Fearful Behaviors in Dogs

Learn about causes and corrective actions for dog fear.

Fearful Behaviors in Dogs

Signs of Fearful Behaviors in Dogs

  • Destructive behaviors; avoiding human touch
  • Cowering or "freaking out" at loud noises or in new situations
  • Excessive aimless sniffing, panting, yawning and/or pacing
  • Lunging, barking and growling at approaching people or dogs
  • Backing away, trembling, looking for escape, growling, hackling (raised fur on neck/back) and possibly biting

Causes and Corrective Actions for Dog Fear


Mental or physical abuse and general neglect can leave a dog fearful of humans.

ABUSE/NEGLECT Corrective Actions: For the formerly severely abused dog or if the dog shows aggression, enlist a professional trainer's help. For the non-aggressive case, introduce kindly enforced rules that let the dog know what to expect and thus gain a feeling of security. Work positive obedience training to instill the dog with confidence in himself, in you and to strengthen bond between you. Never permit people to force attention on the dog, initially socialize dog "around" people who purposely ignore him, once dog visibly relaxes ask people to toss treats in dog's direction — slowly work toward a comfortable and safe tolerance with people, understanding that the abused dog may never be friendly.


Some dogs possess a genetic predisposition toward fearful behavior, a trait often evident in the dog's parents and/or grandparents.

Lack of Socialization

A dog who lacked early exposure to people, other puppies, friendly adult dogs, different sounds, various environments and the world in general often ends up with a fearful attitude outside the most familiar environment.

GENETICS, LACK OF SOCIALIZATION Corrective Actions:  If necessary work with a professional to train the genetically fearful or under-socialized dog using positive obedience training methods to increase confidence and allow alternative "focused" behaviors the dog can perform in lieu of acting fearful, such as Sit or Down. Follow a slow, steady socialization schedule that gradually exposes your dog to life. Teach dog tricks and/or agility with clicker training or another positive method as these fun activities greatly increase confidence. Approach rehabilitation with fair expectations — a dog who genetically lacks solid nerves or received inadequate socialization while young may never become friendly, but can usually learn safe tolerance around people and dogs.


The dog who lunges, barks and growls at approaching people or dogs may do so out of aggression, but most reactive dogs respond this way from fear and have learned their aggressive-appearing reaction makes "scary" things go away.

REACTIVENESS Corrective Actions: Work with a trainer to employ "counter conditioning" to train dog to perform an acceptable alternative behavior and desensitize him to triggering stimuli through gradual exposure and pleasant association. Do not reassure the reactive dog with a sympathetic tone as most dogs interpret this as praise and/or weakness on the "leader's" part in what the dog considers a threatening situation. Avoid harsh corrections as this coupled with the dog's already reactive state can unnecessarily provoke aggression.

Separation Anxiety

This common problem stems from the dog's fear, or anxiety, at being left behind from the "pack," or family and often results in destructiveness, escape attempts and other problem behaviors.

SEPARATION ANXIETY Corrective Actions: Consistent attempts to escape confinement due to noise sensitivity or separation anxiety require help from an experienced trainer to help dog feel confident while alone and to desensitize him to noise through training and management.

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gabey   Glendale, AZ

5/7/2013 8:26:30 AM

I adopted a chihuahua in November,,2012,also have 2 small dogs. The
dog is so fearful no matter what I do. I am at the point of giving him
He just lies around. Tried using leash and this helps him stay with
But he will not interact with the other 2 dogs, and unfortunately they go
him barking. He runs away all the time.

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liantsim   Waterloo, IA

4/12/2013 9:54:08 AM

Useful suggestions

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Anchor   Plant City,

2/19/2013 4:54:33 PM

Great article!!

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Melian and Tiny   Etna, CA

12/10/2012 11:46:56 PM

Good points to remember

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