Fear in Puppies: An Overview and Next Steps

May 2, 2020

Your puppy experienced something or someone and displayed fear behaviors. How you choose to respond next can mean the difference between recovery and a significant behavioral problem.

This is a long and involved subject so bear with me on blog length! Today you’ll learn about fear responses in dogs. How labels can interfere with training progress . Why you should work with a professional on issues of fear. Where your puppy falls on the spectrum of fear behaviors and the implications those behaviors have on your choice of training professional. Finally, general tips on how to HELP, NOT HURT, a puppy experiencing fear.

First I’d like to normalize this moment for you, fear is a part of every dog’s emotional repertoire. The fact that your puppy is experiencing fear isn’t weird or even unexpected. Puppies and adolescent dogs actually go through developmental and secondary fear periods where the world can suddenly become a very scary place. If your previously confident and stable young dog starts acting skittish out of the blue to things known and unknown, it may be a fear period. These things typically pass in a few days to a week and don’t tend to need intervention beyond sheltering your extra sensitive puppy from their fears and comforting him in his distress. If your puppy seems extra spooky, slow things down for a week and see if it passes. Of course we can have fear outside of these periods and that’s what I’m focused on in this post.

Fear serves an adaptive function that helps an animal prime its body to deal with perceived danger. Our dogs are born with a very specific set of tools to respond to things that scare them. It can be helpful to think of them in the terms of fight, flight or freeze. Flight and freeze behaviors are more typically what we see in puppies. Your puppy might startle and bark, retreat, hide behind your legs, shut down and refuse to move etc. The “fight” response in dogs can be barking, lunging and ritualized aggression wherein they make displays to intimidate and create distance without engaging in an actual fight. This is natural dog-dog dispute settlement language, just as we humans have behaviors we use to communicate before resorting to things like a physical altercation during our “fight” moments.

The following are components of ritualized aggression in dogs: Freezing up, Accelerated Consumption (when a resource is involved), Growl, Snarl, Snap, and Inhibited Bite.

“Mine” by Jean Donaldson Summarized from pages 4,5

These are not things people like to see in their dogs, but all dogs are capable of these signals. They’re simply using the tools nature gave them. As you move up that list above you’re seeing an escalation of behavior. What comes after this can be a bite or actual fight. When you see any of the behaviors above it is imperative that you do not punish your dog. What you see as your dog being “bad” is a critical warning system. We do not want to break this system, without it a dog can become dangerous, skipping straight to bite without warning.

Ultimately, fear is not an enemy, it keeps us safe and it keeps our dog’s safe, there’s a reason we’re all hardwired for it. However, fear can lie to us and our dogs, we can all perceive danger where this is truly none to be found. One bad experience, trauma, or even genetics can prime us to react with a flight or fight response to mundane things. Fear can reach unreasonable, maladaptive levels and create suffering. This can happen in us and in our four legged friends. Patterns of fearful and reactive behavior are worrisome but a few moments of fear are completely normal. Either way, we need to take it seriously because NOW is the time to help your puppy!

Start by Describing the Behavior Without Labeling Your Puppy:

Nothing that follows is an attempt to label your puppy as fearful or reactive. Your puppy is experiencing an emotion, this does not permanently drop your puppy into a specific category for life. Labels have their places, but here they can take away our power to change behavior. If you decide today that your puppy IS fearful, IS aggressive, IS reactive then those things are going to color your every interaction from this day forward. There’s not a whole lot of room for growth there; how we feel and talk about our puppies can create barriers to success.

Try instead to describe what your puppy is experiencing/doing with their bodies. Use your observation skills. Example: Your puppy saw that person over there, his body went stiff, he stared, his breathing accelerated, he moved forward, barked, growled and then tried to move away. Then the person left and your puppy slowly resumed loose body language and other activities. That’s an accurate description, with information that can help find solutions!

Help Your Puppy by Getting a Professional:

Now I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge that behavioral issues stemming from fear have a wide spectrum of severity. Whenever we talk about a pattern of fear or reactive behaviors it’s TIME TO CALL A PROFESSIONAL, NOW!!

This isn’t a cash grab, or a fear mongering moment. The average dog owner does not have the skill correctly interpret, evaluate, and handle more than minor moments of fear in a puppy. Even then, crowd sourced information leads MANY of you astray.

