to get a pet, that means that it is your job to stick with them through thick and thin. That means fears, accidents, and health concerns. You don’t give up on your children when life gets tough, the same should be true for your dogs. I could talk for hours about this topic, but for the sake of this post, I’ll try and keep it short.
Back to the topic, you’ve identified that your puppy is scared. What the correct thing to do next is to take a step back and watch your puppy. If they are only scared at certain times, what the times that they are scared. Document it for a few days so you can figure out the root cause of the fear. If they are fearful all of the time, talk to the shelter about their history. There is a strong possibility that there was some level of abuse or trauma that occurred if they are constantly fearful.
Next, you want to actually try and fix the fear. Let’s say your dog is terrified of thunderstorms. What can you do? Well, you could always get them a thunder jacket, like this one. There are a lot of dogs that have fears of thunderstorms. So many, in fact, that a company invented a jacket that slightly squeezes them to feel safe.
If you notice your dog tends to be afraid of a certain person, or a certain gender, then there is probably some past history with a similar person. This is where the most important factor comes in, patience. You have to be patient with your dog.
Once you figure out why your dog is fearful, you should be patient with your puppy getting past it. Continue to shower your dog with love and let them know you are not going to give up on them. Sometimes time is the best help in making your puppy feel safe with you.
One great example I recently saw was there was a dog that was terrified that came into the shelter. So scared of humans that she was afraid to eat. After an entire day of not eating, the volunteers started to get worried about the dog. They left food out, secluded her, tried almost everything to get this dog to eat.
When nothing worked, one volunteer had a brilliant idea. He put his food in a dog bowl (clean, obviously), and brought some dog food in another dog bowl. He placed the dog food bowl on the ground next to him. The volunteer continued to eat his food, kept a calm attitude and almost ignored the dog.
You will never guess what happened next, the dog began to eat! The volunteer kept calm and continues to eat and as he did so, the dog continued to eat as well. The thing was, the dog was so afraid and saw people keep staring at her. The staring scared her even more which made her even more afraid to eat. All it took was someone being patient and trying something new.
If you are working on helping a fearful dog, and time does not seem to be helping, you can always try working on some obedience training. Sometimes fear can be a lack of discipline. You can try teaching some basic commands to help build their confidence. Sit, stand, heel are great commands that help teach dogs to be more confident and have more structure. It is always important to follow up commands with praise and/or treats.
After trying time, patience, and training, if the fear still has not subsided then I may be wise to seek out a professional’s opinion. Sometimes expert dog trainers can help even the most fearful dog become more confident. Or a visit to the vet could help explain a great deal of fear.
There is a large amount of disagreement on whether dogs should be medicated. I usually like to apply the same thought process on dogs as I do on humans. Have you tried everything else? Will the medicine make the dog (or human) feel better and give them a better quality of life? If the answer to both of those is yes, then maybe medicine would be good to help keep your dog calm.
Every dog is different, which means ever fear is different. Unfortunately, that also means that every treatment for said phobias will be different. You cannot give up after trying one thing. What works for one dog, may not work for another.
Scared dogs are not something that should be feared. If you are able to educate yourself on the signs your puppy is scared, you will be able to prepare yourself to help them. A fearful dog should not be an animal that is passed up for adoption at shelters. Or worse, a family member that should be given up on.
You would not give up on a member of your family if they were going through something traumatic. The same should be true for your dog. If he or she is fearful, there is usually a reason behind it. Having them as a member of your family means it is your job to understand why they are fearful. Once you are able to identify their fearful behavior, you will be more likely to help them get past those fears.
A fearful dog is not a happy dog, but that doesn’t mean a fearful dog cannot become a happy dog. If you take anything from this post, think about this. If your dog is scared, that is not a reason to give up on them. Fear is a real thing in not only humans, but animals alike.