Most dogs love the great outdoors! In fact, many spend hours howling by the door or nagging their owners to let them out. The more time they spend outside, the happier they are. But what if your dog is different? What if your dog is afraid to go outside? This can happen in rescue dogs and pups as they transition to their new home. Older dogs can become suddenly afraid even though they have been comfortable outside for years! Having a dog afraid to go outside can be stressful and upsetting and may indicate that your four-legged friend needs help. If your dog won’t go outside it can result in stress-related illness and obesity and other conditions caused by a lack of exercise. It also makes potty training a pup almost impossible.
That’s why you need to check our advice on how to discover what is causing the problem. We give you a detailed plan for helping your dog to feel more comfortable when they are outside with practical exercises and useful tips.
How Can I Tell if my Dog is Anxious on Walks?
Your dog may not be able to talk to you but it is important that dog owners learn how to read canine body language and tune into their dog’s fear. This will allow you to work out when they are afraid and what is making your dog scared. Here are some of the telltale signs that your dog is stressed:
- Pancaking. This is when your dog lies flat on the floor as you try to take them out of the front door. They may also freeze in one position and refuse to move or even pace around when they see you getting your things ready for a walk.
- Facial expression. A nervous dog may have wide eyes (whale eyes) and dilated pupils, lick their lips and drool, glance away from you and pin back their ears.
- Behavior on a walk. A dog that is scared of going outside may pull hard when leash walking but this will be back in the direction of your home! They may suddenly stop and refuse to move or adopt a crouched position with their tail tucked under them, for example, at the entrance to the dog park
- Other signs of stress. Some dogs that are scared of going outside will poop or pee and others may pant a lot. You may also notice excessive whining or barking.
Why Does my Dog Hate the Outside?
Are you wondering why won’t my dog go outside and try to get to the bottom of what is going on? We’ve broken down the possible scenarios that can happen in this section.
New Dogs Scared of Going Outside
If your dog is new to your home, because they are a pup or because you have adopted an adult dog, you may have noticed straight away that your dog is afraid of going outside.
In a young dog, this could be due to something called ‘puppy panic’. When a pup first comes to a new home it can be very stressful for everyone. The stress that the humans feel can get picked up by the pup and generalized anxiety can develop. Everything is new to a pup and they can be very fearful of everything from vacuums to their human housemates.
Improper socialization can also be at the root of many cases of anxiety. If a pup does not get plenty of positive associations with the outdoors when a dog’s brain is developing in a critical way (up to 14 weeks of age) they may always be fearful of the outside. Also, young dogs can be super sensitive to negative experiences outdoors at this time and this can affect how they view the great outdoors for the rest of their lives.
Rescue Dogs and the Outside
If you have a rescue dog, the situation can be even more complex. There is not often an opportunity to speak to a previous owner about the dog’s fears so it is all a bit of a mystery. Helping an old dog overcome their fear is harder but not impossible. Getting to the bottom of what is making the dog nervous is a useful first step. Your rescue pup will need plenty of focussed training sessions to help them deal with their fears and you will need plenty of patience. The rescue shelter may be able to give you some specific advice.
Leashes and Collars Outside
Most dogs are more nervous when they are in a collar and leash and this could be the source of the problem as these are usually worn outside. For pups, this is unfamiliar and it can feel quite strange around a young dog’s neck. A harness may be less stressful for them to begin with.
Older dogs can feel vulnerable when they are on a leash and therefore not able to escape if they are attacked. Many dogs are more reactive and generally grumpy towards other dogs when they are on a leash and this can eventually lead to generalized anxiety about being outside.
Why do Dogs Suddenly Get Scared of the Outside?
A more senior dog that is suddenly scared of going outside has usually had some sort of adverse experience. This is often a loud noise that startled them and you may not even have realized that it was a scary noise at the time. These noise-related negative experiences can result in your dog being scared to go outside even though they were perfectly happy to do so in the past.
Some sounds that can make a dog suddenly refuse to go outside include:
- Noisy garbage truck. Garbage trucks are particularly distressing for some dogs. They are large, have very intense smells, and have a variety of noises at different pitches and volumes. The noises coming from garbage trucks are also quite unpredictable which can make some dogs absolutely terrified. Snowplows can have a similar effect.
- Loud engines and lawnmowers. Often dogs feel anxious when they hear loud noises from engines – this could be from a car or something like a lawnmower. A sudden noise, like a car backfiring or a horn blowing, is even more startling.
- Thunder and fireworks. At the top of the list of scary noises are thunder and fireworks. Not all dogs are scared of thunderstorms and fireworks but many of them are. Some people notice that their dog gets more concerned about these as they get older.
- Barking dogs. A barking dog can sound very threatening to a human so it is not surprising that they are scary for fearful dogs. If your pooch has been suddenly startled by a barking dog it can set up an ongoing fear.
- Unfamiliarity. Most dogs feel some anxiety when faced with things that are unfamiliar. New slippery floors can trigger anxiety as can a new barrier such as an electric fence or radio fence. Getting stung by an insect is pretty scary too!
- Medical issues. There could be an injury or medical condition that is affecting how your dog feels about going outside. Something as simple as overgrown toenails can cause a lot of discomforts but it could be something more serious such as a sprain or even arthritis. Senior dogs can develop dementia which makes them behave differently. It is always advisable to seek veterinary advice if you are concerned.
Sometimes, the fear is not related to one individual noise or experience but the dog is overwhelmed by all the sounds, sights, and smells associated with being outside. It is simply too much for them to take in all at once and they decide that they would rather stay inside!
