Sometimes dogs develop a fear of objects. A dog might develop a fear of one specific thing or seem fearful around a number of objects. Some dogs only fear objects of a certain size, shape or color. Others fear all unfamiliar objects, regardless of appearance.
Dogs respond to fear in different ways. Sometimes a frightened dog will retreat, try to run away, hide or display fearful body language. She might lower her body, hunch her back, hold her tail low or tucked, flatten her ears, avert her gaze, keep her mouth closed, lick her lips, whine, tremble or urinate. At other times, a dog might respond to fear with defensive aggression, which can include barking, lunging, growling, snapping and biting.
Why Do Some Dogs Fear Objects?
Inadequate Exposure to Objects
Dogs who didn’t get enough exposure to a variety of unusual objects as puppies sometimes develop fearful reactions to those objects as adults.
Genetic Predisposition to Fear Novel Objects
Some dogs are just born with timid personalities. These dogs might fear objects they’ve never seen before, especially if those objects move quickly, appear suddenly, make startling or high-pitched noises, or seem scary in some other way. These objects might be beach balls, umbrellas, hats or skateboards.
Traumatic Event Linked to the Presence of an Object
If a dog who was previously unafraid of an object experiences a traumatic or painful event when that object is nearby and can be seen or heard, she might associate the object with the unpleasant event. This association can cause the dog to act fearfully in the presence of the object, as well as similar objects, in the future.
No Discernible Cause
A dog who was previously unafraid of an object will sometimes develop a fearful response to it for no obvious reason.
Is It Really Fear?
Dogs’ submissive body postures are often mistaken for fear. For example, if your dog rolls over, lowers her tail and whimpers when interacting with people around a specific object but makes no attempt to avoid the people or the object, she might be displaying normal submissive body language, rather than acting fearfully. For more information about interpreting canine communication, please see our article, Canine Body Language.
What to Do If Your Dog Fears Objects
Pet parents often mistake fear-related problems for stubbornness. If you ask your dog to perform a behavior that makes her scared, she might refuse to obey. For instance, if you call your dog to come to you, but you’re standing close to an object she fears, she might not respond to your command. Keep in mind, however, that if this happens, your dog isn’t disobedient or stubborn. She’s afraid. Her anxiety and fear might make it impossible for her to do whatever it is that you’ve asked her to do. So instead of getting frustrated, try to focus on helping your dog overcome her fear. Read on to find out how.
If Your Dog Becomes Aggressive When Afraid
Some frightened dogs react by barking, growling, lunging, snapping or biting at objects that frighten them. This is called defensive aggression. A defensively aggressive dog might also show other kinds of fearful behavior, such as trembling, panting, whining, salivating, hiding behind people or under furniture, urinating or defecating, or attempting to avoid the frightening object or situation.
If your dog displays aggressive behavior when she’s afraid—or if you think she might—you’ll need to do two things:
- Always carefully manage your dog’s behavior to avoid or minimize problems and ensure that no one gets hurt.
- Contact a professional to help you try to change your dog’s behavior.
Manage Your Dog’s Behavior
When animals experience extreme stress or fear, they often resort to aggression in their attempts to defend themselves from perceived threats. Although it’s a natural response, aggressive behavior can be dangerous. It’s crucial to use management techniques to protect other people, your dog and yourself. One of the best ways to avoid provoking your dog’s aggressive response to fear is to avoid the object or objects that frighten her.
Unfortunately, some dogs fear objects that you can’t always avoid. For example, if your dog fears cars and you live in the middle of a big city, you probably won’t be able to keep her away from cars all of the time. If you must take your dog to a place where she’ll encounter frightening objects, follow these important guidelines:
- Always keep your dog on a leash.
- Stay as far away as possible from whatever frightens your dog.
- Stay as far away as possible from other people when your dog displays fearful body language. Because she’s afraid, she might growl, bark or even bite people who get too close to her or attempt to touch her when she’s upset.
