After hanging out with enough dogs, you might notice that some are more skittish than others. Your dog might be among these, seemingly scared of its own tail in public, but relaxed and normal with you at home. Even if your dog is relatively bold and confident, you might know of some specific triggers that stress your dog out immensely. A certain degree of skittishness in dogs is relatively common, but in some cases, the skittishness can be severe enough so as to be problematic. A dog’s fears, when strong enough, can lead to erratic behavior and aggression. Neither of these is a good quality for your dog to possess. Here are some reasons why your dog might be skittish, and what you can do to help your dog face its fears and live a confident, fearless life.
The Root of the Behavior
In the same way that there is no immediate explanation for why some humans are naturally more daring and bold than others, there is no immediate explanation for why some dogs are naturally more skittish than others. Like humans, dogs have unique personalities that might make them skittish even under ideal puppyhood conditions. It is also generally believed that genetics have at least a small role to play in whether or not a dog is more or less confident as it approaches the unfamiliar. Some dogs seem to be born with a predisposition of fearfulness, and you can see it in the way that these dogs lower their ears, keep their tails between their legs, cower, yawn repeatedly, or whine and huddle around you for safety. Although some dogs can be naturally skittish, the far more likely case is that a skittish dog became skittish through lack of new experiences during its youth. All young dogs go through a crucial learning phase called socialization in which they are exposed to new people, places, things, and circumstances. Puppies at approximately eight weeks will start to express shyness around new people; this is the best time to expose them to a wide variety of people. You should get a feeling for what your dog is most afraid of between five and eight months. Exposing your dog to its fears and showing them how normal everything is will teach them to respond to their triggers in healthy, courageous ways. Of course, a dog’s fears can be learned at any point in its lifetime. Traumatizing events can cause a dog to fear certain objects or situations for its entire life, and once traumatized, it can be difficult to teach a dog to trust the thing that caused it so much pain or confusion. Dogs with learned fear responses are typically confident in all other areas of their lives. When they begin to show signs of fear, it is natural for you as the caregiver to comfort them, pet them, or try to figure out what is wrong. Unfortunately, when you pet a dog that is acting out of fear, you are teaching the dog that their fearful response earns them your attention and care. Dogs that are used to this kind of reward for fearfulness tend to become more skittish as they grow.
Encouraging the Behavior
Dogs that are skittish naturally or unintentionally trained to be fearful do not make for the best of companions. In some cases, owners begin to feel anxious about what might scare their dog and begin to experience anxiety of their own. Understanding a dog’s socialization window and exposing it to new things during this time is the only way to ensure that your dog grows into a dog that is unafraid. That being said, if you adopted or your dog is naturally skittish, then your goal should always be small steps towards greater confidence. Praise your dog for facing its fears, teach it that it will be safe with you, and always work together to reduce the fearful response. In order to train your dog out of a learned fear, it is important that you act natural in the circumstances that your dog is scared by. Dogs learn by making associations in the moment and monitoring your actions and reactions to your surroundings. By acting normal and treating your dog consistently in both normal and fearful situations, your dog will eventually learn that its fears are unfounded and will naturally grow out of them. Remember to resist the urge to cuddle your dog or reward their fears. Though it may seem paradoxical in the moment, it is the only way to ensure that they don’t grow deeper into their fears to gain your affection.
Other Solutions and Considerations
In some cases, a dog’s fear response can become so strong that it begins to act erratically. This typically happens when a dog is naturally skittish to begin with, and the condition is made worse by a lack of socialization early in its life. Especially skittish dogs may become aggressive. These dogs may require rehabilitation, but you should know that even if you are able to successfully address your dog’s rampant fears, your dog may never be as confident and healthy as a well-socialized dog. Talk to your vet about dogs that become unable to properly face each day due to their fears. There are many medications available to dogs that can help them cope with or manage their fears.
Like people who get nervous around certain types of people or who feel uncomfortable in certain situations, dogs can have skittish personalities. While there is nothing wrong with a dog that prefers to stay home, it is in your dog’s best interest not to be allowed to become a scaredy-cat. Teach your dog not to fear new things, stay calm in situations that your dog finds stressful, and celebrate your dog’s fearlessness.