When your beloved dog is scared or acting fearful, it tugs at your heartstrings. Whether it’s suddenly cowering when you pull out the leash or bolting/running away in a panic state for safety, fear and anxiety prevents fearful dogs from fully enjoying life. While some apprehension is normal, excessive or irrational fearfulness points to trauma. The good news is that with patience and the right approach, you can help your frightened pup leave the past behind.

Lets explore the causes, the importance of reading and understanding the signs early on and the the different ways we can help fearful dog overcome it!

What Are Traumatic Experiences For Fearful Dogs?

Trauma happens when dogs experience frightening or dangerous events causing intense mental stress. Even a single distressing incident can have lasting effects, especially if it happens during crucial developmental stages. Like humans, dogs can suffer from trauma. Without proper treatment, the fear, the anxiety, memories, and bad associations can persist for months or even years. 

It’s crucial to understand there are two different kinds of trauma: Soft trauma and Hard trauma.

What’s the difference between Soft Trauma and Hard Trauma in Fearful Dogs?

In simple terms soft trauma can be overcome much faster than hard trauma. I’ll give you a case study examples later. But let’s dive in.

The difference between soft trauma and hard trauma is based on three different factors: 

1.The intensity of the immediate emotional response exhibited by your dog. This factor is crucial, as each dog may react differently to traumatic events. How your dog perceives and responds to the traumatic incident will determine the intensity of the emotional reaction, rather than the event itself. For instance, if a baby gate falls and produces a loud noise, two different dogs may react in vastly different ways. Dog A, named Zoey, might startle for a moment and then quickly recover, whereas Dog B, Smokey, might flee and seek refuge in a state of panic. Although the event itself may not pose an existential threat to either dog, the emotional responses of each pup vary significantly.

2. The immediate aftermath of the trauma. Following a traumatic event, two outcomes are possible: Fear reinforcement or fear addressing. Fear reinforcement can occur in two ways: 1 through punishment or 2 excessive sympathy. Punishing fear can exacerbate the dog’s distress, while showering it with pity may inadvertently reinforce the fear. Addressing fear involves confronting the same event in a safe environment, akin to encouraging a fallen rider to get back on a horse.

3, The repetition of the traumatic event. If a traumatic event recurs frequently, what initially may have been classified as a soft trauma can escalate into hard trauma over time.

Soft Trauma.

Soft Trauma incidents typically occur infrequently, provoke low-intensity emotional responses, and result in avoidance behaviors.

Soft trauma can be misleading, as it often manifests with dramatic and intense emotional responses in dogs. However, an expert observer can discern the subtleties.

Here are some examples of Soft Trauma: 

– Accidents such as your dog falling down the stairs one or two times. 

– Getting stuck in a crate while attempting to enter or exit.

– Fear of “ghost thresholds”. Such as doorways, apartment building lobbies, specific sections of a sidewalk. The term “ghost” is used because often there’s no discernible reason for the fear.

Hard Trauma.

Hard Trauma on the other hand, involves a more intense emotional response that can become deeply ingrained in the dog’s psyche, requiring more time to overcome.

Common sources of trauma in dogs include:

  • Physical abuse like being kicked, punched, yelled at, struck with objects, etc. This type occurs in animals from puppy mills or abusive homes.

  • Accidents such as getting hit by cars, falls, work/hunting injuries, bites from wildlife or unfamiliar dogs. city dwellers face more vehicle trauma while rural pups encounter wildlife.
  • Medical trauma from painful examinations/procedures, injuries needing emergency vet care, blood draws, hospitalization. These can leave mental wounds even after physical recovery.
  • Natural disasters like fires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes. Getting left behind or displaced from owners during catastrophic events is extremely disturbing.

The younger the dog when the trauma happens, the deeper and longer-lasting the impact will be since their brains are still developing resiliency. However, frightened behaviors can emerge at any age after scary incidents.

What Signs Will Your Fearful Dog Exhibit?

While occasional, minor fears are perfectly normal, deeply traumatized dogs exhibit more severe, chronic signs of anxiety including:

  • Cowering, trembling, hiding. This demonstrates general feelings of fear about surroundings even without obvious triggers.
  • Escaping or destructive behaviors when left alone. They panic without their person nearby for safety and comfort.
  • Nightmares like crying, running, or biting in their sleep. This suggests terrifying flashbacks.
  • Excessive barking or whining. Traumatic overexcitement of their nervous system puts them on high alert.
  • Compulsive behaviors like tail chasing, shadow staring, floor licking. These repetitive actions self-soothe their anxiety.

