An understanding of Fear and its Treatment in Dogs

This text is meant for information purposes only and to be a general overview of fear in dogs. It is not meant to be a tutorial for rehabilitation training of dogs exhibiting fearfulness. It is important to acknowledge that each dog is an individual, and therefore each training program should be approached with individual attention and detail.   

Please feel free to contact me with any questions that you may have concerning your dog’s fearful concerns.


What is fear? Fear is a normal response to a threat or a perceived threat. Being afraid of someone or something that might harm you is productive to the continuance of an individual’s life. When fear becomes intense, generalized or disruptive to a normal or calm and peaceful living it becomes a problem.  What one dog, perceives as a threat may be quite different from what another dog may see as threatening, or what you, the dog’s person might see as a threat. Once acquired, reactions to fear are not easily forgotten, and may intensify with experience. Although fear can help us survive, it can also cause mild to extreme discomfort and disability.  Fear can drastically diminish a dog’s pleasure in life and its activities. Fear can create intense negative associations. Over time, emotional reactions to even mild fear can become stronger if the reactions are not addressed effectively through positive, science-based training methods.

What causes fear? Fear can have many causes or combination of causes, including:

  • Genetics – scientific study’s support that fearfulness (as well as aggression) can be passed down from generation to generation via breeding.
  • Dame/Mother – a puppies first experiences come from and in relation to its mother, both prior to and after birth. Scientific studies support that extreme stress or trauma to a pregnant dame can have a lifelong effect on the puppies.
  • Early socialization – Incomplete or improper socialization in the first 3 months of life can cause for fearfulness as the puppy/dog continues to mature.
  • Later socialization – Socialization does not stop at 3 months. Proper socialization should continue as the puppy continues to mature to continue building upon comfort, familiarity and trust in the world in general.
  • Experiences – Concerning or startling experiences can instill fear. Fear can be learned as a result of an accumulation of events or from the result of “one trail Learning”
  • Environmental stability – Instability in the environment can cause fear This can be from a continually changing environment (changes in schedule, people moving in or out, heightened mood swings exhibited by people with In the environment…), moving from one environment to another – or multiple environments (moving from one home to another, shelter dogs, dogs in foster care, dogs at large on the street …), inconsistency in communication and boundaries, chaotic/hectic environments, as well as loud and yelling households can create fear and/or support fear.
  • Illness – Severe illness or injuries such as parvo or breaking a leg can cause fear. This is not a cause presented by caring and professional veterinary staff, but more so by the trauma of illness or injury.
  • Training – Averse and punitive methods of training contribute to fear. They decrease the dogs’ ability to learn and can associate to the person, environment or other coincidental events present at the time of the punitive or averse training. Punitive and averse training methods might serve to inhibit an unwanted behavior but leave the underlying emotional response unchanged increasing the chance of future will not diminish the cause and/or underlying emotion of the behavior and emotional problems. Punitive and averse training methods induce avoidance and can increase the tendency to aggressive behaviors. Punitive and aversive methods should be avoided in general and never be used when working with a fearful dog.

How does fear manifest itself?  Recognizing signs fear early on is important. When you are able to do this it allows you to remove your dog from a stressful or frightening situation before the fearful reactions escalate to escape or aggression. It also helps you prevent your dog from becoming chronically fearful, which can affect its physical health and emotional well-being. When presented with a fear-provoking situation dogs can either take flight, and move away from the frightening event, or take the fight, and display escalating levels of aggressive behaviors.  It should be noted that most, but not all, aggressive displays in dogs are actually in response to fear.  When assessing fear-related behaviors it is important to look at the behaviors in the context of the environment. A dog sniffing may just be a sniffing, but a dog stopping to sniff each time a person approaches is a sign of discomfort.

Know your dog’s signs of fear:

  • Clinginess
  • Alertness
  • Hiding
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Barking
  • Biting
  • Blinking
  • Squinting
  • Cowering
  • Curling lips
  • Defecation/Urination
  • Flattened or lowered ears
  • Freezing
  • Walking slowly
  • Furrowing brows
  • Growling
  • Hard stare w/dilated pupils
  • Retreating
  • Avoidance/running away
  • Hiding
  • Licking lips
  • Lifting a paw
  • Lips pulled back
  • Tightly closed mouth
  • Mouth pursed forward
  • Mouthing, nipping or snapping
  • Pacing
  • Piloerection (hair standing up/bristling)
  • Refusing treats/food
  • Grabbing at treats/food
  • Rigid forward stance
  • Vocalizing/screaming
  • Self-grooming/licking
  • Shaking off
  • Trembling
  • Sniffing/appearing distracted
  • Sudden heavy shedding
  • Sweat paws
  • Tucked tail
  • Lunging out at/on or off leash
  • Sharp – shy behavior
  • Turning away/C shape
  • Turning head away
  • Whining
  • Whiskers erect
  • Yawning

Fear can be manifested in a wide range of behaviors ranging from retreating and avoidance to lunging and aggression. Differing responses to fear can be learned depending on an individual dog’s general personality and their history of learning.