Dos and Don’ts of dealing with a dog’s fear of the outside
You need to be careful about how you tackle this issue because, despite your best intentions, you could end up making things worse. That’s why we’ll start by looking at what you should NOT do:
- Punishment. This is one approach that you can take that is guaranteed to make things worse. Your dog will associate whatever is making them scared with punishment and that will make them even more scared of it. Never punish a dog for being scared of something.
- Force. Confronting stressful situations is something that must not be forced on a dog. It can lead to panic which presents a risk of injury for you and the dog. This approach also re-enforces the fear which makes it even harder to tackle in the long run.
- Over-intervention. As a caring dog Mom or Dad of course you want to do all you can to reassure your pooch but there is a danger of doing too much! It is possible to ‘flood’ the dog and make a huge deal out of it. Constantly taking them outside, fussing over them, and blocking escape routes can make a dog’s brain shut down and they gain nothing.
So, now that you know what to avoid, here are some basic principles that you should bear in mind whilst you are tackling this issue: Here are the things that you should DO:
- Identify the trigger. This will not always be possible but if you can identify exactly what your pooch is scared of (e.g. heavy traffic noise) this will make the process a lot quicker to deal with.
- Make it a pleasant experience. Everything about this must be fun! Watch your dog closely and learn how to interpret their body language. If they are not enjoying it – stop!
- Go at your dog’s pace. Some dogs respond quicker than others. If the behavior has been going on for a long time it could take months to rectify. It can be a particularly lengthy process with rescue dogs.
- Take safety precautions. Be aware that both you and your dog could get injured. You need a secure harness and you may need to use a collar as well. Your dog must be micro-chipped in case they escape.
- Keep training short. The most successful training sessions are short and frequent. So, focus on short walks, to begin with. It is important to end the training session on a positive so if things are going well, try to end it when things are positive instead of waiting for them to go wrong.
- Get help if you need to. There are plenty of dog behavior experts and trainers who have a lot of experience in dealing with these sorts of issues. Your vet should be able to give you recommendations. Some dogs may never get to the stage where they love the outdoors but you can help them reach a point where they are not terrified.
Tried and tested steps to help a dog’s fear of the outside
Here are the main methods for how to ease dog anxiety on walks that canine behavior experts recommend:
This is the initial step in helping your dog to feel less afraid of the outdoors. You will expose your dog to whatever they are finding stressful but at a very low level. So, if they are scared of everything outside, you would simply leave the front door open and allow them to look outside and take it all in. Place a leash on them in case they run outside. If it is heavy traffic, go and stand several yards away from a busy road but if your dog is starting to react, you are too close!
Counter conditioning is recognized as the most effective way to help fearful dogs. The theory is that you build positive associations with whatever is making your dog stressed. It helps if you know exactly what this is and a force-free trainer may be able to help with this. Here are some exercises for you to try. You’ll need some high-value treats, a food bowl, a toy that your pooch loves, and a tape recorder/smartphone.
Exercise for noise anxiety
Record the noise that your dog is scared of or find a similar noise online. Our dog was scared of the sound of children playing in a playground so we used a recording on YouTube. This allows you to control the volume and duration of the exposure. Inside your home, start playing the sound and give your dog some super tasty treats. Stop the sound and stop giving the treats. You want your dog to associate the sound with awesome treats so they learn to love it rather than hate it.
Now, repeat the process outside several times until your dog is totally comfortable with the noise. It’s now time to tackle the real thing! Go and sit with your dog several yards away from a playground and give them plenty of treats. Your aim is to eventually walk past the noise and all your dog will do is turn to you for a treat. This process can take several weeks or months and be prepared for some setbacks along the way.
Exercise for general anxiety of outdoors
An outdoors feeding station can be very useful in this situation and it works best if you break down the exercise into stages. Start by feeding your dog a few feet away from the door but with the door closed. Over a period of a few days, start opening the door a little more each day until it is fully open. Then start to move the feeding station closer to the door until it is on the threshold. Eventually, you will be able to move the bowl outside and start the process of moving it farther away from the door. Do this until your dog is completely comfortable outside.
A treat trial is another approach that you could try. Simply lay a trail of high-value treats leading to the door. Over a period of a few days, extend this trail out through the door and into the garden or yard.
If your dog is not at all food motivated you could substitute the treats for a favorite toy. Another approach is to stop feeding your dog in a bowl and hand-feed them their meals whilst carrying out the counter conditioning. Playing fun games outside is also very useful.
Q: Should I carry my nervous dog outside?
A: This is actually a method of force and will not help the situation at all. It could even result in your dog feeling anxious about being carried in any situation. Whilst they are in your arms, your dog has no control, and being carried can make a dog feel even more vulnerable. They may react with aggression which is dangerous for you or leaping out of your arms can result in injury for them.
Q: Why is nighttime scary for some dogs?
A: Dogs have excellent night vision so this is not down to them not being able to see. However, their vision will be reduced at night which means that their hearing and sense of smell are heightened.
They can get overwhelmed by the smells and noises, especially in an urban environment. There could be flashing lights, strange shadows, and sounds that they do not hear during the day. All of this can make a dog scared to go outside at night.
Q: What causes sudden anxiety about the outside in dogs?
A: This is nearly always associated with a negative experience. It could be triggered by an unpleasant physical sensation (a slippery floor, being stung by an insect), a loud noise (a trash truck or another dog barking). It could also be something to do with your pet’s health such as an injury or dementia so you may want to talk to your vet.
- Victoria Schade, CPDT-KA, Why is My Dog Afraid to Go Outside? – Pet MD