- If people try to approach or pet your dog when she’s frightened or nervous, tell them to please stay away. Handling or attention from people—especially strangers—might increase your dog’s fear. You can politely explain that because your dog isn’t feeling comfortable, she doesn’t want to visit.
- Keep your movements and voice calm. If you seem anxious or upset, your dog might become even more afraid.
- Consider muzzle training. Teaching your dog to wear a muzzle before she encounters something that frightens her can keep everyone safe when she eventually does react to an object she fears. Please read our article, Teaching Your Dog to Wear a Muzzle, to learn how to teach your dog to comfortably wear a muzzle.
A qualified professional can help you design and carry out a plan to change the way your dog feels and acts. If your dog shows fearful and aggressive behavior, consult a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB). If you can’t find a behaviorist, you can seek help from a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT), but be sure that the trainer is qualified to help you. Determine whether she or he has education and experience in treating fear and aggression, since this kind of expertise isn’t required for CPDT certification. Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, to locate one of these experts in your area.
If Your Dog Doesn’t Become Aggressive When Afraid
Keep in mind that fear can trigger aggression. Even if your dog has never displayed aggression in the past, please be aware that any dog can resort to aggressive behavior if he or she feels extremely threatened or afraid. A dog who first tries to deal with her fear by running away but finds that the strategy doesn’t work might then switch to defensive aggression. This is especially likely if people try to approach or touch her while she’s frightened. If your dog has a fear-related behavior problem, it’s crucial to make sure that you don’t place people at risk by putting your dog in situations that might provoke aggressive behavior.
Key Points to Remember When Dealing with Your Dog’s Fearful Behavior
DO NOT USE PUNISHMENT when trying to change your fearful dog’s behavior. When something frightens your dog, she experiences a great deal of stress. Any kind of verbal or physical punishment will distress her even more, making her more defensive and fearful in the future.
Avoid using food to lure your dog closer to objects that she fears. Although doing so might seem like a good idea, it can actually intensify your dog’s fear. It might also provoke defensive aggression. Sometimes a dog will follow a food lure and move closer to a thing she fears because she wants the food—but then snatch the morsel and bite a nearby person before running away.
When trying to resolve any behavior problem that involves fear, you should first try to figure what causes your dog’s fearful response. After you’ve identified the objects that frighten your dog, you’ll need to do two things:
- Use management techniques to minimize or avoid provoking your dog’s fear.
- Design and implement a treatment plan to change the way your dog feels and acts.
Fearful behavior in dogs takes a while to treat. During this time, it’s important to avoid increasing your dog’s fear, so try to keep her away from what frightens her. If possible, avoid taking her to places where she might encounter things that trigger her fear. Of course, some dogs fear objects that you can’t always avoid. For example, if your dog fears cars and you live in the middle of a big city, you probably won’t be able to keep her away from cars at all times.
Follow these important guidelines when you must take your dog to a place where she’ll encounter frightening objects:
- Always keep your dog on a leash.
- Stay as far away as possible from whatever frightens your dog.
- Tell people not to approach or try to pet your dog when she’s frightened or nervous. Handling or attention from people—especially strangers—might increase your dog’s fear. You can politely explain that because your dog isn’t feeling comfortable, she doesn’t want to visit.
- Keep your movements and voice calm. If you seem anxious or upset, your dog might become even more afraid.
Because you might unexpectedly encounter an object that frightens your dog when the two of you are out and about, it can help to teach her an easy U-Turn. Sometimes dogs can freeze up or lunge and bark when frightened. This easy U-Turn will enable you and your dog to quickly and calmly “get out of Dodge” without your worsening your dog’s stress by forcing or dragging her with the leash.
You’ll need to practice first in a relaxing, familiar place. Then you can try the U-Turn when you’re taking walks outside with your dog. Eventually, you’ll be able to use the U-Turn to quickly lead your dog away when you run into an object that frightens her.