How do fearful behaviors become established and build? Although fear is an emotion, a reaction to fear and feeling threatened is not under our control, the behavioral manifestations of fear are learned. The scientific “Law of Effects”, states (in the most simple terms] that “A behavior that is met with a favorable outcome will continue to be exhibited in the future in similar situations”, basically, if it works do it again. If a dog is startled by a noise and barks, and the noise goes away, even momentarily, the dog learns that barking makes unpleasant and concerning noises disappear. In such situations, barking may also gain the owners’ attention and support. If a dog retreats and runs away, it is no longer faced with the fear-provoking situation, it is no safe. If a dog growls, and an approaching stranger backs away, the immediate response reinforces growling and the dog learns growling works to make unfamiliar, scary, people leave them alone. As these behavioral manifestations of fear are continuously being self-reinforced by the dog, they continue to be exhibited and strengthen over time and experience. Once developed, a fearful response can be displayed in the absence of the original fear-provoking situation as the events become chained together and the dog’s mind. As an example, if the dog rides in a car only when he goes to the veterinarian, the car ride becomes links with the veterinary visits and exams. The dog now associates cars with the fearful and concerning emotions of going to the veterinarian and is now fearful of going in the car altogether.

Treating Fear It is important to acknowledge that each dog is an individual, and therefore each training program should be approached with individual attention and detail.  Of first and foremost concern when working dogs who suffer from fear is that they feel safe and secure with you and in the environment.

Punitive training methods should never be used with dogs suffering from fear. These methods will only serve to increase fear, anxiety, and distrust, the generalization of fear and anxiety, as well the propensity of aggressive behaviors.

Remember, in working with a dog suffering from fearfulness all training methods should build upon the dog’s sense of safety, security and trust. This trust should include that of the person training/owner as well as the situations that currently provoke fear in the dog. In addition, Flooding, a method of overexposure to the fear-eliciting situation/stimuli should never be used as it, in most cases, only serves to increase the fear and related responses.

Owners of dogs suffering from fear generally focus on the concerning behaviors their dogs are exhibiting. This is understandable as it is the behaviors that are visible, and in many cases causing problems in the relationship, household and the comfort of the dog’s life. The behaviors, though, are a manifestation of the dog’s emotional state of fear. In order to successfully training must address the underlying emotional cause of the concerning behaviors. A properly employed program of Counter Conditioning and Systematic Desensitization is most commonly and successfully used in treating fear. There are many details to consider when engaging in a program of Counter Conditioning and Systematic Desensitization, and the explanation of such details goes far beyond the scope of this informational article. When using these methods detail must be given to thresholds and timing within the application of the training. As details can make or break the success of such a training program it is best to be guided by a qualified professional.

Management is an important part of helping dogs suffering from fear. As fear in its self-causes physiological reactions that can inhibit learning it is important to do all we can to lessen the dog’s exposure to the fear-eliciting situations and give the dog as much comfort and security as possible. Good management will help to relieve some of the fear and related behaviors. It will also help to support a better and more productive learning environment. These products can help:

  • ThunderShirt – The ThunderShirt is a swaddling garment designed for dogs which provides a calm and comforting feeling of security.
  • Calming Cap – The Calming Cap/ ThunderCap from ThunderShirt is a wonderful tool for easing your dog’s anxiety in high-stress situations. The Calming Cap is not a blindfold! The Calming Cap / Thunder Cap is a soft fabric mask that reduces agitating visual stimulation.
  • The Anxiety Wrap – is similar to the ThunderShirt and is designed to provide a calm and comforting feeling of security.
  • Through a Dogs Ear – Clinically-tested music that aids in calming dogs suffering from fear and anxiety
  • White Noise/Fans against the wall to muffle sounds
  • Pharmacology – Your veterinarian is your best source for information
  • L-Theanine an amino acid commonly found in tea. It has been widely studied and has been found to reduce physical an mental stress. It is sold for use in dogs and cats under the brand name Anxittane. It can also be found in specialty “calming” treats.
  • Alpha-Casozepine is derived from a protein in cow’s milk. In preliminary studies, it has shown some promise in the reduction of fear in dogs.
  • Adapltyl Dog Appeasing pheromones. This is a synthetic pheromone produced by a nursing mother dog. It is intended to induce calm and secure behavioral state.


This text is meant for information purposes only and to be a general overview of fear in dogs. It is not meant to be a tutorial for rehabilitation training of dogs exhibiting fearfulness. It is important to acknowledge that each dog is an individual, and therefore each training program should be approached with individual attention and detail.   

Please feel free to contact me with any questions that you may have concerning your dog’s fearful concerns.