Understanding Insecurity In Dogs

Written by

Chris Tipton

Written by

Chris Tipton

Chirs began working with Canine Revolution to help his dog's anxiety. It was through this training that Chris developed a passion for dog training and a desire to help other dog owners overcome similar obstacles.

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Today we will be discussing insecurity, what causes it, what the signs of insecurity are, problem behaviors arising from insecurity, and treating insecurity. 

Most problem behaviors that we see are rooted in either anxiety or insecurity.  When we discuss a dog’s insecurity we are talking about a dog’s lack of self-confidence or just general fear based behaviors.  Most people understand fight and flight response. 

When a dog hears a loud noise or is confronted with something they perceive as a threat, they may run and cower underneath something.  This is an obvious and easily recognizable sign of insecurity.  However, dogs can choose to fight instead of fleeing.  Most people do not understand or recognize this too can be, and most of the time is rooted in insecurity depending on the context.  

We get asked all the time by our clients why their dogs have insecurity. 

There are a number of things that can cause insecurity to be present in our dogs. 

The Top 4 Things That Causes A Dog’s Insecurity:

1 – Genetics

For one, it can be genetic.  All mammals come with a natural instinctive response to fear.  This instinct can be exaggerated in some.  Insecurity can be inherited from a pup’s parents.  If a puppy’s mother has high levels of insecurity, she is under high levels of stress.  This means she is stressed during pregnancy, as well as during the first 8 weeks of her puppy’s lives.  This clearly has an effect on the pups and often results in many of the pups being insecure themselves. 

2 – Improper Breeding

Another cause of insecurity can be improper breeding practices.  While there are crucial things provided by the puppy’s mother during the first 8 weeks, there are also very important things critical to the development of the puppy that should be provided by humans.  Proper exposure and handling by humans at the appropriate time and in the appropriate way is a big factor that can determine a puppy’s outlook toward humans.  This also goes for exposure to other dogs, animals, noises, environments, etc.  These factors are all contributing factors to whether or not a dog is going to develop insecurity. 

3 – Traumatic Events

Another way dogs may develop insecurity is through traumatic events.  If a dog at an early age, or really at any point in life, is attacked by another dog and is injured, for example, this can cause a dog to become insecure towards other dogs.  If a dog is abused by a human, a dog can become insecure towards humans.  Dogs may experience a loud noise for the first time and all of the sudden become insecure every time they hear a loud noise (thunder, fireworks, etc.). 

4 – A Dog’s Owner

Lastly, insecurity can be learned as well as reinforced by us, our dog’s owners.  How we react to our dogs displaying insecurity can be a huge factor.  If our dog reacts fearfully to thunder, for example, we may coddle them and pick them up attempting to provide comfort.  When in fact, we could be reinforcing their insecurity, establishing to them how they should continue to act when fearful, thus making insecurity worse and worse over time.  These are just some examples of how insecurity can form in dogs.  

What Insecure Body Language Looks Like In Dogs

Before we can treat insecurity we first have to be able to recognize what it looks like.  Remember dogs communicate through body language.  We should always be mindful of their body language so we can better understand the world through our dog’s minds. 

For the sake of this conversation dominance and confidence are related to each other and submission and insecurity are related to each other.  There are some specific aspects of body language that we pay attention to that can communicate insecurity.  Some are subtle and some are obvious.  Keep in mind these are also generalities.  These are not always absolute, and context and different situations can play a factor. 

  1. First, we look at tail positioning.  In general, the higher the tail position is, the more confident a dog is.  The lower the tail position is, the more insecure the dog is.  While discussing tail position it is also important to point out that tail wagging is not a sign of happiness.  This is a common misconception and again one of those things where context matters.  Tail wagging can mean arousal, friendliness, playfulness, anxiety, and even insecurity/submission. 
  2. Next, we look at ear positioning.  This is very similar to tail positioning in that ears straight up generally mean confidence, whereas lowered or pinned back ears is generally mean insecurity. 
  3. Head positioning is another one.  A dog carrying their head upright is confident and a dog carrying their head low is insecure. 
  4. A dog with their back carried straight is confident, whereas a dog with their back bent or bowed is insecure. 
  5. A dog’s hackles raising is another sign of insecurity in the right context.  

Additional Signs Our Dogs Are Insecure

Now that we understand what insecure body language looks like let’s talk about some other signs our dogs may have insecurity that we can take note of in day to day life. 

  • How your dog acts in the home and around you can say a lot about their personality.  Take note of where your dog lays down when freely roaming the house.  A confident dog has no problems laying out in the open by themselves.  They may be in the same room as you, they may not, but they typically have no preference as to where they lay, or they will simply lay out in the open.  If your dog has some levels of insecurity, you may see that your dog prefers to lay up against something, like a wall, or furniture, or you.  You may see them prefer to lay underneath a coffee table or chair.  When a thunderstorm comes, do they seem to not care, or do they attempt to go into a closet or press themselves up against you? 
  • How does your dog interact with strangers when they come over?  A confident dog may show no care or happily walk up to strangers.  An insecure dog may start barking or running away, displaying some of the body languages we have already discussed.  They may even approach the stranger, but still display insecure body language (head lowered, tail tucked, hackles raised, etc.).  An insecure dog may be very clingy to you, following you around the house as you go from room to room.  You may not see them relax until you relax, such as when you sit on the couch. 

