Five Things NOT To Do When Your Dog Is Afraid

Knowing What Not To Do When Your Dog Is Afraid Lets You Be Smart About Managing Your Dog’s Fears

close shot of dog looking worried

You have the best intentions. You want to help your dog get over being scared.

Maybe she barks at a visitor, so you encourage the visitor to approach and “make friends”.

Or, maybe your dog seems afraid of other dogs, so you take her to a crowded dog park so she can “get used to” being around strange dogs.

What if your dog growls at someone and then you punish her for misbehaving.

In each case, the way you managed your dog’s fear increased the dog’s anxiety and prolonged it;  it did not relieve it.

What should you do when your dog is afraid?

Fear is a powerful emotion that can be overwhelming.  Your dog’s emotion can show up looking like fear (retreating, trembling) or it can look like aggression (growling, barking). Either way, the most helpful thing you can do is to first accept that your dog’s behavior is caused by fear.  Then you can address the source instead of just reacting to the symptom.

fearful dog barking

There are five things you should NEVER do if your dog is afraid.  The best course of action is often counterintuitive, so you must know what to do first and then be prepared to act in your dog’s best interests.

Five things you should NEVER do when your dog is afraid:

  1. Don’t Ignore It.  

    Don’t ignore the problem and wait for the dog to “grow out of it” because fearful behaviors that are repeated and practiced will soon become habits.  We know that replacing a harmful habit takes lots of time and patience.  You can’t completely eliminate a harmful habit, but you can replace it with a beneficial habit.  Under stress, however, the old habit could surface again.  So do not put off taking action. Treat your dog’s fear by using positive behavior modification methods without delay.  It could save both of you unnecessary heartache in the future. Consult a professional trainer for expert help with this.dog showing signs of stress

  2. Don’t Deny It.

    Don’t deny what your dog is really telling you about how she feels by reacting with anger or frustration. Believe your dog when she shows you she is feeling afraid, respect her feelings, and then do whatever you need to do so that you help her to feel safe again. The most important thing to do immediately is to allow her to get a safe distance from the thing or person she fears. Why she’s afraid doesn’t matter now.  Feeling safe by moving away until she’s comfortable is the only thing that will bring some relief. It isn’t a solution, but it’s a start. She depends on you for support. Punishing her for being afraid is the worst possible reaction.

  3. Don’t Undermine Trust. 

    Don’t undermine your dog’s trust in you by forcing her to experience the full intensity of the thing she fears. If she’s afraid of kids, inviting a bunch of kids to pet her would be a very bad idea.  Think of it this way.  If you were afraid of snakes, for example, and somebody locked you in a room full of snakes, would you be cured of your fear?  Would you start to love being with lots of snakes? And how would you feel about trusting the person who locked you in the room? In the same way, if you force your dog into a bad situation, how can she trust you in the future?two dogs afraid

  4. Don’t Rush It. 

    Don’t expect a “quick fix” or a complete “cure” since emotional reactions can become habits that are lifelong. Replacing a harmful habit with a new habit that’s beneficial requires a technique known in psychology as counterconditioning and desensitization. Once a fearful reaction has become a habit it’s automatic.  You can’t eliminate a habit; you can only override it with a new habit that’s opposite to the old one.  It’s a gradual process and there aren’t any shortcuts. You’ll need some professional advice to get this right.

  5. Don’t Take Bad Advice.   

Don’t take advice from people who don’t know what they are talking about. You can spot such persons by paying close attention to the meaning behind their words.  If they say your dog “is getting away with” something or acting “dominant”, ignore their advice. When a person suggests that you should “get tough” or make your dog “face it and get over it”, you know you’re talking to someone who knows a lot less than you do about dogs. Even if it’s a “trainer” who has an attitude like that, do NOT believe or hire that person – they will damage your dog instead of helping.

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