Signs and Symptoms of Fear in Dogs

Knowing When Your Dog Is Afraid

White dog hiding behind bed (differential focus)
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Knowing the signs and symptoms of a fearful dog can help you address his fears and phobias before they escalate. Keep the following signs of fear in mind so you can easily catch on to even the slightest hint that your dog is anxious and stressed about something in his environment.

Body Language

Dogs communicate using body language. Gestures such as bared teeth or a wagging tail are some of the more obvious ways dogs communicate through body language.

However, some of a dog's body language is more subtle. The following is a list of signs to look out for to determine when your dog is feeling fear:

  • Flattened ears
  • Tail tucked between the hind legs
  • Cowering
  • Lip licking
  • Yawning
  • Raised hair on the back of the neck

Behaviors of a Fearful Dog

In addition to showing fear through body language, some dogs exhibit specific behaviors when they are afraid. The following behaviors are symptoms that a dog is feeling fearful and anxious:

Physical Symptoms

When a dog is fearful, he may also exhibit some physical signs that it is unable to control. The following are some of the physiological symptoms a fearful dog may exhibit:

  • Drooling
  • Panting
  • Trembling
  • Dilated pupils or seeing the whites of a dog's eyes
  • Loss of control over bowels or bladder

Treating Fearful Dogs

There remains some disagreement among animal professionals about the best way to treat fear in dogs.

This symptom, incidentally, is often the most difficult problem to treat when rehabilitating (and giving a home to) shelter animals, many of whom have been physically abused. 

Somewhat fearful dogs can probably be treated by loving owners without professional help, although patience is a necessity, as is an understanding of the dog's reality.

Sometimes it's difficult to keep in mind that a dog who runs away from a welcoming owner is genuinely afraid. One widely agreed-upon strategy is to give such a dog as much space as you can. Distracting the dog with obedience commands sometimes works. Treats are usually helpful. Punishing a dog who has committed some act of aggression or engaged in destructive behavior is rarely successful. In a sense, a fearful dog expects to be punished. That's why it's fearful and that's the connection you need to break without punishment. 

Greatly fearful dogs probably require professional help. Good obedience training schools for dogs go far beyond obedience issues and are better qualified than even the most loving owner (this can sometimes be a little hard to admit) to retrain a greatly fearful dog. In many cases, the outcome will be an improvement, not total rehabilitation. 

Although many dog owners resist the use of medications to treat fear in dogs, dog professionals usually allow that for certain dogs who are unable to respond to behavioral approaches alone, appropriate medications to reduce anxiety can be helpful. Medication alone, of course, solves very little, but it may be the best way to reduce your dog's anxiety and fear to a point where behavioral approaches can work.

A good overview of the veterinary approach to extreme dog anxiety and fear can be found here, along with a list of some commonly used antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications prescribed for dogs.

Edited by Jenna Stregowski, RVT