How can I help my fearful dog?

When a dog displays fear, it can be scary or worrisome for any pet parent. Fear is often noticeable when a dog encounters what is referred to as a fear trigger. A trigger can be a person, place, or thing that causes anxiety- usually from underlying factors such as genetic predisposition, inadequate socialization with the fear trigger, or a previous bad experience. Although our pets can’t plainly tell us what is bothering them, we can observe their body language and watch for signs that can show us how to best help them.


When you think your dog may be triggered by something they’re afraid of, follow these steps:

  1. Observe
  2. Stay calm, remove trigger
  3. Make a plan
  4. Keep it positive! 



The first step to helping a fearful dog is identifying what it is that is triggering them. Familiarize yourself with the signs that indicate anxiety and fear. When you notice any of these signs in your dog, take mental stock of their surroundings. What has changed? Is there another person, animal, or a new object in your dog’s environment?

Stay Calm, Remove the Trigger

Observe your dog just long enough to determine what it is that may be triggering their sudden anxiety. Then, calmly remove the trigger, leave the situation, or avert your dog’s attention away from the trigger. Although an anxiety-inducing interaction can be stressful for both you and your dog, it is critical that you remain calm. By remaining calm and confident, you are telling your dog that there is nothing to fear. If you exhibit stress or try to comfort your animal when they are triggered, it only validates their feeling of fear. Removing the trigger from the equation will allow your dog to reset until you have a plan for how to proceed.




Make a Plan

There are several ways to manage your dog’s fear anxiety and help to alleviate their stress. Depending on what the trigger is, any of the following methods can work wonders.

  • Avoidance 
  • Desensitization and Counterconditioning
  • Medical Therapies and Supplements


Does your dog display fear toward something that rarely makes an appearance in their day-to-day? If your dog is stressing about something that is easy to avoid, that can be the simplest way to manage their fear. Be aware of when and where your dog may encounter the thing they are afraid of, and proactively remove or avoid it. At home, creating a safe space where your dog can retreat during times of stress can also help lessen their anxiety response.

My dog is afraid of large cardboard boxes. When he was a puppy, I was settling into our new house and moving and unpacking boxes. During that time, he was just a little guy and he likely associated cardboard with scary noises, lots of movement, and big environmental change. To this day, he will run and hide when he sees a cardboard box (he is now 105 lbs). Now, when a package arrives at my doorstep, I bring it into my room or I unpack it in my garage instead of leaving it where my dog spends most of his time. It’s an easy thing for me to do and keeps my dog feeling safe and relaxed. 

Desensitization and Counterconditioning

There are times when avoiding a trigger is just not realistic or even necessarily good for a dog. For example, if your dog is triggered by items that are meant to keep them safe, i.e. leashes or crates, then desensitization and counterconditioning is the best way to begin working through those fears.

The goal of desensitization is to slowly train your dog to have a relaxed response to an anxiety-provoking trigger. After identifying the anxiety trigger, experiment with finding the lowest intensity of the trigger where no negative behaviors are elicited

Over time, slowly increase the intensity while rewarding a calm, relaxed behavior with food, a toy, or belly rub. With these routine counterconditioning exercises, over time your dog will learn to associate the anxiety trigger with a positive reward rather than anxious feelings.





Medical Therapies and Supplements

A variety of medications, natural supplements, and products can be very helpful in treating anxiety. Some pet parents opt for CBD supplements while others require prescription medication to treat more severe cases. All treatments require a consistent plan and patience. It is best not to introduce too many therapies or jump from one product to the next. This can cause added stress for you and your dog as it often takes time to find what products work best long-term.

Given the numerous options available, it is best to speak with a veterinarian about what products are safest and likely to be the most effective for you and your dog’s unique needs.

Remember: Keep it Positive! 


Whether you have a puppy or an adult dog, it’s important to keep a confident and positive attitude when confronting fear triggers. Your dog follows your lead and takes cues from your behavior, especially during times of stress and uncertainty. Do not scold, yell, exhibit fear, or comfort your dog. Be the essence of calm. As you continue to set the example for your animal, their anxiety will become more manageable and you’ll be on your way to sharing more happy moments with your pup. 

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