There are a variety of reasons your dog may suddenly become fearful of something in your home.
In this article, we will cover the reasons your dog may become fearful, some tips for figuring out why they are afraid, and what you can do to help your dog.
Why is my dog acting afraid all of a sudden?
This occurs most often in puppies and adolescent dogs, which go through fear periods as they are growing up.
In very young puppies, this typically occurs around 8-10 weeks of age. Fear periods in adolescent dogs can occur any time between 5 months and 18 months.
Some adolescent dogs don’t appear to have a later fear period, while others appear to be severely affected for a few weeks.
These fear periods are a time where the dog is especially susceptible to learning that something is scary. It’s nature’s way of trying to teach puppies how to be safe in the world!
Something that seems minor to us, may seem like a major event to your puppy.
Your dog may also become fearful due to trigger stacking, which makes a situation far more scary than the situation would normally be on its own.
In trigger stacking, multiple scary events are happening at one time.
There’s a train sound in the distance, there’s strangers walking outside, and someone new just arrived inside the home, too.
While all these scary events are happening, your dog notices the balloon that your guest brought over.
In your dog’s mind, the balloon may be the new and unwelcome trigger that caused all these scary things to happen at once, when they weren’t relaxed enough to get used to the balloon.
This can even lead to aggression in some dogs as a way to deal with their fear, as discussed in the linked article.
Many fearful dogs also simply suffer from a lack of socialization. Socialization occurs in puppies, but only up until 12-16 weeks.
If puppies aren’t exposed to something before the socialization window closes, they may be scared of it in the future.
Finally, genetics also play a role in fear. Your dog may simply be more naturally fearful and anxious.
How do I know what my dog is afraid of?
If an event happened that sparked your dog’s fear, it’s often easier to narrow down what your dog is afraid of.
Other times, we don’t know what happened, and we only see that our dog is afraid.
You can try and figure out what is scaring your dog by watching where they are looking – or not looking. Dogs often avoid what they think is scary.
Don’t force your dog to come out from a safe space just to see what’s bothering them, though. In the moment where your dog is hiding and scared, your role should be to support them and help them feel comfortable – not to force them back into a situation they are afraid of.
Forcing a scared dog somewhere they don’t want to be is a recipe for a dog bite, as your dog tries to tell you that they truly are terrified and don’t want to move.
In many cases where it seems like your dog is afraid of nothing in particular, there is actually a sound that we simply can’t hear as well.
Some electronics in the house may be beeping, or construction nearby may be making worrisome noises.
Since dogs have a much better sense of hearing than we do, it’s important to consider noises as a source of sudden, unexplained, anxiety.
How can I help my dog feel less afraid?
If you can identify the cause of your dog’s anxiety, your first priority should be to give your dog space from whatever is worrying them.
For example, if they’re scared of the new balloons in the home, then consider putting the balloons in a room that your dog doesn’t have access to, or giving your dog the opportunity for a nap in their crate.
It’s also more than OK to comfort your dog. Contrary to popular belief, comforting your dog won’t make them less afraid.
Pet your dog, cuddle them, tell them that “it’s OK!”
You can also sometimes help them by showing them that whatever object they are scared of actually isn’t scary. Some dogs will become more comfortable simply if you touch the object!
A little food never hurts, either. Food has magical powers to make everything seem OK, or at least better than it was.
If your dog learns that the new scary thing means they get snacks, the new scary thing might not be so scary after all.
Finally, if this is a long-term event, or your dog is frequently scared by a variety of things, it’s worth talking to your dog’s veterinarian about possible anxiety medication.
Some medication can be given short-term and in the moment when specific scary things happen.
Other medications are given daily and help over the long term, as with many anxiety meds in people.
Medication won’t fix the problem on its own in most cases, but it can take the edge off enough for you and your dog to work on a behavior modification plan with a trainer, so that your dog is not as scared in the future.