Why Do Dogs That Weren’t Abused Develop Fear / Anxiety?

When a rescue dog is afraid of certain people or objects, it is often assumed that he was traumatized by a similar thing in his past. While this could very well be true, there are other dogs who’ve been raised from puppyhood and still develop irrational fears, despite being loved their entire lives. This can get pet parents upset and frustrated, wondering, “Did I do something wrong?”

If this sounds like you, don’t be hard on yourself. The fact is, having infinitive love for your dog and making sure all his needs are more than met isn’t always enough to prevent some fears and anxieties from manifesting. One loud noise that frightens your dog as a puppy or one altercation with another pup at the dog park can leave them traumatized. You can’t always prevent scary accidents from happening, but luckily, there are things you can do to help ease your dog’s anxiety!

Reasons Your Dog May Be Fearful or Anxious:

1. The Fear is Getting Rewarded

When you try to comfort your trembling canine, you may actually be accidentally rewarding their fear. According to Caesar’s Way:

By comforting a fearful dog, you are rewarding what it’s doing in that moment: being scared. You cannot explain to a dog why it shouldn’t be scared, or tell the dog that the frightening thing won’t hurt it or is going away soon — they do not have the cognitive abilities to understand those concepts. What they do understand is, ‘I’m terrified and it’s getting me a reward. My human wants me to do this.’

2. They Need a Calm Leader

The site also explains that, because our dogs are so closely bonded with us, they often mirror our example. If they see us being calm in the situation they find scary, they are much more likely to follow our lead. On the contrary, if we are panicked and nervous, chances are, they will reflect those emotions.

3. Genetics Plays a Role

A dog may be predisposed to anxiety because of his or her genetics. PetCareRx explains that certain breeds, particularly those that are intelligent and energetic, are more likely to suffer from anxiety (including separation anxiety). The site says:

Dog breeds that are most disposed to canine anxiety include: Bernese Mountain dogs, Basset Hounds, Cocker Spaniels, German Shepherds, Dalmatians, Great Pyrenees, Pekingese, Siberian Huskies, Standard Poodles, and some Terrier breeds.

4. Lack of Socialization

This may be the most common culprit to irrational canine fear. The best time to socialize dogs is between 7 weeks and 4 months of age, a time when they are impressionable and learning about the world. Your dog may be apprehensive around certain people (for instance, lots of dogs are afraid of men) or objects (such as the vacuum), simply because they weren’t familiarized with them at a young age. The fear grows and solidifies; when they avoid those certain people or objects, they remain safe, right? At least, that’s what makes sense in the mind of your dog.

How You Can Help

1. Don’t Reward Fear

It’s our natural instinct to soothe those around us who are anxious, but as mentioned earlier, it can encourage fearful behavior in dogs by rewarding it. Often, we say “it’s okay” to calm others who are nervous, even our dogs. But unlike humans, our pups start to associate tise phrase with scary things, since you always say it when their trigger is around. That’s how hearing “it’s okay” can make your dog more anxious.

It may be a difficult habit to break, but ignoring your dog’s fearful behavior and giving them clear instruction (see below) is the best course of action.

2. Be a Leader

Your dog looks to you to guide them. They need a strong leader who shows them that everything is going to be fine. First and foremost, you should always remain calm in situations that invoke fear in your dog. Giving assertive instruction can help, too; for instance, if your dog fears other dogs you pass on your walk, keep him at a distance where he’s comfortable, and instruct him to “sit.” This way, he has an alternate behavior to practice instead of panicking, and he knows you’ve got everything under control.

3. Socialize

If you’re reading this and just got a puppy or are planning on adopting one, you’re in luck: this knowledge will help you socialize your pup and encourage them to grow up to be confident and well-adjusted. When socializing, it’s important to let your dog have positive interactions with people of all sizes, ages, genders, ethnicities, etc., so they don’t develop irrational “fears of the unknown.” (This may mean only bringing them around people and pets you trust at first so you can make sure they have good experiences.) It’s also wise to introduce them to many different settings and objects, where they learn that new things are fun and interesting. But if your dog is already grown, it’s not too late; you can still socialize your adult dog.

4. Change the Association

When you’ve narrowed down your dog’s fear, you can work on changing the association in your dog’s mind. Men are nice. Vacuums aren’t scary. Car rides are fun. Start with your dog at a comfortable distance from the fear stimulus, and give him treats. Over time, keep moving him closer; no fear reaction leads to more treats! If he starts to show signs of fear, back up again until he’s comfortable. Save special treats and toys for instances that make your dog nervous, like being left home alone or getting a bath. For specific training advice, check out the articles below:

Have you helped your dog overcome a fear? How did you do it? Share with us in the comments below! 


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