When your dog is scared of you, it's not only a devastating feeling, but it also becomes increasingly difficult to train, groom and feed the dog. Fortunately, there are methods that owners of frightened dogs can use to help gain (or re-gain) the trust of a scared dog.
Most common reasons dogs may be scared of their owners are:
- Dog is “shy” when they come from a shelter or pet store
- Previous owner used to hit the dog out of frustration
- Owners used to raise their voice, scream or verbally abuse the dog
- Owner might have accidentally hurt the dog (step on paw, tail, etc.)
- There's a history of physical abuse, negative punishment “training”
- Dog was around aggressive dogs or other aggressive, intimidating animals
- Owner's body language indicates that they themselves are fearful/stressed
To avoid scaring your dog and losing trust, some of things you should NOT do are:
- Don't be impatient or frustrated with your dog
- Don't withhold love/attention when the dog seeks it
- Try not to approach a dog has retreated to their “safe place”
- Never force a currently fearful dog to do anything
- Avoid yelling or verbally intimidating the dog
- Avoid negative punishment or otherwise physically hurting the dog
Even when you think you've been doing all things right, some dogs may still be scared of you for a variety of reasons. If you find yourself saying, my dog is scared of me, here's what you can do to fix this problem.
What To Do When Your Dog is Scared of You
1. Be Patient
Every dog is different, and much like humans, each dog will adapt to their environment and learn at their own pace. This could take days, weeks or months of consistent effort and training, depending on the dog's personality and the reason for their fear.
With time and effort, majority of dogs will learn to trust their owner(s), and other humans. But it is imperative that you are patient, and never push, force, or become angry with your dog during this adapting process, as doing so will only make matters worse.
2. Let the Dog Be
Having their own space and time alone, with less attention and less interaction, is exactly what some dogs need to become comfortable.
Just like another human coming on too strong can be intimidating, you coming on too strong at your dog can be intimidating to the dog as well. Sometimes the best way to gain a dog’s trust is to let them take the lead in deciding when they want interaction with you. Let the frightened pup come to you for attention instead of you going to them.
3. Follow a Predictable and Reliable Schedule
When a dog is frightened and stressed, the hormone cortisol is pumping through their body, making matters worse. One way to help the dog's fear and the stress hormones to subside is by creating and following a predictable and reliable schedule for the dog.
When a dog knows they'll be fed at certain times, have their own bed to lay on, have play time, and receive training and treats at certain times each day, they feel calmer. Repeated actions, when done in a calm and non-aggressive manner, will increase a dog’s trust.
4. Make a Genuine Connection with the Dog
Most dogs enjoy humans petting them, and revel in a scratch or rub behind ears or a belly rub. Tragically, some dogs have been physically abused and taught that human touch is a bad and scary thing. If this is the case with your dog, you’ll have to get creative and make a genuine connection with the dog in another way.
Giving a dog treats (turkey, chicken, tuna) during training sessions, when they do what is asked of them, is one of the many ways to connect with your dog. When you cannot physically touch the dog while praising them, use a positive and soothing tone of voice to tell the dog “good job,” and other affirmations.
Incorporate a clicker into your training sessions. When your pup does something “brave”, like approaches you, make the clicker sound instead of reaching out to touch the frightened dog, and feed the dog a treat immediately alongside the clicker sound, letting them associate this with a positive experience.
If your dog has a fear of being near you, encourage them for coming towards you by actually taking a step away, waiting for the approach, then use the clicker to signal a job well done, and reward with a treat.
5. Targeted Training Efforts
While clicker training works amazingly well for some dogs, others may require additional, or other forms of training. It’s all about trying different methods when working with a fearful dog to find what they're most comfortable with.
When a fearful dog does something “bad,” instead of punishment, try to ignore them in an obvious manner. Research has proven that positive reinforcement for doing the right things in the form of a clicker sound, treats, verbal praise, and petting (if possible) while ignoring “bad” or incorrect behaviors is the best method of training fearful dogs.
Dogs, like human children, will eventually seek attention.
Therefore, if you ignore “bad” behaviors and reward only positive behaviors, the “bad” behaviors will naturally be extinguished in the dog, as he or she realizes that they receive zero attention for “bad” behaviors, and receive positive attention and high-value treats for good behaviors.
This method of training has been proven effective time and time again and should be adopted by all parents of dogs, and humans.
6. Classical Conditioning Training
This form of training goes way back in time, to a psychological experiment named Pavlov’s Dogs that a famous psychologist conducted with a group of dogs, conditioning the dogs to salivate at the mere sound of a ringing bell by giving food to the dogs, every time the bell was rang.
Classical conditioning is incredibly effective, especially for dogs that are scared. Because with classical conditioning training, the dog learns to associate one thing with another thing.
This often happens naturally, for example when you reach for a dog’s food bowl or leash and the dog gets excited because they know that they are about to be fed, or go on a walk, both of which are examples of classical conditioning.
But this method of training can also be used deliberately, in order to train certain behaviors and responses in dogs, and to counter-condition dogs by associating something that makes a dog scared, with something positive.
For example, if your dog is scared of the leash and does not want to have it attached to their collar, (or is afraid of the collar), every time you put on the dog’s collar and attach the leash, reward the dog with a high-value treat.
