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Is Your Dog Emotionally Scarred?

How to tell if bad experiences are making your dog fearful or aggressive -- and what to do about it.

The Fearful Dog continued...

“There’s a world of dog body language that the majority of dog owners have no clue about,” Radosta says.

Fear, anxiety, and stress look like “retreat,” she says. “Retreat doesn’t always mean running away. It can be crouching down, moving backward, trying to make your body small. It can mean that the face and head are the only things that retreat. Sometimes, it means the head goes down or flexes toward one shoulder, or the eyes avert down.”

“Read what your dog is trying to tell you,” Beaver says. But too often, owners do the opposite. “The dog doesn’t want to go, it holds back on the leash, so what do we do? We drag it forward,” she says.

Avoid situations that trigger your dog’s fear.

“You don’t take it and put it in the middle of whatever’s causing that fear,” Beaver says.

For example, if lightning and thunder terrify your dog, don’t leave it near a big picture window during a storm. Instead, put your dog in an interior room and turn on a radio to help hide the sound.

Many dogs are also scared of children, Beaver says. “Children stare, the stare is ‘threat,’ they have their hands out, they’re at face level -- very scary to a dog that doesn’t know what a child is. Or they grab them around the neck, and the dog is like, ‘I don’t know who you are. Why are you grabbing me around the neck?’”

You can limit your dog’s contact with children. But of course, that’s not always possible.

When children ran up to pet Ruby during walks, the dog got scared, Seiffer says. By working with dog experts, she learned how to give Ruby breathing room. She would move between the child and dog -- a body barrier -- and hand the youngster treats to toss to Ruby. Then she would allow her dog to make the first move. “I let Ruby make the call about how comfortable she felt with this child,” she says. “I wasn’t going to let a kid run up to her because that just freaked her out, and I didn’t want her to snap at a child.”

Pair the bad with the good to create new associations in your dog’s mind. 

Seiffer’s technique works in many different situations. If your dog fears something, use “counter-conditioning,” Radosta says, or “pairing the badness of the thing with the goodness of something fabulous, like foods or toys.”

For example, if your dog fears a certain type of house guest, for example, men wearing hats, don’t let them pet your dog, Radosta says. Instead, ask them to feed it treats. In time, your dog will associate strange men in hats with something pleasurable.  

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