It can be hard work, owning a dog that cowers at every noise, or acts fearful in other ways, for seemingly no reason. All you want to do is love your pet unconditionally, but how are you supposed to do that when they won’t let you? You need to learn how to connect with a skittish dog in order to ‘own’ one; but first, you must understand why they are skittish in the first place.



Why are some dogs skittish?

There are so many reasons behind dogs acting skittishly. If we were to list them all, we would likely be here all day. In the same way that humans can be triggered by so many different things, dogs can be, too. It might be loud claps of thunder that sets them off, loud and high winds, or even a new doorbell.

Read more: Different Dog Behaviors And What They Mean

Thankfully, there are ways to combat this problematic doggy behavior – and it all starts with a little bit of patience and understanding.

Which are the most skittish dog breeds?

Some doggos are well known for being more fearful and skittish than others.
The most skittish dog breeds include:

  • Cocker Spaniels;
  • Labrador Retrievers;
  • German Shepherds;
  • Border Collies;
  • Jack Russell Terriers;
  • Pointers;
  • Poodles, particularly Toy Poodles;
  • Bichon Frises;
  • Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.

Ironically, some of the largest dogs have the tendency to be the most skittish and fearful dog breeds.

Is it normal that my dog pees when they're scared?

Yes, peeing is perfectly normal for a scared dog.

In the same ways that a human can be so scared that they literally pee their pants (as the saying goes), dogs can pee when they are scared, anxious, or feeling highly uncomfortable.

According to research, other signs that a dog is feeling scared or anxious include:

  • Object or location avoidance (such as the vacuum cleaner or kitchen);
  • Trying to get away from certain people;
  • Crying or whimpering;
  • Barking, or other unusual or louder-than-usual vocalizations;
  • Shaking or shivering;
  • Cowering in a corner/under furniture/etc.;
  • Being very clingy towards you (the owner);
  • Unusually aggressive behavior such as biting or nipping.

Read more: Why Is My Dog Growling: What It Means and How to Address It

Why is my dog acting scared even though nothing is wrong?

Just because you can’t see that something is wrong, doesn’t mean that your dog doesn’t feel as though something is wrong – and if your dog is acting scared, there is, clearly, something wrong.

Think about what is around your pet when they become scared. Is there a recurring theme? Could it be new and unknown people coming to the home, or a certain object, like the vacuum cleaner?

Strange noises, strange smells, and strange faces can all cause your dog to act skittishly. The trick to finding out what the trigger is is to monitor your pet and make a note of patterns. This is a lot easier with an interactive pet camera, which allows you to keep an eye on your pet when you’re not around. You can also rewind and watch the footage.

Dogs can be scared by the unknown, which is a common and biologically-driven fear. Some dogs can suffer from anxiety, particularly social anxiety, in the same ways that humans can. Other dogs experience fear because of a phobia. Phobias are literally defined as irrational fears, so don’t be surprised if your furry friends develop phobias for everyday, mundane items, such as your refrigerator, toaster, or even a certain pair of shoes.

Animals, including some dogs, can reportedly sense heavy rain or thunderstorms before they happen, as well as other natural weather and geological events. If you notice your dog acting bizarrely even though nothing seems to be happening, it could be the case that a storm is on the way.

Can a dog be scared of the dark?

It is quite uncommon for dogs to be scared of the dark because they have much better and sharper vision than humans do.

Some doggos do develop a fear of the dark, or dark spaces, however. This is usually because of a bad experience when the dog has been in a dark environment rather than the dark itself, though. The bad experience could be something as simple as fireworks. Fireworks only really happen at night, so your poor pooch can easily associate the dark with the loud banging of fireworks displays.

How to get a scared dog to trust you

If you have scared a dog, it’s going to take time, patience, and understanding to get that poor pooch to trust you again. It is not going to happen overnight. In some cases, it might not even happen at all.

Think about how YOU would react if someone had hurt you, either physically or emotionally. How much work would that person need to put in, in order to win your trust again? What if they were to do it over and over again?

