Why Is My Dog Scared of Everything?

Victoria Schade, CPDT-KA
By Victoria Schade, CPDT-KA. Reviewed by Tiffany Tupler, DVM, CBCC-KA on Jan. 18, 2024
nervous dog on a leash looking up at the camera

If it seems like your dog is scared of everything, then you understand that life with a fearful dog can be limiting.

Instead of greeting the world with a confident walk and a wagging tail, a fearful dog might shy away from anything new—or worse yet, react preemptively to avoid a new situation altogether. It’s not easy for a pet parent to admit that their dog is scared of everything because trying to work through those fears can be overwhelming. 

Fearfulness does have a place in the wild; it increases an animal’s chance of survival by keeping them away from danger. But when your dog is acting strange and scared in everyday life, it’s stressful for both ends of the leash and can even have long-term health implications.

Let’s take a look at why certain dogs are scared of everything, how to recognize fearful behaviors, which situations trigger fear, and how you can help your dog deal with their fear.

Key Takeaways

  • There are many reasons why a dog can be fearful, including a lack of socialization, pain, and past traumatic experiences.
  • Common causes of fear in dogs include loud noises, strangers, children, other dogs, and even going outside.
  • It's important to recognize signs of fear in your dog so you can intervene before their fear escalates.

What Makes a Dog Scared of Everything?

Dogs that seem scared of everything can be products of nature and nurture. A dog’s genetic makeup, early experiences, environment and daily life can all have an impact on their temperament.

Lack of Socialization 

A common reason for fear in dogs is a lack of positive exposure to new people, animals, and environments during the critical period of the puppy socialization process.

This important developmental stage in a puppy’s life occurs between 8 and 16 weeks of age, when pups need to have a variety of positive interactions with the world around them.

Puppies that don’t have positive exposure to the world around them might be more likely to be wary of anything new or unusual. This can lead them to be scared of things we wouldn’t associate with fear, like people wearing large hats or having a stroller, skateboard, or skater go past you.

Genetic Predispositions 

Some nervous dogs might also have a genetic predisposition to fearfulness or shyness. Puppies born to anxious mothers are more likely to be fearful as well.

Traumatic Experiences 

For some dogs, all it takes is a single traumatic experience to create lifelong fear responses. For example, a dog that’s caught off guard by firecrackers during a walk might then generalize that fear response to any loud noise—like a car door slamming—and might also develop a fear of walking anywhere near where it happened.

Pain 

It’s important to note that some behaviors that look like fear might be related to pain. Dogs that seem “hand shy” and nervous about being touched might actually be dealing with an undiagnosed medical issue.

Your veterinarian can help you determine whether your dog is experiencing pain or suffering from fear-based issues.

A common reason for fear in dogs is a lack of positive exposure to new people, animals, and environments during the critical period of the puppy socialization process.

Signs That Your Dog Is Scared

The first step to helping a dog that’s scared of everything is understanding their body language.

Some fear displays are hard to miss—like a trembling, hunched-over dog that has their ears back and tail tucked. But learning to recognize subtler fear reactions will allow you to intervene before your dog’s fear escalates.

Some of the telltale signs your dog is scared include:

  • Trembling or shivering

  • Hunched body with head down

  • Ears back

  • Tail tucked

  • Hair standing up on the neck and back

  • Growling

  • Showing teeth

A dog that’s afraid might also show these more subtle signs:

  • Freezing in place

  • Moving in slow-motion

  • Repeatedly licking their lips

  • Yawning frequently

  • Trying to move away from the stressor

  • Panting heavily or suddenly stops panting

Keep in mind that some behaviors that look like aggression, like leash reactivity and barking, can also be signs of an underlying fear.

Common Fears and Phobias in Dogs

Many dog fears are universal—it’s rare that a dog actually enjoys a trip to the vet—however, a dog that’s scared of everything might have a difficult time coping with common, everyday noises or encounters.

Loud Noises 

It’s almost impossible to avoid having a startle reflex when you hear an unexpected loud noise, but dogs that are scared of everything will react more dramatically to noises.

For example, a typical dog might jump at the sound of a dropped pan. But a fearful dog might run, hide, and refuse to come out.

Children 

Kids can be fast, loud, and unpredictable. Because of that, they can be challenging for even the most even-tempered dogs.

