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Fear in our Furry Friends

by Bailey Coldwell

We often hear of dogs who bite someone “out of nowhere”. One second they were fine and the next minute they snapped. Keep reading to learn about the subtle signs that a dog is uncomfortable and why we want to provide support sooner.

I want you to think about something that you are scared of, to help put this into perspective. This can be snakes, spiders, swimming, clowns, etc. Now, let’s create a situation regarding this fear. We will use snakes as an example. You and your friend are taking a walk and up ahead in the trail you see a huge snake. You instantly stop approaching and start to internally feel fearful. Your friend, who has no issues with snakes says:

“What is going on? It is just a snake. We are fine.”

You might start to sweat, backtrack, and tense up as you reply, “Actually I am really not comfortable with snakes and I think I want to stay further away.”

Your friend then laughs and says, “Oh come on you are fine, let’s go.”

Feeling more panicked, you might start to raise your tone, shake your head in an exaggerated way, and motion with your arms that you don’t want to.

Now, how would you react if your friend (who is much larger than you) grabs your arm and starts to drag you closer and closer to the snake?

You would likely yell, kick, push away, and try to escape. Your reaction would grow more and more intense as the pressure keeps increasing.

You tried to politely tell your friend that you were scared. You were then forced to be in a situation you were not comfortable with. Your reaction became intense.

The same is true of dogs. They are just often harder to read because they don’t speak our language. This means that we need to learn how to read them.

Here are some of the subtle signs that dogs are uncomfortable and need space. Know that these reactions will vary dog to dog:

-side eying

-lip licking


-freezing/tensing up

-jerky movements to get away


-hiding behind you

-low growl

-lip snarling

-simply not being happy and carefree

Now, what do you think your reaction would be if your friend said, “Here, I will give you $100 if you just stop being a scaredy cat and get past the snake?”

Tempted by the reward, but still terrified of the snake, you feel pressured. The $100 could pay for your groceries, but the snake could bite you. Maybe you take the chance. Your heart is pounding and you jump over the snake as fast as you can, the snake hisses. You grab the $100 and then get out of there immediately. Your fear is not gone. Your panic increased because you felt pressure to have to get closer, but you got the reward.

So what happens the next day when there are two snakes in the path and your friend is not there to offer you money? Are you at complete ease and just step past the snake? No, you still choose to avoid it.

We often try to lure our dogs past a fear using a treat or other reward. We have a stranger hold a treat out, yet the dog is terrified of the stranger. Or we put an umbrella right beside the door to get outside (your dog LOVES being outside, but is scared of the umbrella). Your dog MIGHT take the treat and they MIGHT rush past the item to get the reward, but that doesn’t take away the fear. The dog might take the treat and then panic and bite the person. Or the dog might go outside and then not dare to come back inside because the umbrella is there. Trying to pressure our dogs to face their fears with a reward doesn’t help the actual fear.

Giving them space and understanding their subtle signs that they are uncomfortable is crucial to trust and building a bond. Back to the snake example. If your friend would have responded to your initial hesitation of the snake by saying, “Oh that is okay, we don’t need to go this way” or “let’s just watch it for a bit to see if that helps,” your respect and trust for your friend and situation would skyrocket.

Maybe, after taking a step back from the snake and observing for a bit of time, you will realize on your own, and through the confident demeanor of your friend, that the snake is non venomous and of no harm to you. You will be more likely to feel safe and be more comfortable approaching, because it is on your terms. Maybe you pass the snake and then your friend hugs you and talks about how well you did. Your friend is “rewarding you” and helping to make the situation that much more positive.

This is what we want to do with dogs. When they are fearful of something, distance is what they need. They need distance from the child trying to climb on top of them, they need distance from the stranger wearing the funny hat on the street, and they need distance from the umbrella. We wait and help give them confidence until they are ready to take the next step. Then, we can reward them and be incredibly happy for them once they have found confidence without our pressure.

It is okay that dogs are fearful. It is okay if we humans are fearful. Work through the problem at a comfortable pace and with enough space.

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