Now think about it from a dog’s perspective. They are unable to vocalize how they feel in the same ways that you can, nor are they able to run to someone else for safety. You are their owner, their master, their most important person.

To earn their trust, you must work every day at doing things that show your pooch that you can be trusted. For some dogs, this will include food or treats. For other dogs, it will be refraining from touching them until they come to you or give you a sign that says it’s okay to do so. The right treatment for a skittish dog will depend on the dog, and what caused them to be skittish in the first place.

Read more: How to Discipline a Dog Without Punishment

How to help a fearful dog gain confidence

In order to connect with a skittish dog and encourage the growth of confidence, you’re going to need to be patient. You should also remember never to raise your voice or your hand, to your pet. If they are scared, scaring them further isn’t going to help your cause.

Your vet is the best place to start if you have a dog acting scared all of a sudden, or if you’re thinking of adopting a skittish dog. A trained professional will be able to share top tips for soothing your specific dog, with their specific fears.

In some cases, a course of medication might be necessary. This is often similar to human medications for depression and anxiety and can be offered either as a dose-a-day treatment or one-off. The latter is good for specific events that cause skittish behavior, such as the 4th July (fireworks), or car rides to the vet.

Behavioral training might do the trick, too. This can be used alone or in conjunction with long or short-term medication.

Behavioral training for anxious or fearful dogs usually falls into one of two categories:

  • Desensitizing the pooch to the thing that scares them, is also known as desensitization, or;
  • Finding the thing that makes your pooch fearful, then training them to react differently to it, also known as counter-conditioning.

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Simple tricks to help a dog acting scared

Speaking from experience, there are a few weird and wonderful little tricks you can use to soothe your pet during their time of fear or anxiety.

My bulldog, for example, has a scarf that I wrap and tie around his head, covering his ears (but avoiding his neck), when there are fireworks outside. It seems that a mixture of the pressure against his head plus the muffling of the loud bangs works to calm him. He usually falls asleep within about half an hour of us putting the scarf on.

Your presence will sometimes be enough to calm a scared dog, too. If you have a tendency of locking your petrified pooch in a room, to give them time to calm down, do the opposite: sit with them, talk to them, and reassure them.

Positive reinforcement and assurance – and a little bit of love and affection – often go a long way with a scared and skittish dog.

How to train a skittish puppy to stop being scared

It is possible to train a skittish puppy to stop behaving in that way. In fact, it is probably a little easier to train a young pooch than the older one. (You know how much those old doggos can get set in their ways!)

If you start paying attention to your puppy and the way they behave, you can catch ‘bad’ behaviors in their tracks. Skittishness can be calmed down by distracting the pup with something else, such as a toy.

Good training will go a long way to building a great foundation with your dog, which will make training-out those bad behaviors a lot easier. Simple commands such as ‘sit’, ‘stay’, ‘bed’, etc., will give your pet a distraction – and an order to follow – when the only other thing occupying their mind is the thing that’s causing them to be scared.

FAQ

Is fearful dog rehabilitation possible?

Yes, rehabilitation of a fearful dog is possible – but it will require patience, time, understanding, and effort. In some cases, it might even be advisable to employ the assistance of a professional, either in the field of doggy training or doggy anxiety/behavioral issues.

Is adopting a skittish dog a bad idea?

Rescued dogs tend to have personality traits that aren’t always desirable, such as skittish or nervous behavior around new people, new events, new noises or smells, etc. If you choose to adopt one of these desperate-for-love doggos, you must be prepared to put in the work to win their trust. It’s only a bad idea if you aren’t up for the job. (And it’s okay not to be!)

Is my dog scared of thunder?

It could very well be the case that your dog is scared of thunder. Dogs do not know what thunder is. They don’t understand that it’s just a noise from the sky that can’t harm them. They don’t understand lightning, either. That’s likely why your poor pooch appears to be scared of the big storm going on outside your home, especially if storms aren’t common where you live.