What are dogs scared of?

Dogs can be afraid of many things, from vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers to wind, fireworks or even the dark. We look at some common dog fears and how to manage them.

No matter how relaxed and carefree your dog may be, chances are that there’s something they’re scared of. And when we’re used to our pets being playful and confident, seeing them frightened and out of sorts can be worrying. But being scared from time to time is very normal for our dogs. In fact, fear is a natural emotional response that helped keep their wild ancestors out of danger.

Sometimes, it’s very obvious when our dogs are scared, but in other instances, the signs of fear in dogs are harder to spot. A scared dog may be shaking, whining, barking, cowering, hiding – or even acting in a way that can be confused with aggression. They may also become destructive, or lose control of their bowels and bladder.

While our pets may be afraid of a wide range of things, there are some common dog fears that crop up time and time again in our canine companions. Sometimes, a previous scary experience may develop into a fully blown phobia that your dog needs help with managing. Here, we get the facts behind some oft-reported triggers.

Loud noises

One large-scale study of 13,000 dogs found that loud noises were a prevalent fear, with almost a third being afraid of fireworks, thunder or gunshots. The sound, and sensation, of strong winds can also be unnerving for some canines. Even the noise of everyday objects and appliances can make dogs scared – with one in three afraid of vacuum cleaners, 24% scared of hairdryers and 21% of the lawnmower!

A phobia of loud noises is an issue for many dogs, so make sure they can always remove themselves from noisy situations, and try leaving the radio or TV on to drown out external sounds (such as thunderstorms or Bonfire Night). You could even build a cosy den at home for times of stress, to help them feel safe and secure. Read our top tips on helping keep your dog calm in fireworks season – including how to use desensitisation therapy to gradually acclimatise them to troubling noises played at low volumes.

Watch our video for an overview of dog fears - and why not share it on social media for the benefit of other dog owners? Read on for more detail.

Being left alone

Our dogs are naturally sociable animals and find it hard to go without company for long periods. Little wonder, then, that separation anxiety is another common canine fear, affecting around 40% of dogs.

Again, providing a den may help with separation anxiety, as can leaving a piece of clothing that smells like yourself to comfort them. See our advice on tackling separation anxiety for more on how to help your dog feel less scared when you’re not around. 

Going to the vet

One study found that more than half (55%) of dogs showed some level of fear while visiting the vet. This most likely stems from previous negative experiences of feeling ill or having injections.

Providing plenty of praise and reassurance can help turn a vet visit into a less negative experience, as could making an advance social call to the vet where your dog receives plenty of fuss and a treat, to help break their negative associations. Find out more about preparing your dog for vet visits.

Other dogs

Our dogs often feel a bit wary around strange dogs – but after a few quick sniffs, they generally get along just fine! Some dogs, however, develop a more persistent fear of their own kind – especially if they didn’t mingle with other dogs as a young pup – and need further support with this.

If your dog reacts badly to other dogs when you’re out and about, follow our behaviourist’s advice on getting them used to being around other dogs (and when to seek expert help). Similarly, always proceed slowly and carefully when introducing your dog to a new pet at home.

The unfamiliar

There are many other things that can cause dogs to feel scared, with owners regularly reporting their pets being nervous around new people, in the dark, or when travelling by car – or young dogs, especially, being surprised or scared by their own reflection.

If it’s a person, animal or object that makes your dog nervous, it’s important to desensitise them very slowly – and from a distance at first – before gradually building up their exposure. Praise them and reward them with treats if they do well, to help make the experience a positive one.

So for a dog that’s scared of car rides, try using treats and praise to slowly lure them into the car, then take a short drive to somewhere fun, such as the park. Building up to longer drives and making new, positive associations with the car will help to build confidence.

With a dog that’s afraid of their reflection, bear in mind that our dogs believe they are seeing another canine in the mirror, rather than recognising themselves. If your dog does seem rattled by their own reflection, be patient and comfort them. Next time they approach a mirror, use a treat or toy to keep them calm. They should quickly start to realise the ‘other dog’ will do them no harm.

As we’ve seen, when your dog is scared, there are plenty of ways to help. Generally, one of the most important things you can do is to stay calm yourself, as this helps to comfort and reassure them. Removing your dog from the fear-causing situation is usually the best idea, but if that isn’t possible, providing a distraction such as a game, favourite toy or treat could help. A doggy massage or soothing music may also be beneficial.

Many common canine fears can be exacerbated by the fact that a dog did not encounter those triggers (be that people, animals or things) during their early socialisation as a puppy. As pet owners, it’s important to provide our pups with a wide range of experiences of the world (at their own pace), to help them develop into sociable, secure and happy adult dogs.

Bear in mind that if your dog is regularly exhibiting signs of a severe fear or a phobia, it’s important to speak to your vet or contact a behaviourist, as the problem could worsen if left unaddressed. Never force your dog to confront a fear without giving them the choice to remove themselves from the situation, as this will only increase their anxiety.

What is your dog most afraid of? Fireworks? The vacuum cleaner? The vet? Or something more unusual? Tell us about your pet’s secret fears! #PethoodStories

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