But dogs with generalized fear reactions will find children even more distressing, particularly if a child doesn’t understand canine body language and has a hard time recognizing when a fearful dog is trying to get away.

Other Dogs

Unfortunately, not every dog wants to be friends with their own kind, particularly timid dogs. If a dog hasn’t had the opportunity to meet dog friends and develop canine language skills, they might wind up feeling overwhelmed when faced with other pups.

Strangers 

Some dogs are uncomfortable around people that look different from their family (for example, large men with beards or people wearing hats and bulky jackets). But dogs that are afraid of anyone outside their family can make going into public or having guests over traumatic.

Going Outside 

Sometimes the world outside your front door is a scary place. Dogs that move to a different environment, like from the suburbs to the city, might find the noise and crowds in their new neighborhood overwhelming.

Similarly, a traumatic experience outside can be enough to create an overwhelming fear of going outdoors.

How To Help a Fearful Dog

Be patient with your dog. Keep in mind that a fearful dog should always set the pace for training. Trying to push a nervous dog beyond his comfort zone could derail the training process, so be patient and encourage your fearful pup as they learn to be a more confident dog.

If Your Dog Is Scared of Loud Noises….

If your dog only reacts to certain types of noises, such as sirens, fireworks, or thunder, use behavioral modification to help your dog learn to tolerate the sound. Use a recording of the sound to gradually desensitize them to the noise by playing it at a low volume and pairing it with treats.

Increase the sound over a series of training sessions, watching your dog’s body language to make sure that they aren’t becoming uncomfortable with the noise.

If your dog is trying to cope with ongoing scary sounds, like construction noise, use a white noise machine to muffle the sounds. Calming pheromones and ThunderShirts® can also help.

If Your Dog Is Scared Around Children…

If you don’t typically have children in your home, it’s easiest to manage your dog’s behavior by keeping them in a safe, quiet space (such as their kennel) when small guests visit.

If you discover that your new dog is fearful around your own children, make sure your dog has an area to spend time away from them. Find a positive-reinforcement dog trainer to help you assess the situation and create a training plan that keeps everyone safe.

If Your Dog Is Scared of Other Dogs…

Helping fearful dogs learn to be more confident around other canines requires a slow approach and a good understanding of dog body language. You will need to slowly work through dog introductions in order to keep your pup feeling comfortable.

For dogs that are mildly uncomfortable around other dogs, find a mellow, dog-savvy dog and try walking them together, at the same pace but with distance between them. When both dogs seem relaxed, gradually begin to bring them closer together, making sure that they remain calm and happy as they get closer.

Keep early introductions short and end sessions before the nervous dog gets overwhelmed. And remember that making friends with one dog doesn’t mean the behavior will generalize to all dogs.

If Your Dog Is Scared of Strangers…

Using desensitization and counter-conditioning can help a stranger-shy dog start to overcome their fears.

To begin, figure out your dog’s “buffer zone”—the area at which they can remain calm when faced with a stranger. Then have the stranger come into view at the edge of that buffer zone and feed your dog a bunch of extra-special treats they don’t normally get.

Continue giving treats while the person is in view for a few seconds, then have the stranger disappear.

Gradually bridge the gap between your dog and the person over a series of training sessions. Always watch your dog’s body language to make sure they remain calm and confident throughout the training process.

If Your Dog Is Scared of Going Outside…

Dogs that are afraid to leave their home can benefit from a training process called shaping. Shaping makes it easier for dogs to face their fears by breaking behaviors down into manageable steps and rewarding the dog for making progress toward the finished product.

Pet parents can begin the process by standing near the door with a handful of treats. When your dog makes any movement towards the door, mark the behavior with a clicker or verbal marker (such as “good!”) and toss a treat to your dog. Continue to build on and reward each step towards the door until your dog is able to cross the threshold.

Talk with your veterinarian about pairing training and desensitization efforts with natural, calming supplements or pheromone collars. Sometimes, medication is very helpful to calm some dogs in certain situations if natural options have not worked.

Working with a board-certified veterinary behaviorist or a licensed and certified trainer who specializes in fear-based issues option if all other routes have failed. 

Featured Image: iStock.com/DemureDragonfly


Victoria Schade, CPDT-KA

WRITTEN BY

Victoria Schade, CPDT-KA

Animal Trainer


Help us make PetMD better

Was this article helpful?


Get Instant Vet Help Via Chat or Video. Connect with a Vet. Chewy Health