It’s completely understandable, getting the right information is hard, and most of you wanted a pet. Becoming an actual dog trainer or student of animal behavior probably wasn’t high up on your priorities list when you brought this dog home. Fears in dogs are a complicated topic if the length of this VERY summarized blog is any indication for you. Modifying fear behaviors should really come with one of those “PLEASE DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME THESE ARE PROFESSIONALS” warnings that you might see before stunt or circus performance.

Need more reasons? This is why you get a professional dog trainer:

  1. This problem is not going to go away on its own, even if it’s minor. *An exception is a fear period mentioned earlier.*
  2. What looks like fear to you could actually be a frustrated greeting behavior, inappropriate greeting behaviors, or misjudged or socially weird play attempts or other things. A professional, experienced and well versed in dog behavior can figure that out for you. That’s critical because the advice for working through these issues is not the same.
  3. The average pet owner is not able to accurately assess the severity and possible dangers in the behaviors their puppy is displaying. Better to find out you have a minimal issue with a quick solution than to miss a critical problem that will progress without immediate attention.
  4. Issues of fear can progress rapidly without the right handling, what starts as a minor problem can become a big one very quickly.
  5. With our young dogs, we have an opportunity to intervene swiftly which will ultimately lead to more positive outcomes.
  6. Early intervention will save you stress, heartache, and money. The longer the behaviors occur, the harder they are to modify and the more professional assistance you will need at higher levels of expertise.
  7. Behavior modification is a complicated and involved process. An experienced professional will help you do things correctly, the first time through. It will take time but it will be faster and more effective than muddling through on your own.

If you’re coming to the blog from the Puppy Pandemic Support Group Camille Personne is your gal. You may also choose to contact other admins in unit one depending on the severity of what you are experiencing.

What level of concern do you need to have about your puppy’s fears?

For the sake of clarity I’m going to try and put fear behaviors into a category for you. It’s truly difficult to put the continuum of dog behavior into neat boxes but this is the best I can do for you. They are not hard and fast rules by any means. These are purely made to assist you in choosing the correct dog training professional.

A Quick Note:

Serious behavioral issues CAN appear in young dogs, even puppies. You’re a small group, but you exist and I want to validate your experiences. It’s often no one’s fault, just a lightning strike of nature so be kind to yourself and to the people you got your dog from. Blame won’t change anything, seek professional assistance to get help and prognosis with these severe and danger level dogs. My heart truly goes out to you!

The large majority of you do not fall into the serious and danger categories I am about to describe.


My puppy is afraid of random novel things, people, sounds etc. My puppy might startle, back away, bark, or hide behind me. My puppy is afraid of a small number of things. This is not happening frequently, but it does happen. The number of things my puppy is afraid of is small, and it does not seem to be increasing.


My puppy stares, accelerates breathing, and barks at people or other animals when afraid. My puppy may lunge if I make an up close approach to what is feared. My puppy does not growl, snarl, snap, inhibited bite or bite. Alternatively my puppy frantically tries to flee, pulling hard into the leash, panting, and scrabbling against the ground. This puppy may be afraid of a larger number of things, to the point where the behaviors are being practiced frequently. The trend may be that your puppy is escalating in behavior toward a single fear that started out mild or that your puppy is steadily, but slowly adding more fears to their list. My puppy can recover from these episodes in a reasonable amount of time.


My puppy lunges at a great distance from the source of it’s fear, growls, snarls, snaps or gives inhibited bites. My puppy jumps to the higher end of the ritualized aggression continuum without working up the scale or my puppy does the scale in a flash to the point where it’s almost indiscernible. My puppy is so afraid he attempts to flee in terror. My puppy vocalizes in the forms of howls, screams and or frantic barking. My puppy shakes, urinates, or defecates in the presence of his fears. My puppy shuts down and will not move. The number of things my puppy is afraid of are continually escalating and adding new things. My puppy is taking longer and longer to recover from fear triggers. My puppy may seem generally distressed and unable to relax in daily life. Triggers may happen so frequently due to the scope of feared things that my puppy never truly comes down between one event and another. My puppy may have more than one severe behavioral issue.


