Dogs who are fearful of people may demonstrate one or all of the following body language signals when in the presence of people: move or back away, avoid eye contact, tuck their tail, crouch, cower, tremble, put their ears back, run away and/or hide when in contact with a person.
The fearful behavior is usually directed toward people the dog does not know; fear often decreases or is eliminated once the dog becomes comfortable with new people. In some situations, the fearful behavior may be primarily related to specific characteristics of a person, such as unfamiliar people who are wearing or doing something unusual, i.e., wearing dark sunglasses, a hat, a hooded sweatshirt, using a cane, or pulling a suitcase. Fear is likely the most common cause of aggression toward unknown people, and many dogs with fear may also display aggression (lift lip, growl, snap, bite, lunge or bark aggressively) toward people. This management tool addresses dogs who are fearful of people ONLY. Dogs who demonstrate fear AND aggression toward people must be evaluated on an individual basis, in order to determine whether it is safe to handle them and place them in homes.
Fear of people ranges from mild to severe. Classifying the degree of fear in the shelter environment (and challenges that the dog faces in terms of finding and staying in a home), is determined by the dog’s response to enrichment and behavior modification. Dogs with mild to moderate fears respond within a few days, while dogs with severe fear do not initially respond to enrichment and require a more extensive behavior modification plan.
Most behavior problems are caused by a combination of environmental and genetic factors. Genetic factors may cause a dog to have a tendency to respond to a given circumstance in a certain way (i.e., with aggression, fear, friendliness). Environmental factors may have either a positive or negative impact on a dog’s tendencies. Dogs likely behave fearfully toward people because either they weren’t exposed to many people when they were puppies, have a genetic predisposition toward fearful behavior, or lived in an environment where they were punished, and learned to associate people with fear/stress.
Fear of people may develop into aggression toward people over time. A behavior modification plan for fear of people is important because, when it is performed using humane techniques that reduce fear, it may prevent aggression from developing. Most dogs who behave aggressively toward people that they don’t know, are doing so because they are fearful and want people to stay away from them. Some shelters may consider it acceptable to place dogs with mild fear aggression (growling) toward people on a fear of people training plan.
Summaries of studies which refer to fear and fear of people can be found here.
Identifying the Problem
Shelter dogs with fear of people are usually identified through three ways - an intake questionnaire, a behavior evaluation, and observations of behavior while in the shelter. When we identify a dog with this problem, it is important to recognize that we are identifying TENDENCIES toward this problem. Other factors such as stress in the shelter and prior home environment can impact the behavior that is observed. Also, previous owner reports may not always be fully truthful and can mask or exaggerate a dog’s behavioral tendencies.
a. ID from Intake – If a person is surrendering a dog, a dog is being transferred from another shelter, or is returned to the shelter from a foster home, an intake questionnaire should be completed. This will provide information that may help staff care for the dog while in the shelter, uncover a potential issue with fear, and match the dog to the most appropriate new home. In the CSD Intake form, we’ve highlighted all areas in yellow that may indicate that a dog has fear of people. If the owner answers yes to any of the questions highlighting in yellow on the intake form, further information should be sought. If the dog indicates fear of people, some additional Intake Interview Questions may be asked to get further information.
b. ID by Behavior Evaluation – In the Match Up II Behavior Evaluation, there are a number of subtests in which a dog’s fear of people may be discovered. If an evaluator marks cower, tremble, hide, crouch, run away from person, back away from person, tuck tail, bite, show teeth, snap or growl in any of the below tests, depending on the context of the behaviors, they may have occurred because the dog is afraid of people. The subtests that are included within the Match-Up II Behavior Evaluation that may indicate fear are: Room Behavior – both observation and call over; Handling, Toys – all three types; Run and Freeze; Introduction to Rubber Hand; Possessiveness: Wet Food; Possessiveness: Pig’s Ear; Toddler Doll; Strange-Looking Woman; and the Dog-to-Dog Interaction. See our Fearful Body Language poster.
c. ID by Shelter Observations - The majority of fearful dogs are identified when observing the dog in their kennel when people approach or handle the dog. It may also be identified during intake or veterinary exams, or when on walks with staff and volunteers. If a dog is displaying fearful or aggressive behaviors when in the shelter or on walks, shelter staff and volunteers should record and report the dog’s behavior. Within the ‘Behavior in the Shelter’ part of the Match-Up II Program, fear of people may be identified if shelter staff report that a serious bite occurred, the dog has shown teeth/growled, snapped or bitten a man, woman or child while in the shelter, was aggressive toward the veterinarian/groomer, or if the dog cowers, runs away or trembles when meeting most new people. The notes and observations made by shelter staff or volunteers can be useful when making adoption decisions with regard to: the type of home and owner that would make a good match for a specific dog and whether the dog needs behavior modification prior to adoption.