Follow these steps to teach your dog the U-Turn:
- Put a leash on your dog and take her to a quiet, familiar place where she won’t encounter anything frightening.
- Start walking with your dog in a straight line.
- After three or four steps, say “U-Turn” in an upbeat voice. Then reach down and put a tasty treat right in front of your dog’s nose. Turn around and go in the opposite direction, using the treat like a magnet in front of your dog’s nose to lead her along with you. Make sure you don’t jerk or pull your dog with her leash. You should be able to control your dog’s movement as she follows the tasty treat with her nose. If your dog doesn’t readily follow the treat, find something more exciting and delicious that she loves. Try bits of hot dog, cheese or chicken.
- After you and your dog have made the U-Turn and walked a couple of steps, you can let her eat the treat.
- Practice the sequence above until your dog quickly whips around to walk in the opposite direction as soon as she hears you say the cue, “U-Turn.” Eventually, you won’t have to use the treat on her nose anymore to lead her—but do continue to give her a treat after the two of you have changed directions and walked a few steps.
- When your dog becomes a U-Turn pro in your quiet training place, start practicing the behavior when the two of you take walks together. Since exciting sights and smells outside will distract your dog, you’ll probably need to use a treat on her nose again. Once she gets used to performing her new trick outdoors, you can stop using the treat to guide her. After you’ve both turned, quickly reward your dog with a yummy treat for doing such a good job.
Once your dog has learned the U-Turn behavior, you can teach her that it’s a great thing to do when she runs across something scary. Start practicing with an object you know she fears, but begin by placing the object a great distance away.
- Walk just a few steps in the direction of the scary thing.
- Say “U-Turn!” with happy enthusiasm and turn away from the thing.
- Walk a couple of steps and then give your dog her treat. If your dog doesn’t readily come with you when you turn to walk in the opposite direction, use a treat on her nose to lure her away a couple of times, just to remind her what to do. Then you can stop using the lure again, but continue to reward your dog after the two of you have made the turn.
- Work hard to keep your dog from feeling scared or stressed during your training sessions. If she acts scared or nervous, practice your U-Turns farther away from the frightening object.
- As long as your dog stays relaxed and looks happy, by doing many repetitions over a number of days or weeks, you can gradually move closer and closer to the thing that frightens her.
After you’ve practiced the U-Turn in familiar areas, around things that used to frighten your dog, you can try using it when you and your dog suddenly encounter an unexpected scary object. Be sure to be prepared by always keeping some tasty treats in your pocket whenever you and your dog go out into the world. When you use the U-Turn in a real-life situation to guide your dog away from frightening things, remember to stay calm and to keep your voice upbeat. The first few times you use the U-Turn when you unexpectedly encounter a scary object, you might have to use a treat on your dog’s nose to lead her away. If you say “U Turn” and your dog doesn’t turn toward you immediately, just repeat “U-Turn” in a happy voice and get out a big treat to put on her nose. When she’s turned around with you and you are able to give her the treat, tell her how brave and smart she is and how happy you are that she came with you.
Treatment for Your Dog’s Fear of Objects
Treatment for fear of objects can vary according to the origin of the dog’s fear. For instance, dogs can fear objects because they were never exposed to them as puppies, they can fear things because they naturally seem to be afraid of all new things, or they can develop a fear of something they once accepted because something bad happened to them near the thing. Below you will find some general information and treatment suggestions for all these types of fear. However, basic to most treatments of fear of objects is a procedure referred to as desensitization with counterconditioning.
Desensitization and counterconditioning (DSCC)
Desensitization with counterconditioning is a treatment procedure that can help reduce or eliminate a dog’s fear of a specific object. This method focuses on changing a dog’s perception of a thing from frightening to pleasant by very gradually exposing the dog to the object she fears while teaching her that very good things—rather than scary or painful things—always happen around that object. The good things can include highly desirable food and treats, favorite toys, a favorite game, attention, petting or anything else the dog absolutely loves. Please read our article, Desensitization and Counterconditioning, for more information.
