Fears and Phobias in Dogs: Animals and People

By Ellen Lindell, VDM, DACVB; Kenneth Martin, DVM, Diplomate, ACVB; Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM

For more information on fear and phobias, also see the handout on “Fears, Phobias, and Anxiety in Cats and Dogs”.

Why is my dog afraid of people and/or other animals?

A dog may develop a fear-based response toward people or other animals for several reasons.

  • Inadequate socialization. Puppies between 3 and 14 weeks of age are behaviorally flexible and prepared to accept novelty, including new people and animals. This developmental period is known as the sensitive period for socialization. Without adequate positive interactions with people and other animals during this time, dogs may develop fear and phobic reactions. It is important to introduce puppies to people of all ages, colors, and sizes and to dogs of assorted sizes, colors, and breeds. Puppies also benefit from meeting animals of any other species that they might encounter as adults. It is critical that socialization experiences be provided gently and occur at a puppy’s own pace. A negative socialization experience can contribute to a long-lasting fear. 
  • Emotionally traumatic experience. Dogs frightened by a person or animal may develop long-lasting fear. A single negative or traumatic experience may induce a profound fear of the trigger or could generalize to fear of related or unrelated triggers. Some dogs are particularly sensitive to social threats and react to innocuous triggers such as a child suddenly laughing or reaching to give the dog a pet. One such negative experience with a small child could trigger a fear of all small children. Fear can be exacerbated if a dog is scolded or punished during a social interaction. For example, if a dog is scolded for jumping up or for trying to hide or flee, then he may pair the stimulus (the scary person or other animal) with the unpleasant consequence (being scolded). This is especially true when corrections are implemented with devices such as choke collars, pinch collars, or electronic shock collars that are meant to cause physical discomfort or fear.
  • Genetic predisposition. Dogs may have a genetic predisposition to developing fear or phobic responses during different life stages. 
  • Early environmental influences. The behavior and nutrition of a puppy’s mother as well as the quality of the puppy’s diet during the weeks after birth can influence a puppy’s future behavior. 
  • Medical conditions. Fear and phobic behavior can develop due to pain, inadequate nutrition, medication that affects the brain or gastrointestinal tract, and/or underlying medical conditions. Though dogs of all ages can be affected by medical conditions, senior dogs are particularly prone to pain related to osteoarthritis, changes in vision and hearing, and altered cognitive ability - all of which can contribute to the development of fearful behavior.

Can I prevent fears and phobias from developing?

As mentioned above, proper socialization is the cornerstone to raising a dog that is comfortable with people and animals. Early, frequent, and pleasant encounters with a variety of people can help prevent fears later in life. It is also important to familiarize your puppy with many different environments, sights, and sounds. Socialization experiences should be arranged at least twice weekly until your puppy is 16 weeks of age. Then, weekly positive social interactions should continue for at least another year.

Socialization experiences are only beneficial if your dog is enjoying herself and is not overwhelmed. Bring delicious treats and toys along. Keep sessions short and provide frequent breaks.

When introducing your dog to a new person, always give her a choice: allow her to refrain from interacting. If you notice any sign of fear, such as refusing food, trembling, cowering, or trying to escape, discontinue the interaction.

What are the signs that my dog is afraid of a person or animal?

Fear is associated with classic behaviors: fight, flight, freeze, and fidget. When introduced to a stranger or new animal, a fearful dog may cower, roll onto her back, look away, tuck her tail, lick her lips, tremble, pant, or try to hide behind you. If the threat remains close and she cannot escape, she may snap or lunge (fight). Some dogs raise their hackles (hair on their back) when they are frightened.

Fearful dogs often stiffen to indicate their discomfort during social interactions such as greetings. For example, your dog may stiffen (freeze) when a person begins to pet her or when another dog sniffs her. In fact, a stiff posture may be your dog’s attempt to communicate her desire to end the interaction. If the interaction continues (the person keeps petting or the other dog keeps sniffing), your dog could spring up and run away (take flight) or growl and snap (fight).

What can I do if my dog begins to show fear or phobic responses to people or animals?

Dogs that are very frightened of people or animals should be treated by a qualified professional as soon as the fear is recognized. Fear-based responses can escalate quickly if dogs do not experience relief. A dog that has repeatedly attempted to avoid social interactions by using safe, low-level signals (e.g., cowering or retreating) could begin to growl or lunge in anticipation of a possible interaction.

"Fear-based responses can escalate quickly if dogs do not experience relief."

The first step is to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian so they can identify and treat any underlying medical conditions. Your veterinarian can also evaluate the level of your dog’s fear and then create a behavioral treatment plan or refer you to a board-certified veterinary behaviorist or certified applied animal behaviorist.

How can I treat my fearful dog?

  • First, identify interactions that trigger the fear response in your dog. It is important to try to avoid those triggers until treatment has progressed.
    • Does your dog react upon seeing a person or dog? Or does she only react if the person gets close or tries to pet her?
    • Are there certain common traits about people (children, people with hats) or dogs (large, energetic, white) that trigger fear? 
  • If encountering people or dogs on walks triggers fear, arrange walks at off-peak hours and do not invite your dog to greet them. Do not try to hold your dog steady to force a greeting.
  • If your dog does appear frightened, try to retreat. If retreat is not possible, stand quietly until the danger has passed. It is fine to gently pet your dog but avoid excessive consoling. Do your best to remain calmly cheerful.
  • Carry delicious treats on walks. If your dog is very food motivated, you can use the technique of classical conditioning. That is, pair something scary (a person) with something wonderful (a treat). By giving your dog a treat whenever a person appears, your dog can form a positive association with seeing people.
  • If your dog is too frightened to accept food when a person or dog is near, then do not force her to eat. Instead, you will use the technique of desensitization and counterconditioning. During desensitization, the stimulus is introduced very gradually, so your dog always remains calm enough to accept food treats. To prepare you and your dog for desensitization and counterconditioning, your behaviorist will help you set up a gradient based on the specific triggers for your dog’s fear. For example, at first, you will keep enough distance from a person that your dog can see the person yet will continue to take treats from you.
  • Do not punish or scold your frightened dog. She needs to trust that you understand her emotions; if you scold her, she will likely become more fearful of the situation and could even begin to fear being close to you. Punishment may also contribute to the development of aggressive responses.

Can medication be helpful?

For some dogs, behavior modification can be enhanced by adding medications designed to reduce the intensity of fear and anxiety. Since social interactions are an important part of a dog’s life, and because most dogs routinely encounter strangers or other dogs, it can be helpful to use a medication that can be given every day. These medications continually reduce your dog’s daily level of anxiety and may prevent your dog’s fear from escalating if there is an unavoidable encounter with a trigger.

For example, the drugs in the serotonin reuptake inhibitor family are safe for daily administration. For intense fears and phobias, medications from different categories may be combined to enhance their effectiveness. If your dog experiences a very high level of fear, it is beneficial to consult a veterinary behaviorist.

Related Articles