d. Further assessment of the problem – Dogs who are potentially fearful of people should receive a complete physical examination to rule out fear as a result of a painful medical condition. They should also be evaluated for fear of other things, such as other animals, noises, and new things in the environment. Fear of people may be exacerbated by the presence of other fears, which are less evident. Once a dog has been identified as fearful of people, further evaluation is often warranted to determine the extent of the problem behavior and the impact on the dog’s welfare, especially at shelters where dogs are not interacted with on a regular basis.
Further evaluation of the problem should include:
- The dog’s interest in and ability to bond with a person
- The dog’s interest in treats
- The dog’s interest in toys
- The dog’s behavior toward people in its kennel (what will this dog look like, to potential adopters)
- The dog’s behavior toward people on walks (to determine what type of people toward which the dog behaves fearfully)
Fear of People - Making Outcome Decisions
Outcome decisions must be made based upon the resources available at your shelter, the severity of fear, and the presence or absence of aggressive behavior. Recommended options for outcome include: placing the dog up for adoption by matching the dog to an appropriate owner, behavior modification, sending the dog to a foster home, transfer to another shelter, etc.
Dogs experiencing significant and persistent fear are often suffering from stress and poor welfare. Alleviating their fear and stress is a behavioral emergency for shelters that wish to provide optimal welfare for the dogs in their care. For many fearful dogs, provision of basic enrichment can drastically change their behavior. However, with more severe fear of people, a detailed behavior modification plan may be required or an alternative plan should be enacted, such as sending the dog to a foster home. If a shelter does NOT have the resources (people to provide enrichment and behavior modification) to properly manage a dog with severe fear, other options must be considered. Volunteers are often a shelter’s most important resources. It is very difficult for behavior modification programs to be successful without skilled and trained volunteers.
Several factors should be taken into consideration before embarking on a training and management program for dogs who demonstrate fearful behavior. These include:
- Severity of reaction - i.e., is the dog so fearful that it is not eating or drinking? This is a serious welfare concern; it is an emergency to treat this dog or transfer the dog to an environment where he is less stressed. Or is the dog demonstrating fear AND aggression, and has bitten someone? This is a serious liability concern for your shelter that must be considered.
- Potential to cause injury - i.e., a small dog with no teeth is much less likely to cause serious injury than a large dog with a history of aggressive behavior, with teeth.
- Ability to manage the problem - how challenging is it to manage this problem in the shelter and can your shelter provide the dog with good welfare? How challenging would it be for an adopter to manage this problem in a home? As animal shelters, our goal is to save lives of our companion animals AND protect the public from harm. Protecting the public from harm should take into consideration physical harm (from injury due to a pet) AND the emotional toll of owning a pet who is poorly suited for a person (and causes them significant stress).
- Methods of identification – there is likely more certainty that a serious problem exists with a dog whose fear is identified on the basis of multiple methods (i.e., intake history, behavior evaluation, and through behavior observed in the shelter), than with a dog whose fear is identified solely on one method.
Goals of Management and Training:
- Ensure the safety of people in the shelter and after adoption.
- Provide the dog with enrichment, to alleviate stress.
- Utilize training techniques that reduce the dog’s fear while maximizing the dog’s behavioral health and welfare.
Fear of People Enrichment and Training Plan Recommendations
The focus of a training plan for fearful dogs should be focused upon providing the dog with adequate and appropriate enrichment opportunities, and interacting with the dog in a way that reduces the dog’s fear. With most fearful dogs, this is the basis of our plan for rehoming, along with finding a new owner who understands the dog's personality and needs, and can be quite successful. For dogs with more significant fear, implementing a behavior modification plan can potentially lessen the intensity of the dog’s fear and creates techniques that an adopter can often use post-adoption.
Whenever possible, the enrichment and training plan should begin with further assessment of the problem, as described in 'identifying the problem'.
This plan is offered as a guideline for treatment; however, every dog is an individual and the needs of individual dogs will vary. There is not a single method of treatment that will be BEST for all dogs.
Punishment should NEVER be used as a training technique for dogs that are fearful or displaying aggression due to fear. Punishment can exacerbate fearful behavior, in that it is suppressing behavior and not teaching the dog a new, better way to respond.