Desensitization and counterconditioning are complex and can be tricky to carry out. Fear must be avoided or the procedure will backfire and the dog will get more frightened. Because treatment must progress and change according to the pet’s reactions, and because these reactions can be difficult to read and interpret, desensitization and counterconditioning require the guidance of a trained and experienced professional. For help designing and carrying out a desensitization and counterconditioning plan, consult a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. If you can’t find a behaviorist, you can seek help from a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, but be sure that the trainer is qualified to help you. Determine whether she or he has education and experience in treating fear with desensitization and counterconditioning, since this kind of expertise isn’t required for CPDT certification. Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, to locate one of these experts in your area.
If Your Dog Fears Objects Because of Inadequate Exposure to Them
Puppies experience a very important developmental period that lasts from about three weeks to three months of age. This developmental period, limited as it is, is nature’s window of learning. Because this window of learning occurs during the time when a puppy is with her mother but growing and exploring, the window allows a pup to experience the things that her mother commonly encounters and, therefore, that she’ll normally encounter throughout her life too. Once the dog matures to adulthood, she'll be suspicious of things she didn’t encounter during the learning window. If the dog was wild, this suspicion would help her avoid potentially dangerous things and keep her alive. Of course, life with people is a little more varied and diverse than Mother Nature anticipated. Because of this, pet parents must expose their puppies to many new people, places, animals, surfaces and objects. If young pups don’t get this exposure, like dogs in the wild, they can sometimes develop fearful behavior as adults.
Fears that stem from a lack of exposure to objects during a puppy’s sensitive developmental period can be hard to resolve. Even though you might successfully reduce your dog’s fearful response to unfamiliar objects, you probably won’t be able to eliminate her fear completely. However, desensitization and counterconditioning might help improve both the way your dog feels and the way she behaves when she encounters new things. Please read our article, Desensitization and Counterconditioning, for a thorough explanation of this kind of treatment.
In general, always try to make sure that your dog has a pleasant experience whenever she sees an object she’s never encountered before. Right after your dog notices the new object, remember to give her plenty of treats, play, toys and praise.
If Your Dog Is Genetically Predisposed to Fear Unfamiliar Objects
Some dogs behave fearfully around new things, even if they’ve received lots of exposure to new and unusual things as young puppies. These dogs seem to naturally fear novel objects almost from birth. If you think this might be the case with your dog, medication, along with a desensitization and counterconditioning program, might help. (Please see below for information about medications.) You can also try incorporating confidence-building exercises into your dog’s training routine. Participating in dog sports or breed-relevant activities, such as retrieving or herding, might boost your dog’s confidence. Consider taking an agility or flyball class, teach your dog to play fetch or, if you live with a herding breed, seek out someone who can teach you about herding. These exercises might increase your dog’s comfort level in both familiar and unfamiliar places. Controlled games and exercise can help reduce stress.
Dogs who seem naturally inclined to develop fearful behavior can be more sensitive to firm discipline, so it’s important to avoid the use of verbal and physical punishment.
If Your Dog Has Experienced a Traumatic Event Linked to the Presence of an Object
If your dog fears an object because of a traumatic experience, desensitization and counterconditioning (DSCC) might help. DSCC is a training/treatment procedure that can help reduce or eliminate a dog’s fear of something. The procedure focuses on changing a dog’s perception of a thing from frightening to pleasant by very gradually exposing the dog to the object she fears while teaching her that very good things—rather than scary or painful things—always happen around that object. The good things can include highly desirable food and treats, favorite toys, a favorite game, attention, petting or anything else your dog absolutely loves. Please read our article, Desensitization and Counterconditioning, for a thorough explanation of this procedure.