These are just some examples that can identify your dog as insecure.

A Dog’s Insecurity Is Based On Personal Experiences & Situations

Dogs can have various levels of insecurity depending on their personal experiences and personal situations.  In many dogs, insecurity can lead to some serious problems.  In fact, most aggression cases that we receive are rooted in insecurity. 

This can be caused by dogs continually being put in uncomfortable positions and they resort to aggression to escape the situation, which undoubtedly becomes a successful strategy for them.  This includes both people and dog aggression.  There are dogs that have a very low likelihood of resorting to aggression.  These dogs rely heavily on their flight response.  We consider these dogs’ flight risks.  This is unfortunately the reason why so many dogs go missing every 4th of July and New Year’s Eve.  Or situations where dogs escape people’s backyards.  Neighbors may start to try and help to get your dog and because they are insecure, they continue to run, trying to escape a fearful situation, putting them at greater risk.  Insecurity is also usually at the root of most incidents where children get bitten. 

So you can see why insecurity is not healthy and can become a real problem.  Many of these dogs get labeled as aggressive and are put down, when in fact they are only scared.  Insecurity needs to be dealt with so it does not get to this point.  We have a responsibility as dog owners to understand insecurity and take the proper means to address it.                         

How To Fix Insecurity In Dogs

Now that we know how to recognize insecurity, we can talk about how to address it. 

Desensitization To Overcome Insecurity

The first step in addressing insecurity is knowing and understanding what is causing the fear response.  For dogs it is the presence of other dogs, sometimes it is a thunderstorm, it can be strangers coming over to the house, and can be something simple like a vacuum cleaner.  We have to introduce whatever it is that is causing the fear response and then provide our dogs with a positive experience.  This is called desensitization. 

The key here is introducing the fearful thing at a level that is not overwhelming to our dog.  For example, if the stimulus is other dogs, maybe we go to a dog park and stay 100 yards away from other dogs while we perform engagement.  Another common one is strangers coming over to your house.  In this scenario oftentimes the trigger is the doorbell, as this begins the stressful situation of a stranger coming over.  So maybe we want to ring the doorbell ourselves and try to perform engagement. 

In this scenario the dog is presented with a trigger that causes some insecurity, but is not overwhelmed because a stranger is not actually coming in.  You can even take it a step further and instead of ringing your doorbell, play a recording of a doorbell on your tv and then work engagement and progress from there.  The key to desensitization is finding what level stimulus you are still able to provide your dog with a positive experience, and then building the level of the stimulus until it no longer elicits a fear response.  Desensitization is something you can start with little to no training at all.  

In many cases, we see dogs that have such high levels of insecurity, there is not just one event that causes insecurity.  They typically seem fearful of really anything and everything.  With these dogs it can be difficult and time consuming to desensitize every little thing.  While desensitization should still be utilized you are going to have to rely on a system of training. 

Introducing Structure To Overcome Insecurity

While we recommend training for all dogs, training can be particularly important for dogs with overall high levels of insecurity.  The first step when starting a training program is introducing structure.  Check out our article on structure for details on implementing it.  Introducing structure decreases our dog’s level of insecurity simply because it puts us in control of their environment.  This begins to teach our dogs to trust and rely on us.  When we control the environment we can prevent putting them in scenarios where they are fearful until we can complete the desensitization process. 

Teaching Obedience To Overcome Insecurity

The other aspect of training that is crucial is teaching obedience.  Teaching obedience is part of teaching our dog a set of rules and expectations to live by.  We must train obedience to a very high level.  When we give our dogs a command, they must follow it.  Once you have trained obedience to this level you can really make progress in addressing insecurity. 

Giving Our Dog A Job To Overcome Insecurity

Employing our dog is a way to give them a job.  When we do this during times of insecurity, this gives them something to focus on.  Then we can make sure we do our part as the pack leader to not allow a negative experience to occur.  Thunderstorms are a good scenario for this.  Once a thunderstorm begins, our dog shows signs of insecurity.  We can tell them to go to their spot, where they are employed in a downstay.  Now they have something to focus on and when the storm passes, they make it through a fearful experience unharmed. 

Next time they will take more comfort in holding a spot during a storm.  After several repetitions, storms are not as scary as they once were.  This builds our dog’s confidence over time and reduces insecurity.  This is why a good system of training is crucial.  You can read more about this in our article about preparing your dog for fireworks.

Hopefully, this article has given you some basic insights into insecurity and how you can recognize it in your own dogs and the steps you need to take to build your dog’s confidence and ultimately treat insecurity.                     

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1 Comment

  1. It’s important to understand that reactivity doesn’t necessarily translate to aggression. At its core, reactivity means a “responsiveness to stimulus.” Frustration. In puppyhood, we allow our pups to say hello to anyone and everyone they pass on the street. This is incredibly reinforcing for most friendly and social pups. Then as they age, we take those greetings away, and your pup is left with unmet expectations, leaving you with a frustrated, reactive dog that desperately wants to say hello.If given the opportunity, these reactive dogs would happily greet the person or other dog once they reached out, although their greeting may be less than polite.

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