How to Help a Fearful Dog Gain Confidence

Filed in Dog Health, Dog Training on February 3, 2022

how to help a fearful dog gain confidence

Want to learn how to help a fearful dog gain confidence?

Enabling a fearful dog to work through their anxieties and develop into a confident, independent individual is extremely rewarding.

However, it also comes with some unique challenges and requires a good deal of time and patience.

Here’s what you need to know about how to build confidence in a fearful or insecure dog, including signs of fear, reasons for fear, dog confidence building exercises, and more.

What Does a Fearful Dog Look Like?

Some indications that a dog is fearful are quite obvious and straightforward, while others aren’t nearly as clear. Here are some things to look for to help you know that your dog is fearful. If you see these signs, make sure to back off and give your dog time to relax before continuing with confidence-building exercises.

  • Tongue flicks. The dog may lick you, the air, or their own nose, but regardless of what they’re licking, quick flicks of the tongue are typically an indication of a submissive and anxious dog.
  • Panting. Panting when the dog isn’t hot may suggest fear or pain.
  • Yawning. Yawing is a submissive gesture that dogs use when they’re feeling insecure to tell you or other dogs that they mean no harm.
  • Shaking or trembling. This is one of the easiest indications of fear to recognize because dogs share it with humans. It’s important to note that some breeds, such as chihuahuas, shake as a breed characteristic. Of course, dogs may also shake when they’re cold.
  • Growling or snapping. Many of the behaviors that are often interpreted as aggressive are actually done out of fear. Abused dogs are especially likely to behave aggressively because they’re afraid.
  • Urination. Inappropriate urination upon greeting, when voices are raised, or during interactions is often an indication of a submissive and potentially fearful dog.
  • Clinginess. Fearful dogs often seek comfort from a person or dog that they trust by sticking close to them.
  • Making themselves small. An insecure dog will often try to make themselves seem as small as possible. They may do this while acting aggressively, which can be a good clue that the aggression is actually out of fear.

Why are Dogs Fearful?

growling dog

Understanding why your dog is fearful can be helpful in determining how to help them. It can also help you know how likely you are to have substantial success.

Dogs that were not socialized as puppies may have a difficult time getting over their fearfulness. This is especially true if they come from feral parents and have fearful littermates.

Dog fearfulness can be genetic. Furthermore, there are critical socialization periods when a puppy is young. If your dog misses those socialization periods, they may struggle to develop positive relationships with people.

On the other hand, if a dog was abused for a brief period but otherwise received appropriate socialization, they may just need to learn to trust again. The prognosis for such a dog is much more positive.

If you suspect that your dog has been undersocialized or comes from a feral background, it is important to temper your expectations when it comes to their confidence.

Sometimes, a dog from such a background will never be outgoing and carefree.

Medication can be helpful for these sorts of dogs. Creating a predictable schedule with plenty of routine can help them to get the most out of life that they can.

While living with a dog who is suffering from lifelong fearfulness has particular restrictions, it can also be rewarding.

These dogs can be exceptionally loving and devoted to their caretakers, even if they’ll never be as easy-going or carefree as other dogs.

It is worth persevering with the following confidence-building techniques, assuming your dog seems to be benefiting from them.

Dog Confidence-Building Exercises

Spend Time Together

Perhaps the simplest way to help an insecure dog develop confidence is to be a calm, consistent person in their life:

  • Don’t approach your dog, but rather allow them to approach you.
  • Always have some delicious treats on hand to reward your dog when they build up the courage to come to you.
  • Avoid eye contact, as it can be threatening to an insecure dog.
  • Be careful not to raise your voice, move in unexpected ways, and be cautious about holding objects around your dog. This is especially important if you suspect that your dog has been abused.

Play With and Around Them

dog playing around his owner

Highly insecure dogs may not have the confidence to play with you yet. This is especially true if they have been abused and suspect that the interaction will not be a positive one.

However, it is hard for dogs to resist a playful person in the long term. If your dog isn’t willing to play with you, simply play around them.

