How to Help a Fearful Dog Gain Confidence


It is heartbreaking to see our canine friend suffer because of fear. We would like to see our dog have the confidence and security to face fearful situations.

Here you will learn about the causes and signs needed to identify the fears of your dog and take the necessary actions to help him.

This will allow you to know how to help a fearful dog gain confidence to face difficult and stressful situations so he can have a full and happy life.

Common Causes of Fear in Dogs

There can be many reasons why a dog is shy. Dogs can be afraid of a variety of things and situations. Several factors can contribute to the development of fear.

Causes of fear vary from dog to dog. There are times when it can have a single cause or be the combination of several causes. The most common are lack of socialization, negative experiences and genetic predisposition.

Lack of Socialization

The lack of socialization from an early age is one of the most common causes of fear in many shy dogs.

Between 8 and 16 weeks of age, it is essential for the development of a puppy to be exposed to new situations and things.

When they are deprived of spaces where they can socialize with other people and also be in contact with different environments and situations, they are more likely to develop fears. This makes it harder for them to handle new things during their life.

Socialization helps them develop self-confidence and be able to cope better with unsettling situations.

Negative Experiences

IIt is common for a dog to relate a situation, a person or something with a negative and traumatic experience. This association can cause him to develop specific fears.

It’s worth mentioning that some dogs are more sensitive than others. There are cases of dogs that are severely abused by people and do not develop any fear. But, at the same time, some dogs may have one bad experience with a person, and this can cause them to develop a fear of strangers.

Genetic Predisposition

Genetic factors influence a dog’s personality traits. Some dogs are genetically predisposed to be more timid and anxious. Even some dog breeds have the tendency to be more shy or fearful than others.

Usually, when a dog is genetically predisposed, they tend to be more scared of a variety of situations and things instead of just one.

Common Dog Fears

Some of the most common things that dogs fear are:

Signs of Fear in Dogs

Signs of Fear in Dogs

To help a fearful dog, it is necessary to be able to identify when your dog is afraid.

It is essential as a dog owner to know the signs and behaviors that your dog manifests when he is scared. This will allow you to help him and handle situations that scare him or make him anxious before they escalate.

Although each dog is different and manifests his fear differently, some of the most common body language and behaviors of fear in dogs are:

  • Submissive posture. A submissive posture is a common expression of fear. It is mainly visible when your dog keeps his head down, his ears flat and his tail tucked between his legs.
  • Yawning. Dogs, when they are tense, tend to yawn a lot. Yawning is a way to try to calm themselves and release tension. Don’t confuse this type of yawn with being sleepy.
  • Panting. When a dog is nervous or tense, he usually pants a lot even though he hasn’t exercised. This panting is similar to when a human breathes fast in a situation that causes him fear.
  • Shaking. Some dogs shake when they are anxious. This tremor is more evident on the hind legs. Although small dogs can tremble throughout their body.
  • Growling and Barking. Although commonly perceived as aggressiveness, a dog that feels insecure and afraid, growls and barks with the intention of keeping the object of his fear away.
  • Submissive Urination. Some dogs usually express their fear by urinating, even if it’s a few drops. This is more common in very sensitive dogs or in those that have been previously mistreated.
  • Biting. When a dog feels threatened and cornered, he may bite out of fear. This bite is usually fast, he bites and moves away.
  • Pacing. When a dog doesn’t stay still or walk nervously, it is usually a manifestation of fear. Running around or pacing can help release the tension he feels.
  • Clinging. It is a more common behavior in puppies than in adult dogs. But often, when dogs feel fear, tend to go to their owner to calm down and seek safety.
  • Lip licking. If it doesn’t happen when a dog sees food or a delicious treat, it may be a sign that he is nervous or scared by some specific situation. It’s a self-calming behavior in situations of stress.
  • Refusal to take treats. Generally, many dogs, when they are terrified, lose their appetite and refuse to accept food treats, even if they are their favorite. Although some, because of fear, would take them but swallow them quickly.

How to Build Confidence in an Insecure Dog

Puppies Playing

Building you Dog’s Confidence From an Early Age

Socialization from an early age is the most critical factor for your dog to grow up as a confident animal. This will allow him to better manage the diversity of situations and things throughout his life.

This means exposing your pet to a diversity of experiences, places, and situations from an early age.

We must expose our shy dog safely and pleasantly to all kinds of stimuli. This goes from dealing with strange people, from children to strangers; expose them to a variety of places, from different streets to friends’ houses; and even expose him to various situations such as traveling in a car and playing in a dog park.

Although socialization allows you to raise a more confident dog and prevent him from growing up as a scared dog, there will always be the possibility that one subsequent event will cause him to develop a particular fear.

Helping Dogs Overcome Their Fears

Identify The Triggers

The first thing to help your shy dog handle his fears and build confidence is to identify what scares him specifically.

Shy dogs can be afraid of different things. Some are afraid of people in general, while others are afraid of some specific people. It can depend on what they are wearing, how they talk or if they are children or adults.

He may also be afraid of other animals or pets, as well as some specific sounds, places or situations.