Desensitization and counterconditioning can be a little tricky to carry out. During treatment sessions, the degree of exposure to a frightening object is based on the dog’s reactions, and interpreting these reactions is not always easy. Fear must be avoided or the procedure will backfire and the dog will get more frightened. For help designing and carrying out a desensitization and counterconditioning plan, consult a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB). If you can’t find a behaviorist, you can seek help from a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT), but be sure that the trainer is qualified to help you. Determine whether she or he has education and experience in treating fear with desensitization and counterconditioning, since this kind of expertise isn’t required for CPDT certification. Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, to locate one of these experts in your area.
Desensitization and counterconditioning to objects that a dog once accepted but now fears is often more successful than DSCC to objects a dog has always feared. A basic example of a desensitization and counterconditioning procedure to reduce or eliminate fear of an object that a dog once accepted follows:
- Put your dog on a leash. Start with the scary object very far away. You want your dog to notice the object but still seem relaxed. If your dog looks nervous, fearful or attempts to get farther away from the object she fears, you’re starting with the object too close. Increase the distance between the scary object and your dog until your dog looks comfortable.
- While you and your dog are in the presence of the frightening object (still at a distance), feed her a few yummy treats, like small bits of hot dog, chicken or cheese, one at a time.
- Give a steady stream of treats with the object in sight. Then move away and stop giving treats the moment the object’s out of your dog’s sight. Your goal—over many repetitions of approaching and withdrawing from the scary object—is to teach your dog that the sight of the object predicts your delivery of delicious treats, while the absence of the object makes the treats stop. It might help your dog if you act happy and say something like “Yippee!” when she notices the scary thing. Then you can immediately start feeding her goodies.
- When you see that your dog is completely oblivious to the once-scary object, gradually, over many training sessions, move the object closer to her. Continue to feed treats generously.
- Always be careful not to push your dog to approach the scary object too quickly. If, at any point during your treatment exercises, you think your dog looks nervous or upset, go back a step and increase the distance between your dog and the object that frightens her.
- If your dog finds toys highly motivating, you can alternate between giving her treats and playing with her favorite toy.
- Always end the session on a positive note, meaning that your dog has become at least a little bit more relaxed and happy. Remember not to push your dog too fast or force her to interact with the thing she fears.
- Conduct sessions at least three times per week until your dog seems comfortable in the presence of the object. At this point, your dog will need regular reminders of the lesson she’s learned. About once a week, expose her to the object at the distance she was last comfortable with and give her a couple of treats or play her favorite game.
Always consult with a veterinarian before giving your dog any type of medication for a behavior problem.
In conjunction with desensitization and counterconditioning, medication might help reduce your dog’s fear and stress. There are many different anti-anxiety medications available for dogs with fear-related behavior problems. If you’d like to explore this option, speak with your veterinarian, a veterinary behaviorist or a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist who can work closely with your vet. Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, to locate one of these professionals in your area.
To avoid increasing your dog’s anxiety and her fearful behavior, try to keep her away from whatever frightens her. It’s fine for her to see an object she fears during structured treatment sessions because you’ll be prepared with treats and a plan to help her get over her fear. However, if you and your dog encounter the scary thing outside of the controlled treatment context, both of you might be taken by surprise. You might not be prepared to counteract your dog’s fear, and as a result, her fear and anxiety could intensify.
What NOT to Do
- Do not force your dog to confront her fear by making her look at, approach or interact with an object that frightens her. This practice can actually increase your dog’s fear and worsen her behavior.
- Do not scold or physically punish your dog for being afraid, even if her response to fear includes barking, growling or other aggressive behavior. Punishing your dog by yelling or physically “correcting” her will merely intensify her fear and distress—and it will probably worsen her aggressive behavior.
- Do not constantly reassure your dog. You do want her to look to you for safety and security, but it’s not helpful to repeatedly pick her up or chant, “It’s okay, it’s okay....” Your dog won’t understand what you’re saying, and if you sound anxious, you might make her even more upset. Instead, calmly praise and reward your dog for confident, relaxed behavior if she offers it on her own.