Adopting a Fearful Dog, A guest post by Roxanne Hawn

Adopting a fearful dog can be an amazing and frustrating experience. Yet, looking back on the last 7 years with my fearful border collie Lilly, I see how far we’ve come. I’m proof that living with a fearful dog makes you a better person. To assist in your journey, I offer these insights.


3 Reasons Your Adopted Dog Might be Fearful

When adopting a shy dog or fearful dog of any age from an animal shelter, humane society, or rescue group, it’s easy to blame skittishness on past abuse. More than likely, however, abuse isn’t the “cause” at all.

1. Genetics. Animal behavior experts estimate that of all dogs born 10% possess a more cautious nature.

2. Socialization. Dog experts call controlled, carefully orchestrated exposure of puppies, in particular, to a variety of people, animals, places, sounds, and activities “socialization.” While socialization is great for dogs of any age, once the critical windows of puppyhood close (around 3 months), they are lost forever. Puppies who received poor socialization will be more fearful. (This is particularly true of puppy mill puppies.)

3. Illness. Puppies who suffer serious illness at critical points in their development often experience scary medical procedures and require medical isolation, which ramp up fear and rule out proper socialization.

Mix these three possible “causes” of fearful dogs together, and you’ll get a dog like mine every single time. Think of it as the bad-luck trifecta for fearful dogs.

5 Most Common Canine Fears

Fearful dogs can shy away from or sometimes act “aggressive” toward just about anything, but here are a few common fear triggers:

1. Children: Children, especially younger ones, move unpredictably, make unexpected noises, and tend to show “love” in ways that scare fearful dogs (chasing, hugging, kissing).

2. Men: Adopters often assume the dog’s “abuser” was a man, but the truth is that it’s MUCH more common for a fearful dog to be skittish around men in general.

3. Other Dogs: Poor socialization at critical puppy development stages often leads to dogs who are not big fans of other dogs.

4. Noises: Thunder and fireworks are the most common noise phobias in dogs, but truly sound-sensitive dogs can fear any noise.

5. Being Alone: True separation anxiety is a very specific diagnosis. I cannot even begin to do it justice here … other than to say some dogs really fear being left alone.

3 Things Every Fearful Dog Needs

1. A fearful dog needs a family that understands you CANNOT and SHOULD NOT “dominate,” force, or punish a fearful dog into not being fearful.

2. A fearful dog needs a complete veterinary exam to find or rule out medical causes of the fearful behavior, including previously undetected pain / illness or low thyroid levels.

3. A fearful dog needs a partnership with a really good dog trainer / dog behaviorist who can explore the dog’s unique situation, then develop a customized behavior plan that systematically teaches the dog how to:

    • Be calm and relaxed
    • Look to trustworthy people and other dogs for help in scary situations
    • Make better decisions in the face of fear triggers

Everything we did with Lilly, for example, takes root in something called the Relaxation Protocol. You can download Relaxation Protocol MP3 audio files from Champion of My Heart for free.

Additional Fearful Dog Resources

Above all, please know that you cannot change how a dog behaves until you change how the dog feels.

I’ve tried various products and strategies with Lilly, up to and including anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medicines. Some things worked for us. Others didn’t.

Here are a few recommendations I can make without hesitation:

About the author:

Roxanne Hawn is freelance writer and award-winning blogger. Her blog Champion of My Heart is a real-time memoir of life with fearful border collie.

Written by Karen Ragusa

Karen has gracefully run this organization and watched it grow since 2008. She's seen it all over the years and loves to write about her adventures!


5 Comments on "Adopting a Fearful Dog, A guest post by Roxanne Hawn"

  1. Pamela says:

    I appreciate the reminder that some dogs just have more cautious personalities. I’m discovering that Honey, although very well socialized, is definitely on the more fearful side of the continuum. Her fear is of odd moving objects –flapping canvas (actually, I think we have that almost beat), bicycles whose wheels shift when leaning up against a tree, etc.

    Thunder, noisy power tools, and separation are no problem for which I’m grateful.

    But I think if Honey’s breeders hadn’t given her such a good start and if we hadn’t continued the socialization, we’d have a dog much more like Lilly.

    Thank you for such a concise, and encouraging post.

    • Thanks for your response Pamela! I have a bit of a fearful dog as well. When we adopt, it is sad that we can’t control what their story was up to that point but at least we can give them the best future possible with us! It is encouraging to hear other stories and know we are not alone in this. We wish you the best with your pup!

Comments are now closed.