It’s important to take note of all the things that scares him. You also have to take into account how he reacts and expresses his fear.

It’s difficult to help your shy dog until you know how your dog reacts to a stimulus that is scary for him. Identify the emotion your dog is feeling and his reaction will help you recognize and handle better the situation and take more assertive actions.

How to Make a Scared Dog Feel Safe

Knowing and identifying what scares your dog allows you to do things to minimize his fear. It allows you to avoid putting him in situations where he panics, and he can reinforce his fear.

Controlling his environment helps in the early stages to prevent situations that cause fear while he gains confidence and feels more comfortable and safe.

This does not solve the problem. But it helps to lower your dog’s stress and create an atmosphere where he can feel more secure and have a more favorable and comfortable environment to deal better with the problem.

It will be different with each dog, depending on the fears he has. For example, for a dog that is afraid of strangers, you can avoid areas with a lot of people or, when a stranger goes towards you and your dog, change direction to distance yourself and avoid the stranger.

On the other hand, it is important that your dog has a safe place in your home where he feels comfortable and protected, and can retreat when he feels insecure.

They usually prefer closed places such as their create, under the bed or a table, or inside a closet. If possible, make the place as comfortable as possible. You can put a dog bed or some comfortable blanket.

For a shy dog, it also helps a lot to feel safe having a consistent daily routine. When your dog knows what to expect during the day, it helps him feel less anxious and safer.

There is also music specifically designed for dogs that can help calm and relax fearful or anxious dogs. It may help to leave it on during periods that your dog is left alone or use it in situations where begins to feel anxious for any reason.

Training Helps Build Confidence

Dog training is excellent to help a fearful dog build confidence. If possible, taking basic obedience classes helps a lot.

The basic dog training exercises such as “sit”, “down”, “stay” and “come” are good to start with. These commands will help you to handle the situations better when a dog is desensitized, as we will see below.

Training helps establish your leadership and build a relationship of trust between your dog and you.

It is necessary that your dog learn and reinforce his trust in you. For this, the training has to be fun for him. You always have to use positive reinforcement with treats, toys or praise to motivate and reward.

Training also helps improve communication between your pet and you. This communication is essential when you deal with a scared dog.

Counterconditioning and Desensitization

One way to help your dog overcome his fears is through what dog trainers know as counterconditioning and desensitization. It is used mainly to change negative behaviors, especially in fearful and aggressive dogs.

This method consists in exposing a fearful dog, slowly and gradually, to the things and situations that cause him fear and make him start associating them with good and positive things.

It’s essential that the scary stimulus that cause him fear, remain at a very low intensity to prevent your dog from panicking and trying to run away.

In these cases, distance is your best ally. If you notice that your dog begins to show signs or behaviors of fear, walk away from the trigger to a distance where your dog feels calmer and relaxed.

That is why it is essential first to identify the stimuli to find ways to lower their intensity and be able to handle them.

It’s necessary to start with situations that are easy to manage.

If your dog is afraid of other dogs, find your dog’s safe zone, a place at a distance from another dog where he feels calm and shows no signs of fear.

As soon as he sees the dog, ask him to sit down and look at you. Give him high value treats while he is calm.

While he remains calm, slowly and gradually decreases the distance between him and the other dog. In case the dog gets out of sight, stop giving the treats.

Be careful not to go to the next level and decrease the distance until your dog shows that he is waiting for good things to happen, such as those delicious treats. You have to let the dog set the pace.

This exercise will help your fearful dog begin to relate the trigger of the fear with positive things.

Desensitizing a fearful dog to things that scare him takes time and patience. Fear is an emotional response, and it is a challenge to overcome it. But it can be done.

What Not to Do with a Fearful Dog

Scared Pup

Don’t Force Your Dog

Some people think that you have to force a dog to face his fears so he can overcome them. But this doesn’t work like that. It can actually reinforce and even increase anxiety.

As I mentioned before, you should always let the dog set the pace. You always have to avoid your dog to panic. The more negative experiences he has with something, the harder it will be to overcome them.

Don’t Reward Fear with Affection

For a dog, manifestations of affection such as hugs and petting are perceived as a reward. If each time he feels scared is rewarded with affection, will begin to associate fear with the reward.

If your dog feels that he is rewarded for being scared, this can cause the fear to be reinforced instead of helping him to handle it.

Don’t Punish Your Dog

Hitting, screaming or any other type of punishment does not help your fearful and nervous dog overcome his fears and build confidence. It actually makes the situation worse and may make him more afraid.

To be able to help your dog build confidence, it is crucial that your dog feels safe and have trust in you.

Final Thoughts

Helping a dog boost his confidence can take a long time. It is even common that, in some cases, it can not be overcome entirely, although it’s possible to help him manage fearful situations better.

That is why it’s important and necessary to be patient. You have to be clear that it is possible to help your pet and that your dog can have a healthy and happy life.

It’s also important to recognize that there are cases in which it is advisable to seek the help of a Certified Dog Trainer or Animal Behavior Consultant.