Adopting a fearful dog and how to help

Adopting a fearful dog and how to help

How do I help my dog not be afraid of people, cars, loud noises… it’s a question I hear every single day.

It’s not uncommon for a rescue dog to be scared of everything around him. The first thought that will come to mind is that the dog was abused in his past life. But in reality, it’s more likely that the dog was not socialized as a puppy.

Genetics also play into why your dog is so fearful. If your dogs parents were fearful, it’s likely your dog will be too.

Fear comes in many shapes and forms. What is scary for your dog may not be for another.

fearful and anxious dog hiding under bed

Puppies go through fear periods, which if not addressed correctly, can result in a fearful dog. Many puppies and dogs that are in the shelter or rescue were born on the street, a kennel or maybe a home that had an oops litter. 

This is the reason you see fewer purebred dogs that are fearful; because a responsible breeder will ensure to breed only healthy and confident dogs. And their puppies are thoroughly socialized while in their care. 

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My dog is scared of everything

Have you adopted a puppy that you felt sorry for because he looked so sad in the shelter or a puppy mill dog that never lived outside of a cage?  

And now that you’ve brought him home, you’re realizing that love alone will not fix your anxious, fearful, scared dog?

My dog is scared of everything what can I do? All you want to do is make him feel safe, right?


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Your rescue dog may be afraid of your husband, loud noises, the vacuum, sudden movements of any kind… rest assure that whatever it is, he can overcome his fear. 

Your scared dog needs to learn that her environment is safe and secure. But how? 

Be patient, take it slow, offer a safe environment and learn to read your dog’s body language. 

How to help a timid rescue dog

Below are several ways to help your fearful dog to become more confident: 

1. TIME & SPACE: Has your dog had enough time to adjust?

If you recently adopted your dog, say less than 3 months ago, then you need to give him more time to adjust. The first few days after adoption is going to be stressful for any dog. 

Give your dog the time and space he needs to adjust on his own terms. Rushing this process will only backfire. 

Please read our 3-3-3 rule to understand the transitioning period all rescue dogs go through. Be patient, give your dog time to get to know you and her new home. 

2. HEALTH: Is your dog healthy and not in pain?

Make sure your dog is healthy and there are no medical reasons for her to be fearful. If a dog is in pain he will appear to be anxious, when in fact, he is in so much pain he is afraid to walk or be touched.  

Make sure your dog is eating quality food. Have you ever eaten junk food all day and felt like crap the next day? If your dog is eating junky food, then changing is diet will make a remarkable difference in his inner and outer appearance. 

3. BODY LANGUAGE: Understanding your dog’s body language is key to a healthy relationship

Dogs use their bodies to speak to us. Very subtle signals are used to tell us when they are scared, want to be left alone, or happy. Learn what your dog is trying to tell you by reading How to Talk to Dogs.

4. CALMING PRODUCTS: Natural options to help achieve balance

There are many products available to help our dogs feel calmer, such as compression vests, supplements, essential oils, and DAP. Click here to see my entire list of recommended products on Amazon.

5. TRAINING: Training creates confidence

When a dog understands what’s expected from him, he can become confident in his space. 

Think about this, if you start a new job and have no idea what to do or what your boss expects of you, how would you feel? 

Find what motives your dog, whether it be food, toys or praise, make training fun. Spend 5-10 minutes a day training basic commands or even tricks. Not only will you be creating a stronger bond with your dog, but he will become more confident with himself. 

6. SAFETY: Make your fearful dog feel safe

Making your dog feel safe at all times is important. If your dog is afraid of strangers, don’t allow them to pet your dog. Get a “dog in training” vest to help deter people from asking to pet your pup. 

You need to be your dogs advocate. Show him he can trust you to keep him safe.

Your dog should choose to approach a person, not the other way around. Allow your dog to decide to move forward in a scary situation.

The best way to approach a fearful dog is to sit on the floor, facing sideways and softly talk to the dog. Don’t extend a hand or move toward the dog. Allow the dog to move toward you and when the dog is comfortable, pet him under the chest/neck or shoulder, never over the top of his head. 

If he is afraid of an object, don’t force him to face the fear. You will need to work on desensitization and counter-conditioning.

Forcing a dog can result in fear aggression, which is an unfair situation for the dog to be in. 

7. RELATIONSHIP: Bond with your dog so she can trust you

Forming a strong bond takes time. You wouldn’t trust someone with your life you just met, right? Especially if your past has been unstable and past friends haven’t been so nice.

Here Are 8 Very Simple Steps to Start Bonding and Earning Your Dog’s Trust

8. RESEARCH: Knowledge is the key to success

Talk to a hundred vets and dog trainers, and you will get a hundred different answers on how to cure a fearful dog. This is because everyone has their own belief systems and every dog is unique. What works for one dog will not work for another. 

You need to be your dog’s advocate and choose the path that is right for both of you. The more you learn, the better chance you have finding the key to your success. Here is a list of books about how to help fearful dogs you can buy on Amazon or find at your local library.

9. PROFESSIONAL HELP: Finding the right trainer to help your dog

Again, talk to multiple behaviorist trainers because you will get a hundred different answers to how to help a fearful dog. You need to find the right trainer you and your dog will feel comfortable with. 

Ask friends and family for recommendations, check references for each dog trainer you are interested in. Visit the trainer if possible, look for online reviews, ask for a consultation before committing. 

Dog training rehabilitation programs can be very expensive, be prepared to be sticker shocked. 

If you have an extreme case, then I recommend reading this article by The Collard Scholar: The Sky Isn’t Falling: Teaching bravery to a fearful dog

Should I adopt a dog that is afraid of everything?

Don’t adopt a fearful dog unless you are willing and able to put in the time and money for trainers and rehabilitation. It is going to take a lot of patience and time to help a dog that is so fearful. Love alone does not cure fear.

So before you decide to adopt that adorable, but scared-to-death dog, ask yourself if you can provide a home that will help this type of dog thrive. Not every family will be a perfect match for every dog. 

A fearful dog needs a patient, strong leader so he can slowly learn to become confident. If you have a full house of kids and other dogs, adopting a fearful dog may not be the best fit. 

As sorry as you feel for that dog, you won’t be doing him any justice adopting him into an environment like that. 

In conclusion

Time, patience, love and education can help your fearful dog develop into a more confident dog.

The level of severity of fearfulness is as unique as your dog’s. Listen to your dog, let him go at his own pace, stay calm and be patient. One day you will look back at all the hard work you both put into his rehabilitation and smile.  

Please share your story in the comments below. You will help someone else going through the same struggles. Rescue Dogs 101 is all about community, so let’s help each other out!

About the Author Debi@RescueDogs101

Debi McKee is a mom of three kids, three dogs and the creator of Rescue Dogs 101... where she guides you in your journey of adopting and raising a rescue dog every step of the way. She also volunteers for a local dog rescue and Humane Society.

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