The severity ranges from situational fearfulness up to completely shutting down and refusing walks, play, or human interaction. The longer bad associations go unchecked, the more ingrained they become. But no matter how long it’s been, healing is always possible!

Why Is My Dog Suddenly Afraid? Causes of Environmental Fears

Dogs normally react to loud noises, novel sights and sounds, or unfamiliar experiences with mild caution that abates once they see there’s no real danger. But when those initial startle reactions turn into longer-term phobias and seemingly irrational avoidance behaviors, trauma may be at play.

Common environmental triggers for sustained fear responses are:

Noises. Dogs have sensitive hearing, so very loud noises like fireworks, thunderstorms, construction sounds, or even applause can be physically painful and create associations between those auditory cues and danger signals sent to their amygdala about potential threats in the environment even if there are none.

Places.If something bad happened to your dog at the vet clinic, a kennel/shelter, or the grooming salon even just once, they may come to view entering those sites the same way a human would view returning to the scene of an attack – with heart-racing anxiety.

Objects. Things that shift suddenly, make unpredictable noises or block their vision like umbrellas, balloons, plastic bags rustling in the wind, bicycles, or skateboards. Even home decor like large displays or statues can be disturbing if noticed unexpectedly.

Surface Changes. Dogs rely heavily on their sense of smell for feeling safe. So new carpeting, floors, furniture with different textures or appearances can stress them out until it becomes familiar.

Riding In Cars. The motions and sounds of vehicle travel can cause nausea, disorientation, even vertigo-like sensations leading to associating the car with those uncomfortable feelings.

New People. Dogs sometimes can distrust unfamiliar people. Evolutionary pressure from their wolf ancestors can trigger protective, self defense and self-preservation adaptation creating anxiety and fear against new people. Without proper socialization, those instincts can kick into overdrive around strangers, folks wearing hats, the elderly, men with deep voices, crying babies – leading to defensive aggressive reactions.

Other Animals. Even cats and smaller pets create conflict for some dogs. Territorialness, jealousy over resources, or predatory drive can amplify fearful reactivity to other animals.

Why Is My Dog Suddenly Afraid Of Me Or My Family?

While people represent safety and comfort to most pups when raised with proper bonding, some still develop debilitating fears of humans for a variety of reasons:

Poor Socialization. Like mistrust of strangers, lacking positive exposures to people during puppyhood can manifest later around kids, seniors, bearded or physically impaired humans.

Previous Abuse. Dogs abused by former owners or shelter/rescue staff may transfer expectations of cruelty onto even beloved family members later – flinching from normal reaching or hovering behaviors misconstrued as violence.

Traumatic Handling. Well-meaning restraint like nail trims, giving medication or vet examinations can instill human-directed bites and other defensive actions in the future. Force should always be an absolute last resort for any animal handling.

Dog PTSD. As with noises or objects, any upsetting event that transpires while humans are present shapes assocations between those people and panic responses so that seeing individuals who merely resemble the original person can induce cowering, hiding, freezing or furious self-protection.

Genetics & Early Life. Highly sensitive dogs bred for watchdog jobs tend towards more inherent suspicion and hyperreactivity due to artificial breed manipulation selected for those traits. And as mentioned early, disturbing exposures during the first 16 weeks when their cognition and coping mechanisms are forming can have permanent impacts.

How To Heal Your Dog’s Trauma Response

The key to overcoming trauma is rebuilding confifdence and resiliency through Behavior Modification. Rushing the process or flooding dogs past tolerable levels often backfires. The key is break it down into smalls steps where you rehearse susscesfull exposures while your dog keeps making progress. 

Two Tailoring Solutions for two Different Responses

There are two different approaches to help with fear depending if your dog shuts down and freezes or if your dog goes into flight mode and runs for safety. 

1-Freezing and Shutting down 

When your dog shuts down and freezes you need to get her excited and encourage her to keep moving to overcome her anxiety and fear. Movement and excitement will buildi momentum and will change the state of mind of your fearful dog. This will allowed your dog to experience the previous traumatic event in a different emotional state and will change the association. 

2- Panicking and Running away. 

Dogs panic and run away because they want to bolt back home for safety . They go into flight mode. Here we need to calm them down and remove the excitement/anxiety. The goal is to slow the brain down so they learns to walk back home calmly and without stressin. Home is a place to relax not a place to hide.