For the Enrichment and Training Plan, click here
To download the Enrichment and Training Plan below as one document, click here.
Reassessment and Additional Training Plan Recommendations:
Dogs with fear of people should be reassessed 3-4 days after a plan is started and then weekly thereafter. A dog should be considered to have responded to the treatment plan when it demonstrates less fearful/stress-related body language and an increased frequency of friendly body language (ears forward, tail wagging, and soft/wiggly body posture) toward people. Dogs that are fearful of people oftentimes do NOT display friendly body language toward unknown people; however, a dog should be considered to have responded positively to treatment if the dog behaves neutrally (no aggression or fear, but not friendly behavior) when the dog sees strangers. Most dogs respond to the above plan in 2-3 days.
Dogs that respond positively can be made available for adoption as soon as medical and behavior assessments have been completed. These dogs should NOT be considered ‘cured’. Their adopters will require special counseling about the dog’s behavior, in an effort to ensure success in the new home.
Dogs who respond sub-optimally usually either:
- Are friendly toward only a few known people, but remain fearful (and/or aggressive) toward people they don’t know or have only met a few times.
- Are friendly toward one or no people, and remain highly stressed/fearful. These are dogs with severe fear.
Dogs who remain fearful toward people they don’t know (Scenario #1 above) can either be placed for adoption with special restrictions and counseling, start a behavior modification plan (see plan for behavior modification below), or be transferred to foster or another shelter with more resources. With most dogs in our shelter who fit this description (remain fearful toward unknown people), we do NOT do further behavior modification because we don’t have the resources (people to work with the dog). We focus our efforts on finding the right adopter and providing that adopter with counseling (and post adoption support if needed) if we have decided that the dog is safe to place.
Dogs who remain highly stressed and fearful despite adequate enrichment (Scenario #2 above), must be carefully considered. If these dogs are to be successfully rehomed, they often require intensive behavior modification and sometimes medication to reduce their fear and anxiety. Rarely, some dogs remain so fearful (of people AND the environment) that their welfare is severely compromised. For these dogs, euthanasia should be considered when there are no reasonable options for further behavior modification, and/or behavior modification is unsuccessful despite dedicated effort and consultation with an expert (i.e., veterinary behaviorist or certified applied animal behaviorist).
For a detailed behavior modification plan (for dogs who do not respond adequately or at all to the basic Enrichment and Training plan outlined above), click here
When fearful dogs are placed for adoption, the new adopter must be carefully matched to the dog and then counseled about the dog’s problem behavior in order to be taught how to safely manage/live with the dog, and about potential problems that may occur. Because of the potential for dogs with this problem to demonstrate the same behavior in a home environment, and that fear can result in aggressive behavior, dogs with fear of people should not be made available for adoption unless your shelter has the ability to perform special adoption screening and counseling [link to special adoption program].
Finding the Right Home:
- Fearful dogs tend to be happiest in quiet, stable homes. These are almost always homes without young children and with quiet people who very infrequently entertain visitors or guests, and are willing to follow instructions for how to introduce the dog to guests, OR keep the dog separated from guests.
- A potential adopter who already owns a behaviorally healthy adult dog is sometimes a good choice (if the fearful dog enjoys interacting with other dogs), and can help integrate the fearful dog into a new home.
- A home in a quiet community, without many people regularly walking outdoors, is usually preferable.
During adoption screening and counseling the adopter is taught:
- Although the dog appears comfortable in the shelter environment, the dog’s behavior will almost certainly significantly change when the dog is initially in the adopter’s home. These dogs are often fearful in new environments and take a few days to weeks to adjust to a new home. It is important for potential adopters to understand this and be prepared to be patient.
- Although their new dog will likely become extremely comfortable around them and less fearful of people the dog sees often, the dog will likely always be fearful of strangers.
- Body language signals of fear and aggression in dogs.
- Body language signals of people, which potentially reduce fear in dogs.
- Do not introduce your new dog to people during the first one to two weeks, unless these are people that the dog will be seeing on daily basis. The first one to two weeks are a crucial time for the dog to develop a bond and relationship with their new family; meeting other people can come later.
- Do not allow people to approach or pet your dog. If people are intent upon interacting, instruct them how to safely toss a treat toward the dog, but do not allow them to pet the dog.
- Follow the instructions in the Special Adoptions Fear of People Handout.
Post adoption follow-up for a minimum of three months is important to answer any questions the adopter may have and to ensure that the dog is being successfully managed in the home. This may involve telephone consultations and/or consultations in the shelter.