Show interest in and toss dog toys around, play bow in the general direction of your dog by bending over and then jumping away, and run away from your dog, gently slapping your side or hands to encourage them to chase you.

Be very careful that none of your play gestures can be misinterpreted as a show of strength or aggression by always giving your dog plenty of space and an easy escape route and always moving away, never towards, your dog.

Show Trust and be Disarming

To encourage your insecure dog to trust you, show trust in them. Get down on your dog’s level and allow them to approach your face. Yawn frequently, as yawning is interpreted by dogs as a sign that you mean them no harm.

If your dog is willing to be touched by you, touch them in ways that make it easy for them to defend themselves.

Scratching the chest and under the chin is much better than reaching over the head or back. Avoid physically restraining your dog unless it is absolutely necessary.

Take Slow Walks

Once your dog is trusting enough to allow you to leash them and lead them around, walks can be a superb way to build confidence. Most dogs love going for walks.

Walking together draws out deep instincts of being part of a pack, moving through the world together.

As you’re walking, let your dog sniff as much as they like. Sniffing is an indication of curiosity and interest, which is the opposite of insecurity and submission. The more your dog sniffs, the more likely they are to come out of their shell.

If there is another dog in the family, going for a walk with both dogs is a great way to encourage your insecure dog to gain confidence from the other dog.

Obedience Training

Basic training can be a great way to get your fearful dog thinking about something positive and help them to build confidence.

Owners often want to wait until their dog seems less insecure to begin obedience training, but in fact, training can be a powerful way to help your dog to be less fearful.

Keep training sessions short and make sure that they are always positive. Using treats as rewards is a great way to motivate a fearful dog.

Clicker training can be extremely effective when obedience training insecure dogs, particularly dogs that have been abused.

A clicker doesn’t have any negative connotation such as a human voice might have. Furthermore, because a clicker is constant without any irregularities, it can be easier for dogs to learn to associate with rewards.

Reward Confident Behavior

dog looking at the treat

Pay attention to your fearful dog’s behavior and be quick to reward them whenever they show confidence. Did your dog enter a room that they were previously afraid to go into?

Toss them a treat. Did your dog approach you for petting? Give affection immediately and warmly. Did your dog bring you a toy? Play a gentle game of tug or toss the toy for them.

Whenever you see your dog displaying confidence of any kind, be quick with a reward. It’s a good idea to carry a pocket full of treats with you for this purpose.

*One important note on rewarding confident behavior: be careful that your reward doesn’t end up being a punishment. Very fearful dogs may respond to your voice or attention negatively.

If this is the case for your dog, just quietly toss a treat without acknowledging the dog so that they receive a reward but aren’t made more nervous by having to interact with you.

Conclusion on How to Help a Fearful Dog Gain Confidence

It can take a lot of time to help your fearful dog come out of their shell, but every step is deeply rewarding. You can start with the dog confidence-building exercises described above.

The first time a fearful dog relaxes and enjoys getting petted, plays with you, or trots confidently along with you on a walk will be a moment you won’t soon forget.

Every phase of your fearful dog gaining confidence is a moment you will celebrate.

If your dog seems to have plateaued in their confidence-building and medication and lifestyle changes aren’t helping, don’t feel disappointed.

Not every dog will gain the confidence of other dogs, but they can still be loving and devoted companions. Working to build their confidence throughout their life can continue to benefit them.

About the Author

Coral Dawn Drake has been working with and training dogs for over a decade. She managed a private dog daycare, worked as a liaison at the University of Florida Small Animal Hospital, and has volunteered extensively with shelter dogs. Coral currently works with high-risk shelter dogs to socialize, help them to accept handling, and teach basic manners and commands. Many of these dogs have had minimal positive interactions with people and have suffered abuse and neglect. She teaches them that humans can be trustworthy. Coral has two dogs of her own, a Maltese and a Standard Poodle. She is currently working with her poodle on agility and competitive obedience.

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