Living with Fearful & Undersocialized Dogs

Disclaimer: This article is meant to provide a foundational understanding of training and management for fearful & undersocialized dogs as well as provide a review for pet guardians within our programs. If your dog is exhibiting severe symptoms of fear, anxiety, and stress within your home please first schedule a consult with a certified behavioral consultant. Licensure includes CAAB, CBCC, CDBC, or an MS or Ph.D. in applied animal behavior.

Our Helpline is seeing an increasing number of calls seeking help for dogs who are not used to living in a home environment and are showing high levels of fear or stress in their day-to-day activities. Oftentimes these dogs have been transported from other states with limited records of their early life experiences or parental behavior. Dogs seized from hoarding cases may also display similar behavior.

While many pet guardians may point to abuse or neglect as the reason for their dog’s distress, it is very important to understand that dogs can display or develop higher signs of fear, anxiety, or stress based on a variety of environmental factors, learned experiences, and inherited behavioral traits.

Common concerns among these callers include:

  • Hiding or cowering under tables, in crates, or in tight spaces
  • Fear of men, children, or strangers in the home including avoidance such as running away or cowering, and/or reactivity such as barking, growling, or snapping toward a non-trusted individual
  • Fear of sudden noises, movements, or daily stimuli such as brooms, vacuums, trash cans, cabinets/drawers, hair dryers, garage doors, cars, etc.
  • Aversion to handling, grooming, or putting on/taking off walking equipment
  • Fear of going outside OR fear of coming inside the home
  • Frequent house-training accidents in the home
  • Destructive behaviors in the home

If your dog is displaying a combination of these behaviors, it is very likely your dog is undersocialized and/or has never previously lived in a home environment.

The most important advice we can offer to any pet guardian in this situation is to Meet Your Dog Where They Are! Give them space, time, and ample opportunity for predictable interactions/experiences in the home.

Foundational Tips for Undersocialized Dogs

Create Safety First

Many pet guardians jump in too quickly in these cases. Maybe they were hoping for a cuddle buddy or a dog to join them on all their adventures. This mindset focuses on exposing their dogs to new things thinking they will just ‘get used to it’ or that ‘they just need to know I love them.’ This is an unfair expectation especially in the first several months. Severely undersocialized dogs need time to establish safety and predictability and trust with their new family. This may mean that your dog spends a significant time away from you in the beginning. Many of our suggestions below prioritize your dog’s need for space, distance, and choice in interactions.

Set Up the Environment for Success

Comfortable resting and hiding places are crucial to safety for undersocialized dogs. Some dogs may love crates, but sometimes transported dogs can develop a fear of them. You can often provide a den for them under a table or behind furniture that they can go to when they need a break. You can also set up a safe room or gated area if you have the space.

NEVER pull them out of this area or go in it when they are in there.

Undersocialized dogs have limited experiences in homes and/or the outdoor world and may have NO experience with normal activities like leash walking. Especially in the early days, we can use a HANDS OFF system where we can move the dog safely and reliably to necessary locations.

This may include:

  • A “drag leash” attached to a harness so you can grab or move the dog for quick outings or emergencies without physically grabbing their body
  • Gate systems that can open between rooms or spaces based on activities
  • Extra long lines for outdoor outings (yes, even if your yard is fenced) so you can reliably bring the dog inside if needed
  • Limited slip-leads for dogs who are not used to collars and harnesses

In more severe cases, we may even provide everything the dog needs within a limited space so we can focus on building the relationship first. This may include a gated space or room with a safe place, food and water station, and pee-pads.

Undersocialized dogs may also have an increased startle/flight response. It’s important to ensure doorways, gates, and walking equipment are fully secure. We suggest adding baby gates or x-pens to doors with outdoor access. In addition, dogs who CAN go out on walks should have secure walking equipment including:

  • Martingale Collars
  • Harness (ideally with a safety clip to the collar)
  • Two Leashes (one clipped to the collar, one to the harness)

Understand Dog Body Language

Having a deeper knowledge of dog body language allows you to make better choices for your dog. This is even more important for undersocialized dogs as fear and avoidance can escalate to aggression if we do not listen and respond appropriately.

Many dog body language signs can be subtle, but communicate early signs of stress or uncertainty such as turning their head away, licking their nose, yawning, and repeated blinking/squinting.

In addition, observing and making note of your dog’s body language throughout the day and how it changes over time can help to inform both you, your vet, and any behavioral professional on progress and continued training/management plans.

Watch Fear Free Pet’s Dog Body Language 101

Do NOT Bride with Food

Food and treats can be an excellent way to build a positive relationship with a fearful dog, but many make the mistake of using food as a tool to physically interact with their dog or move them to a new, unfamiliar location. This creates a situation where they have to choose between food and safety. If done repeatedly, this can have a devastating impact on the relationship over time, decrease their training motivation, and ruin their trust in new people or situations.

To properly use food for building trust, avoid handling it directly to the dog in the beginning. Instead, we want to take those delicious treats and toss them to a place where the dog can confidently learn to associate with new people in a situation they enjoy.

If you are moving about the home or passing by the dog’s safe place, we also recommend neutrally walking by without giving the dog attention and dropping/tossing food in their direction.

Learn How to Play the Treat Retreat Game with Fearful Dogs

Use the Consent Test

Never engage with the dog unless they engage with you first. If you think that they want to be pet, practice the Consent Test by first petting the dog in a neutral location such as their chest or back for 1-3 seconds, then pause. If they actively move in toward you or show attention-seeking behaviors, you can continue to engage. But, if the dog Freezes or Moves Away, you should stop.

Many times our petting can cause the dog to shut down or become conflicted, which keeps them near us when they would rather leave. By giving them that choice they will engage with you more often because they know they can walk away when they are uncomfortable. It also will prevent a possible bite because the dog doesn’t feel trapped.

Make sure everyone who interacts with your dog uses the Consent Test!

Watch Dog Kind’s Consent Tests

Provide Enrichment Activities

Sniffing, chewing, and licking activities can help to reduce stress and provide an opportunity for independent decompression. You can incorporate these into daily feeding routines and/or add them as a snack. Examples include:

  • Stuffed Snuffle Mat
  • Stuffed Frozen Kongs or Lickmats
  • Safe Long-Lasting Chews
  • Foraging Activities

In addition, we want to make sure your dog is getting the physical activity they need throughout the day.

Build A Positive Training Relationship

Undersocialized dogs often have NO previous training experiences. Training activities can be a great way to build confidence and predictability with your dog as a team. We recommend games that can be done at a distance or while seated such as Find It, Touch, or Watch Me.

It is especially important with fearful dogs to prioritize positive reinforcement and avoid training methods that use fear or intimidation, as this can increase their fear and decrease trust.

Use Fear-Free, Positive Reinforcement Training for New Situations

Car rides, veterinary visits, grooming tasks, walks, etc. can all be frightening! Moving too quickly to these activities can do more harm to the relationship than good. It is important to GO SLOW and use training methods that balance welfare needs with the dog’s individual choice and ability to cope.

Unless absolutely necessary, such as cases where your dog is sick or injured, postpone exposure to these places until you have a better understanding of what your dog needs to succeed.

We HIGHLY recommend working with a certified, positive reinforcement trainer or behavior consultant to develop the best plan for you.

Additional Resources

  • DogKind YouTube Channel has a variety of webinars and short videos dedicated to the training and management of fearful dogs