* Do not pass go, do not collect $200, RUN, don’t walk to a certified behavior professional.*

My puppy skips the scale of ritualized aggression and goes directly to an inhibited bite or bite. My puppy is unpredictable. My puppy gives no protracted warning before a physical attack. My puppy has injured other animals or people. My puppy cannot be touched. My puppy cannot leave my home. My puppy is constantly in a state of distress. My puppy has an assortment of complications that play into one another such as separation anxiety, noise sensitivity, resource guarding, barrier aggression, aggression toward people, aggression toward animals etc. My puppy cannot receive veterinary care. I am afraid of my puppy.

What level of professional does your puppy need?

When you’re seeing anything in the moderate, severe, or danger levels start with your veterinarian. This is to rule out physical illness, pain or other problems that may be driving these behaviors. Your vet may even be comfortable trying some medications to help your dog cope while you find a trainer and work through the behavior modification process. Anyone with a puppy in these levels needs to immediately begin a management plan while seeking a professional. Management means eliminating the opportunity to practice the behaviors by avoiding triggers. If physical injury to people or animals is involved using multiple layers of management is critical so there’s a fail-safe in place. A professional will help you build a strong management plan once you connect with one but do your best in the interim.

Based on the categories I’m going to try and suggest the level of professional care your puppy might need. I have not seen your puppy, in addition to the behavioral factors that go into judging the severity of a case we have to look at risk factors based on the environment. A dog with behaviorally moderate fear of children is a more critical case, needing a higher level of care, if you have 4 children in your home. A dog with a behaviorally severe fear of other dogs is a lower risk case if they live in an enclosed, secure property in a rural area versus the city of Chicago. It can be a good choice to choose the highest level of expertise that you can afford no matter the level of your issue. Behavior experts choose these cases as their main focus and their skill and methods are more refined, leading to more efficient work.

When you look at these suggestions remember you can always go up a level of expertise, but I do not suggest you take a known severe/danger fear issue to a mild issue suggested trainer. If this happens accidentally, the right trainer will assess your problem and refer you to a higher level of care if necessary. If a dog training professional does that for you, they truly have your best interests at heart. Beware of anyone who guarantee results, especially in a particular time frame, because every case is unique, needs a personalized approach, and will have a different prognosis.

Mild Fear Issue Trainers:

Moderate Fear Issue Trainers:

Severe and Dangerous Fear Issue Trainers:

As you search for a professional you need to identify and discontinue behaviors that can HURT your puppy!

Let’s throw some common myths out onto the table:

  • You need to punish your puppy’s “bad” behavior in order to make it stop.
  • Your growling, barking, lunging puppy is being “dominant” and needs physical correction with a tool, scruff grab, or alpha roll.
  • You shouldn’t comfort your puppy because it will reinforce their fear.

NOPE. Throw those ideas in the shredder. Not helpful, not useful, sometimes they’re even dangerous.

They will only succeed in teaching your scared puppy 3 things about the world:

  1. This thing is ACTUALLY really scary. It appeared and that wasn’t great but then even worse things happened.
  2. You are not a source of safety, support, or trust
  3. Communicating distress results in punishment, no more warnings before a possible bite.

That is HURTING a fearful puppy, we don’t want to go down that road!!

You want to HELP, not hurt. This is how:

  1. When your puppy is put into a situation where he experiences fear, despite your best efforts to avoid it,  you can and should support him.
    • We do this by, kindly and calmly removing our puppies from this thing that is scaring them. We use trained behaviors that allow us to move our puppies and retreat to a point where we can use treat scatters and a calming voice. If touch is something your puppy finds soothing you can use that as well. Long slow strokes are better than short and frequent petting. Think about what options might work for you dog. Not everything works for all puppies. If you think one of these solutions would put you in danger, do not do it.
    • If you need to retreat out of visual range, that’s OK.
    • A scared puppy showing ritualized aggression or freeze/flight type behaviors WILL have the behavior they just performed reinforced in this process where we bail and give them space.
    • It DOES NOT reinforce the fear itself. Comforting a child who is afraid does not teach them to be more afraid. It’s the same for our dogs.
    • We take that moment of reinforcing behavior we don’t like in order to do damage control and attempt to avoid adding another experience to the THING IS BAD AND SCARY column.
    • I care far more about the level of your puppy’s distress in this moment than I do about reinforcing a behavior. Reinforcing communication like a growl is not the worst thing that can happen. It protects the warning system.
    • In all likelihood, if it’s a person/dog they’re going to reinforce the behavior anyway by moving away all on their own. So soothing and calming your dog is the best choice.
    • We resolve to practice better management in the future not because reinforcing the behavior was “bad” but because the less we do that, the easier teaching a replacement behavior will be.
  2. We create quality socialization experiences for our puppies
  3. We remember that socialization does not require interaction.
    • Great blog on the subject: Why We Need to Stop Calling it Socialization by Amy Cook
    • Teaching our puppies that other people and animals aren’t sources of interaction is a critically important lesson.
    • It’s easy to assume that your puppy needs more INTERACTION with things that are feared. The truth is that your puppy is requesting and NEEDS space.
    • By choosing non interaction for a puppy experiencing fear you are supporting their needs for space and security and building up their trust and ability to feel safe in the world.
    • Allow your puppy to observe and learn from a distance at which they can notice the scary thing, with loose body language, and still be able to focus on other things.
    • Using such a distance and pairing food with the appearance of the scary thing can quickly make progress on minor issues. The bar opens when the scary thing is noticed by your puppy and closes when it leaves visual range. Giving a young puppy that space and simply pairing the source of fear with good things could get you where you need to go! Learn more about proper technique from a professional.
  4. We play TOUCH THE GOBLIN with first time minor fears
  5. We learn about canine body language in order to recognize when our puppies are uncomfortable before the bigger displays like growling.
  6. We Practice management, avoiding and minimizing over threshold exposure to the feared thing.
    • Identify the source(s) of your dog’s fears.
    • What changes can you make to your actions and environment to eliminate or minimize exposure to this fear at levels that result in fear behaviors? Go beyond the big ones like growling and looks for those smaller signs of distress you learned in the body language resources.
    • For sustained mild fears and moderate fears before you find a trainer: At what distance can your puppy notice the source of it’s fear with loose body language and ability to focus on other things? Only choose outings that can give you more than this distance.
    • For severe and danger level fears: Eliminate exposure. Use double or even triple layers of management, especially if there is a threat to the safety of people or animals. Do not take risks. Make your dog’s world smaller, providing enrichment and alternative means of exercise. You need to be working under the supervision of a professional immediately. Prioritize safety.
  7. We do not live in a vacuum, fearful moments will happen. So we Teach our puppies behaviors that help them both look away and move away from the source of their fear without leash tension. These are great skills for ANY puppy.
  8. We do Intentional training setups using counter-conditioning as part of a behavior modification plan under the supervision of a professional.
    • These methods are the heart of changing how your dog FEELS about other dogs and they are very effective! We want to pair dogs with good things like food and play. This happens regardless of the behavior your dog is displaying at the time. If a dog is in view, the bar is open, when the dog leaves view the bar closes. Don’t be fooled, that summary sounds simple but this isn’t easy.
    • There’s a lot that goes into behavior modification using counterconditioning. I’m going to refer you to do some learning on your own and to reach out to a professional.
    • These resources are for reactive behaviors, I want to assure you, again, that I’m not trying to label your very young puppy. When we saddle dogs with labels we can feel disheartened. Your puppy is experiencing fear, that’s it. The methods for helping with fear are often talked about in the context of reactive behavior so the resources are labeled as such. 
  9. We work with a professional to teach an appropriate alternative behavior to encounters with sources of fear.
    • For a puppy who is fearful, looking away and moving away from the source of their fear is reinforcing.
    • When we encounter something our puppy fears in daily life, after our dog has noticed, and before a behavior happens, we can ask for  trained behaviors to help our dogs look and move away.
    • This is how we begin to replace a fear behavior with a more socially acceptable behavior with the help of a training professional.
    • Looking away and moving away deliver the same consequence (object of fear goes away) which makes for a strong and powerful alternative behavior.
    • We often need to use the techniques in item 9 above before we can be successful in training a replacement behavior. The emotion needs to change in order to allow us to reach our dog’s rational, thinking brain
    • I simply cannot state this enough. So here it is again.

Fear does not have to be a life sentence for our puppies, change is possible, with the right help. So reach out and find a qualified dog training or dog behavior professional to get your puppy on a happier path.



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