Both approaches lead to the same goal: putting your dog in a calm and controlled state of mind where they are neither shutting down or running away. 

Long-term success requires:

Patience Over Punishment. Needless to say that corrections, yelling or tools like prong collars or e collars are not going to help. Instead remain calm, gently guide them to safer distances without coddling and keep trying in incremental steps successfully.

Resiliency Training. Building up resiliency by doing exercises where you expose triggers at low intensity where your dog can easily overcome fear. For example if your dog is afraid of the stairs, start with just one step and build up from there.

Confidence Building Through excitement. If your dog is shutting down, boost courage through excitement and stimulating the brain to engage in activity before presenting the trigger and before your dog shuts down. As inner resilience grows, external areas will seem less intimidating.

Confidence Building Through Calmness. If your dog goes into  “flight”, meaning running for safety, you need to slow your dog’s brain down into calmness.

Counterconditioning Triggers. Using food like peanut butter, spray cheese, hot dogs or other enticing treats to shift associations from scary to happy will help with certain mild cases of dogs and only after resiliency training and confidence building. Treats are good reinforces but they will not build resiliency or confidence on your dog.

Example of a Fearful Dog Case Study:

In the following example Lassie (I´ve changed the dog´s name for privacy) developed fear of stairs because he fell. This is an example of a Soft Trauma event that if it was left untreated would’ve easily morphed into Hard Trauma. 

In this case we were dealing with a dog freezing and shutting down. Prior to this incident we already worked on Resiliency Training and Confidence Building which are an integrated part the Pawmos Dog Training Method 

Question: (Lassie´s Mom)

¨We recently put up child gates at our stairs. This past Wednesday, after the gates had been up for about a week, Lassie ran right into the gate and then partially fell down the stairs. I wasn’t home, but my husband was and he said that Lassie then tried again to run through the gate and he feel down the stairs again. He did not have any physical injuries, but now he is terrified of the stairs. He will run downstairs, but he will not come up unless I literally carry him. He’ll be shaking as he reaches the top. I feel so awful! Things that usually trigger him to dash upstairs aren’t working (treats, his dinner. the doorbell ringing).

Do you have any advice for what we can do??¨


¨There is a couple of things you can do. The first thing to do is to know if he is afraid of the stairs or of the gate. This is very important. 

If it´s the gate: Remove the gate and walk Lassie upstairs on the leash. Do it a couple of times. If you are in the middle of the stairs and he is still a little bit unsure go down and try it again. Kind of like baby steps. Once he is comfortable doing that, do the same but with the gate. Once he can do it with the gate several times try to do it without the leash.

If it´s the stairs, make sure you put a rug or something that ´s not slippery on the stairs. Put him at  the end two steps of the stairs (carry him) and block the way down with a gate. So the only way is up. Do baby steps until he is comfortable doing it alone the whole stairs.

Use the leash communication we went over when I first saw you. Do not drag him, but don´t let him fly away. Be very calm and confident yourself. Think this way while you are helping him: you know he can do it, because this is something new. You just need to remove the fear. 

Let me know how it goes. I´m confident you can figure it out! – Have a great day!¨

Lassie´s Mom – :

“IT WORKED! The minute we did the stairs with the leash, he was then able to do them on his own. Thank you so much!”

The reason why it worked so fast is because Lassie´s Mom already knew the VML method, know how to communicate with the leash and with her body language and energy. What’s funny is that she first tried with external tools like treats, dinner or even the door bell and didn’t think about what she already learnt with us.

This is just one example of the importance of mastering the VML Method ,leash communication and the walk. Your body language and energy is much more powerful than what you think when you know what you are doing.

Overcoming a dog’s fears and anxieties requires knowledge, persistence, and a tailored action plan. Understanding whether your dog is experiencing soft or hard trauma will guide the best techniques. Building resilience through gradual, strategic exposures and maintaining a calm demeanor are key.

With a thorough grasp of the root causes, early recognition of warning signs, and implementation of the right solutions, you can transform your dog’s life. Proper behavior modification training will help overcome even deep-seated trauma. A happier, more relaxed dog awaits when trauma is addressed through an empathetic, knowledgeable approach that enriches their quality of life.

© Gabriel Riesco, Pawmos Dog Training LLC |   All Rights Reserved Feb 2024