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Diamonds in the Ruff

Helping Your Worried Dog

Why is he afraid?  It probably started before he came to live with you. 

There is genetics.  Heredity has a lot to do with a puppy's ability to handle stress.  Aloof, sensitive and cautious parents often have worried puppies. 

Stress in utero.  The mother's stress affects her pups before they are born.

Most often it isn't a bad experience, it's lack of life-experience.
Early and ongoing socialization during the critical socialization period of 3-12 weeks is key to having a dog who is confident and comfortable in new situations. It empowers puppies to learn about the world and become comfortable with all the sights and sounds and beings in it.


There are many reasons that a puppy might not have had a rich and varied early puppyhood. Perhaps the puppy was:  


  • Born during COVID, when people were “sheltered in place” and activities cancelled

  • Ill or injured - leaving home only for treatment at the vet.

  • Came from a puppy mill, hoarding case, or irresponsible backyard breeder who was raising dogs just for the money and didn’t bother with socialization.

  • Part of a large litter, multiple litters, or living with a breeder who became ill and was unable to give the puppies individual attention.

Fearful - dumb friends league.jpg

The most common cause of poor socialization is puppies who are born in the fall

During the primary socialization window, winter days are short and it it's too cold for backyard barbecues and long walks in the park or road trips.  There are no farmers' markets or soft ball games to take the puppy to.  He didn't go to enough places, experience enough novel sights and sounds, or meet enough varieties of people or animals. 


Another all-too-common reason is someone warned the puppy owner to "keep the puppy home until it had all of its shots" out of fear of illness.  After 20 weeks (5 months), when the dog’s vaccinations are complete, remedial socialization is much more difficult.   At 5 months of age, puppies hit a secondary fear period, they recognize there are strangers in the world.  Your socially inexperienced puppy is just starting to see the world and meet new people.  And he's terrified.  You can socialize a puppy AND keep it safe from disease! 


The result is a dog who is afraid of anything "new" - he is neo-phobic. New people, places and things are dangerous until proven otherwise. His fears may make no sense to you, but they are very real to him. We can't turn back the clock. You can get in some meaningful socialization between 12 and 20 weeks, but not to the same extent as during the 3-12 week primary socialization window. 

Fear is something that can be lessened by gentle exposure and confidence building, but you can't make a genetically sensitive, cautious personality bold and fearless, or your aloof dog love everyone.


How much is "Enough"?  Can you over-do socialization?  Yes, you can.

If your puppy is working at a deficit, the last thing you want to do is go on a crash course of trying to catch up by flooding your puppy! Slow is fast. Avoid situations that are overwhelming. All exposure should be safe and positive. He should leave every situation happy to have been there. Gradually expand his number of trusted friends. When his 'friends list' is long, he will add new ones more easily. 

So how do we help our worried pup build confidence?

Slowly, at a distance they can handle, as often as humanly possible, without flooding and overwhelming the puppy.

First goal - feel safe in the environment.  Find quiet places where no one is likely to be and just sit with your pup and allow them to acclimate to the environment.  If he wants to lean on you or climb in your lap, fine.  If he will eat, feed him.  Scatter treats in the grass to encourage him to sniff around.  Sniffing and searching is a calming activity.  Keep the leash slack and follow the dog if they decide to go exploring.  Gently guide them away from getting close to any activities that you feel would be too much for them at this stage, or if it might prompt a human to spot him and try and "make friends" and put the dog in over its head. 

threshold distance.jpg

Distance is your friend.  Right now, those kids are far enough away that this dog is aware of them and can watch without feeling any anxiety.  If they moved closer, we'd see his calm relaxed demeanor change.  We might see his hears flip back,  he'd probably lick his lips, look away, and show other outward signs of concern.  His heart rate would go up.  If people appear passing on the grass area, we might see avoidance, hiding behind his person, or looking for an escape route.  If their attention was directed at him or if anyone approached where the lawn meets the dirt., we'd likely get growling and barking.  His hair might stand up.  He would likely go into fight or flight mode  We don't want to put him in that situation!  The goal is for the dog feel fine the whole time.  If he gets startled, if we let him get in over his head and have to bail, as he escapes the scary thing and feels relief, we will make him worse, not better.

Let the dog lead.  Allow the dog the freedom to change direction and move away.  Don't pressure the dog to move closer.  ANY time the dog stops moving forward, keep the leash slack and stop with him.  Give him time.  If he opts to increase distance congratulate him for his wise choice.  More information in this article:  "Thresholds - Recognize and Respect Them."

Empowerment - why having a choice matters. 

Would you?  Could you cross this bridge? 

What if someone took you by the arm and dragged you toward it? To your dog, fearful stimulii cause the same physiological response as crossing this bridge causes this man.  Fear affects adrenaline, cortisol, and heart rate, resulting in sweating, increased respiration rate, and decreased appetite. 


Don't pull him toward what scares him.  Living beings go into freeze, fight or flight mode when panic sets in.  They may go frozen and shut down, try to escape or hide, or lash out to keep the scary thing at bay.  The man on this bridge cannot walk due to his fear.  He clutches the railing, scooting to get across.  If you have a fear of heights, just looking at this photo probably gives you the heebie-jeebies!


We will assume that this man chose to take this challenge.  Dogs are rarely given choices or given the space and  time they need to come to terms with what scares them.  They are made to endure the approach of animals or people and pulled by their leashes toward scary situations at the insistence of their humans.  Too-often frightened dogs are seen as stubborn or unreasonable when they put on the brakes and can't continue. 


Time and space matter.  Slow is fast when it comes to helping your dog through his fears.

This young Silken Windhound was given all the time he needed to make the choice to walk on this new surface.  Not only is it a metal grate high above a river, you can see the river below through the grate.  His leash is slack and his person is allowing him to choose his own speed.  He can stop, sniff, and decide to go back to solid ground if he needs to.

Early and ongoing socialization empowers puppies to learn about the world, become comfortable with all the sights and sounds and beings in it, and trust that their people will keep them safe and support them when they need it.


If your dog is stressed in general or fearful in specific situations, there are supplements and prescription medications that can help relieve stress and help him recover more quickly.  Talk to your vet!  

Many non-prescription supplements are available over the counter or through Amazon.

Calming Products for Anxious/Stressed dogs:
Calming Products for Fearful Dogs - by Debbie Jacobs
Adaptil - Dog Appeasing Pheromone


Anxiety Medications for Dogs - see your veterinary behaviorist


You can use free-shaping to help your dog overcome his fears.


Is your dog afraid of objects, people, or places?  The best way to help your dog build confidence is to allow him the freedom to approach and retreat at his own pace.  He can come closer when he's ready and take breaks when he needs to.  Empowering him to make his own choices as he feels ready without pressure from you.  Pulling on the leash can send him into a panic.  Baiting with food can set up a sequence of escape and relief.  It also puts him in the predicament of getting close to the object or person only because he wants the food more than he fears the scary thing.  This can go sideways when the food he expected isn't present and now he's too close and panics or feels stuck.


See:  Treat & Retreat


This handout courtesy of ©CAROL A. BYRNES 
Training for Dogs & Their People -

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