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What is Fear of People?

Dogs may develop a fear of humans, or a subcategory of humans and may become dangerous if not adequately outfitted or properly reconditioned to accept human presence. Forcing a fearful dog to interact with people before they are ready may create a more fearful animal rather than a more confident one, and enlisting a professional dog trainer or behaviorist is more likely to produce a positive outcome.

Although many fear related issues can be changed through proper exercise, diet, and training, some dogs may need additional help such as medications to control their actions and reach their full potential.

Dogs can develop fears to many things including inanimate objects, other dogs, intense weather, and in some cases, people.

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Symptoms of Fear of People in Dogs

Dogs that are anxious or fearful around people may express it in several ways. Some of the behaviors that you might see include:

  • Aggressive chewing
  • Cowering
  • Ears held back
  • Escape behaviors
  • Exaggerated yawning
  • Excessive vocalizations
  • Frantic tail chasing
  • Holding head lower than back
  • Housetraining accidents
  • Irritability
  • Licking nose or face (with no food present)
  • Lip tension
  • Pacing
  • Panting
  • Showing the whites of the eye
  • Submissive rolling over
  • Tail tucked under
  • Timidity
  • Trembling
  • Whites of the eye turning red

Types

Although some dogs are afraid of people, in general, some dogs only experience anxiety when meeting certain groups of people. Some of the most common groups of people that trigger canine anxiety include:

Children

Although this fear may be triggered by abusive or careless behavior from a child, it is just as likely to be due to a lack of exposure to children. Children tend to move more quickly and be less predictable than adults and young children, in particular, are also prone to physical displays of affection that may make your canine companion uncomfortable. 

Men

Dogs who are made anxious by one gender or the other are more often made anxious by men. While abuse by a man is likely to trigger this behavior, it is also common in dogs who were not introduced to enough men during socialization.

Strangers

This is also typically caused by a lack of socialization, but the fearful behavior is not restricted to one gender, and instead is directed towards anyone the dog is unfamiliar with. If contact is forced, this fearful behavior can easily change into aggression.

Causes of Fear of People in Dogs

The causes of anxiety and other mental imbalances in dogs are a combination of nature and nurture. Some of the possible causes may include: 

  • Developmental factors - Improper socialization early in life can contribute to many fears related to people 
  • Environmental factors - This is particularly relevant for fear reactions that are related to disorders like depression or PTSD; the loss of an owner or a friend, traumatic events, and violent physical attacks can all trigger chronic fear and in some cases may develop into PTSD related reactions to other humans
  • Genetic predisposition - Some dogs are genetically predisposed to be anxious and may be more likely to generalize fear of one person to fear of many 
  • Physical disorders - Illnesses which cause pain on contact and illnesses that affect the animal's perception may cause the dog to associate this pain with people

Diagnosis of Fear of People in Dogs

When you bring your dog into the veterinarian’s office to address a behavior related problem, such as fear of humans, they will typically request a behavioral history. Information that is likely to be included in a complete behavioral history would include any information regarding the animal’s breed, sex, and age as well as the frequency and circumstances surrounding any fear related incidents. They will also need to get information regarding the intensity of the episodes, how your dog behaved once the person left their area, as well as information about whether the dog is showing fear for all people or just certain groups of people. 

To ensure that there is no medical component that is contributing to the animal’s anxiety a physical examination will typically be completed with a particular emphasis on locating any areas of pain. This exam will generally including ordering standard diagnostic tests like a complete blood count, biochemistry profile, and urinalysis, particularly if this is a new behavior for the dog. The veterinarian may also request tests to check the thyroxine concentrations in the blood as thyroid disorders can also cause a dog to act uncharacteristically.

Treatment of Fear of People in Dogs

Treatment for dogs who have shown fear related to human interaction should be a cooperative effort between the animal’s owners and a professional trainer or behaviorist. It is important not to scold or punish your dog for its fear as this can actually enforce their feelings and increase the chances that fearful behavior will turn into aggressive behavior. One of the treatment methods that is commonly utilized in these situations is known as desensitization, a method in which treats and praise are used in conjunction with the presence of the object of fear, in this case, a person. 

Regular obedience training can also mitigate some of the responses caused by the patient’s anxiety, and may be used as a component to counter-conditioning treatment, in which a command behavior or action is used to distract the dog from the object of its fears. In more extreme cases of fear anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medications such as diazepam or Prozac may be employed to calm your companion’s nerves.

Recovery of Fear of People in Dogs

Dogs that have experienced fear and anxiety for long periods of time may be harder to treat than dogs who have recently developed the trait, and some dogs may never completely get over their fear. If you have a dog that is fearful of humans, it is crucial not to push the animal before it is ready and that you provide a place where the dog can retreat to be left alone, such as an open crate or a quiet back room or corner away from the activity. If your dog has snapped at or bitten a person due to fear, a professional trainer or behaviorist should be sought at once to correct the behavior.