Fear can be crippling. It can affect how a dog approaches new people, how they react to other dogs, and how they interact in general.
If your pup is a new arrival from the shelter or rescue, he may be feeling more than a little anxious and unsure of how to adapt.
Another possibility is that you brought your pup home from a breeder, perhaps even a long time ago, and he’s always been a bit shy and timid.
While too many dog owners write fearful behavior off as “well, that’s just how he is” we should strive to better our dog’s lives.
Luckily, there are ways that you can help your pup become fearless!
Stick around and see how you can make your dog truly confident and mostly fearless.
How To Make Your Dog Fearless
While some degree of fear is essential to survival, you can get your dog to be pretty fearless when you desensitize him to various situations and counter-condition a fearful response to a positive one through baby steps.
That being said, making your dog fearless starts with building a strong bond.
The lack of a bond or guidance can definitely prevent your pooch from building confidence.
But how can you break the vicious cycle if your dog’s shattered confidence is seriously inhibiting you from building a strong relationship in the first place?
If you successfully worked on trust (as far as possible), leadership, and exercise you can start simple confidence-building exercises with the help of conditioning.
Seeing your dog in constant fear from everyday triggers can be draining and if you wait long enough, you’ll both feel numb and might not recognize the stress in each other consciously, but your dog definitely feels it.
So what should you actually do to make your dog fearless if you have a specific issue?
- Work on your bond, leadership, and exercise your dog
- Identify what triggers fearful responses
- Gradually increase exposure to these triggers (might take days, weeks, months)
- Ignore (but don’t punish) a fearful response
- Reward a positive response, even if just a tiny bit
- Make sure your timing is on point to avoid rewarding negative behavior
- Rinse and repeat. Think baby steps and months of training.
That’s how you get rid of a fearful response and make sure your dog connects it to something positive instead.
However, if your plan is to boost your dog’s confidence in general, there are more generalized things you can do like obedience training, sports like Agility or Tracking games, as well as going on a hike and encouraging your dog to climb on that old log.
How do these things help you in daily life?
Well, my own mind and my dog’s mind will be at ease on every hike we encounter.
I know she can handle passing through shallow rough water, I know she’d be okay with a little injury that I can treat with a first aid kit, I know that she isn’t afraid of unfamiliar animals but instead acts curiously.
All these traits need to be cultivated and if you put in the work, you’ll have an awesome companion for every situation!
I have more on how to get your dog to be the bravest version of himself below.
Signs Your Dog Is Fearful
Let’s dive into how you spot fearful responses in the first place.
Maybe you don’t think you need to work on a specific issue but chances are if you’re thinking about boosting your dog’s confidence, he has shown fear in certain situations.
Recommended Reading: Phases of Rescues Dogs (including fear stages)
There are a couple of telltale signs that your dog is fearful.
Some of these signs like panting or yawning are no issue if they happen isolated – a bit of excitement is normal for every dog (your dog can be fearful and/or overexcited though).
However, once your dog shows drastic signs or displays behavioral changes, you need to investigate deeper.
Maybe it’s a mix of the following signs:
- Cowering under table or couch, as well as general hiding or avoidance
- Submissive signs (tail tucked between legs, lowered head, submissive peeing)
- Excessive panting or yawning
- Destructive behavior (i.e. lack of exercise and/or separation anxiety)
- Fear-based aggression
Evaluate honestly where your dog currently stands.
If he has a very low-key and submissive posture all day long, is afraid of people or other dogs, and even snaps at times, the first thing you have to do is take notes on your dog’s exact behavior and take training steps from there.
Why Is My Dog Scared All of a Sudden?
There are multiple reasons why dogs can be fearful and for rescues, it’s often a traumatic event but a lack of exposure is probably the main driver for fearful dogs.
- Lack of exposure/socialization
- Traumatic past events
- Genetics and breed disposition
- External change (moving, family death, loss of companion)
- Lack of leadership
- Medical issues causing pain
It can also be that you currently have external changes and some of them may only be temporary.
If not, try to get rid of the external source if possible to accommodate your dog or work on getting your dog familiar with it (especially necessary if a person or dog has passed and your dog just needs to cope with it sooner or later).
While breeds can have an antsy disposition, there are absolutely no breeds that are fearful by design.
It’s always man-made in some way, shape, or form!
Fearless dog breeds include the Rottweiler, Belgian Malinois, Rhodesian Ridgeback, Bullterrier, Dachshund, Alaskan Malamute.
However, as mentioned, every individual is different.
Think about your own leadership. Are you giving clear commands, treat your dog fairly and with respect and provide him with everything he needs (including mental stimulation)?
The last resort are medical issues which can drive dogs to lose their confidence, especially if pain is involved.
Consult your vet if you’re unsure about this.
Can a Fearful Dog Be Cured and Become Fearless?
Yes, a fearful dog can be trained to respond positively to stimuli he previously was afraid of but they’ll probably never be totally fearless.
But then again, no dog is completely “fearless” as it’s an unnatural state to be in, even if your dog just experiences temporary fear.
What may be called fear is often just a response to being startled or jumpy behavior around something that wasn’t previously introduced.
How Do I Make My Dog More Brave + How To Build Confidence in an Insecure Dog
To get your dog to be braver, you need to positively reinforce every little instance where your dog is showing courage and never punish failure.
After you make sure that your dog has everything he needs and you improved your bond, leadership, and exercise as well as understanding what the fear signs are and why dogs are fearful in the first place, you can work on confidence-building exercises.
As mentioned above, confidence boosts can be achieved through everyday situations.
If your dog is climbing on a little rock, praise him.
Your dog is investigating stuff he previously would bark at out of fear? Praise. Catching your pooch as he checks out that vacuum robot he disdains? Praise.
“But my dog isn’t food motivated” – that’s okay and you shouldn’t use treats every time anyway (more so in the introduction phase though).
Now, positive reinforcement doesn’t only work through treats or even praise.
Rewards can also be toys or pets, you just have to find the right one. Every dog works towards something, whatever that is.
Be a Confident Dog Owner
One of the best confidence-building exercises you can do with your dog is being a confident owner.
Dogs feel the energy that we emit and pick up on subtle signs like tone of voice or body language.
If you constantly are in a negative state of mind, your dog will notice your sadness (whether it’s caused by your training or something entirely different).
Lead with a good example and most importantly: Do not get frustrated.
Stay patient and reward the good responses while ignoring the negative ones, neither reinforcing nor punishing these negative expressions of fear.
Signs of a Confident Dog
if you have been successful in making your dog as fearless as possible, you can check the following points and see how confident your pooch really is.
Signs that your dog is confident:
- Reacts to previously negative or neutral stimuli with positive body language (relaxed posture, no hackles, normally paced tail wag, etc.)
- Approaches new situations with curiosity instead of fear
- Looks to you for approval and plows right on once he has your reassurance
- Your dog is not bothered by bikers, screaming children, or other animals
- Confident handling of dog encounters (no excessive barking, invasion of space, excessive fixating, etc.)
- Loud sounds may surprise your dog but won’t make him crouch in a corner
If you can’t cross of all these points from your list, no worries.
Creating a fearless dog takes time and patience and setbacks are part of the process.
Have fun, create a healthy bond, be a good dog owner and try to be relaxed yourself and you’ll be able to enjoy all the adventures with your dog!