Soon, the dog will associate having their collar put on, and the leash being attached with the positive feelings that come along with receiving a high-value treat. This will extinguish the dog’s fear of the collar and/or leash, or anything that you consistently pair with giving the dog a high-value treat.
Another example of using counter-conditioning is one that you can use to make a dog that is scared of you no longer scared of you by dropping high-value treats near the fearful dog every single time that you walk by them.
Soon, the dog’s fear of you will turn to excitement to see you, because the dog associates the positive experience of receiving a treat to you coming near them.
But you must always remember to drop the high-value treat near the dog before the dog is feeling fear of you, because once the dog’s fear response has been triggered, they lose the ability to think rationally, and therefore cannot make positive associations between the treats and you.
You’ll need to learn exactly how close to the scared dog you can get before the dog’s fear response is triggered (also known as a dogs “threshold”), maintain that distance as you walk by and casually drop the treat for the dog, making sure not to stop or look the dog in their eye, as this is a sign of intimidation that the dog will perceive as threatening.
In terms of knowing when your dog’s fear response has been triggered, most dogs will show very obvious signs of this such as cowering, growling, barking, showing their teeth, tucking their tail, putting their ears back, and even trembling. For a comprehensive list of the signs that a dog may show when he or she reaches their threshold, see the following document created by Dr. Marty Becker, Signs of Anxiety and Fear.
7. Socialization for the Dog
If you have a scared dog that sees another dog interacting with you in a playful and positive manner, seeing the other dog play with and trust you, will help the scared dog to see you as a human that they can trust, as well.
It is especially helpful if it is another dog that lives in the home with you and the scared dog.
But even if you do not have another dog living in your home with you and the fearful dog, this situation can be facilitated by having another, calm, non-fearful, and non-aggressive dog come around you and the fearful dog, to play and interact positively and lovingly with you.
Once the fearful dog sees you walking, hanging-out with, and playing with the other dog in a positive manner, the scared dog will often be able to trust, and open up to you, the human that the other dog demonstrated can be trusted.
8. Go Out in the World Together to Explore
Going on hikes or walks in public places with your scared dog can be a great bonding experience that teaches the fearful dog to trust you.
If your scared dog is too intimidated by the leash and/or the outside world to go on walks outside of the home or yard at first, that is okay. You can still take this step by actively exploring things inside of your home and all over your yard, with your dog.
For instance, say your dog is super interested in a particular plant or bug that catches their eye, wait for the dog to finish exploring this object, then once the dog walks away, immediately go over to the same object that they were looking at, and explore it with interest, yourself, allowing the dog to see that you have common interests.
Repeat this step, following in your dog’s footsteps, exploring the things that your dog is interested in, with your dog, is a great bonding and trust building exercise and positive experience for your fearful pup.
After you check out whatever objects the dog was exploring, make your way to another object in your yard or home and look at it with interest, your dog will be likely to follow you to check it out too.
9. Play, Play, Play
Playing with a scared dog can be a difficult task, but if you are able to engage a fearful dog in any kind of play, it will be a great bonding and trust building experience.
With scared dogs, you don’t want to throw a ball or toy towards them, as this could trigger their fear-response and make them reach their threshold in which they’ll shut down, and are unable to learn anything positive from the experience.
Evelyn Sharp, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and Certified Dog Behaviorist who has much experience in working with and training scared dogs, recommends engaging a scared dog in playtime activities by utilizing a ball, or any kind of toy, that is attached to a long rope of some sort.
This way, you can move the ball or toy from a distance, and engage the fearful dog in a game of chase and/or pounce, without the dog having to get too close to you. This will allow the dog to play without triggering their fear response, which would cause the dog to shut down, and render the play-training useless.
Also, allow the dog to catch and keep the toy, frequently, as doing so will ensure that your dog enjoys playtime with you, and learns to trust you.
10. Continue to Build Trust, Moving Forward
Just because you see success in helping your scared dog to become less fearful, that does not mean that you can discontinue all of your efforts. Doing so will likely reverse all of the positive results that your hard work with your scared dog, has produced. You will need to continue to be consistent in all of your training, play, and schedule routines.
Additionally, make sure to only bring well-trained, well-behaved, and respectful humans and dogs around your scared dog. Never let an aggressive adult, child, or dog around your fearful dog.
When introducing your dog to new situations, experiences, and people, do so very slowly, and make sure that everyone who is around your dog knows to let the dog be, and come to them, instead of the other way around.
Give new people treats to drop on the ground, if the dog approaches them at all, and tell them to always avoid eye contact with the dog and to not approach the dog.
That being said, having well-trained and well-behaved dogs around your scared dog can do wonders for teaching the dog that they do not have to be fearful, as they watch other dogs confidently and fearlessly interacting with the world, and the humans in it.
However, if your dog starts to show any signs of being scared, or seems to be reaching their threshold, never push or force the dog to do anything, doing so will have a negative impact on the trust that the dog has developed in you.
Make sure your dog always has a safe space to retreat to for quiet time, whenever he or she is feeling scared or overwhelmed. Placing a dog kennel in a safe and quiet space, that a dog can retreat to at any given time, is a great way to create a safe space for a scared dog.
Make sure that you and anyone else in your home respects the dog’s space and quiet time, and completely leaves the dog alone when the dog retreats to their kennel or any place that the dog may go to escape and decompress.