The tell-tale signs of fear in your puppy are not different than an adult dog, but the signs may be prolonged throughout adulthood if he doesn't get an opportunity to experience new places, people, other dogs and a variety of sights and sounds. These experiences are part of puppy socialization, and the ideal age to expose your pup to these stimuli is when he is between 3 and 12 weeks old. Many signs of fear are identical or similar to submissive signs; not all puppies who are submissive are afraid.
Face and Ears
Eyes, mouth and ears can all indicate fear. If you see the whites of your puppy's eyes, or sclera, this is a sign of fear, nervousness or tension. If you can tell that his eyes appear smaller than normal, he is afraid or stressed. If he avoids eye contact with you, he's worried and is likely indicting submissiveness, whether out of fear or for another reason. If you can see both your puppy's front and back teeth because he's drawn his lips back tightly, he's fearful of something. You may also notice his tongue moving in and out of his mouth. Ears are typically easier to read on a puppy; if they are flat against his head or sticking out on both sides, he's afraid. The flatter they are, the more afraid he is.
Your puppy's tail provides obvious signs of fear. If he holds it low or tucks it between his hind legs, he's afraid, submissive or both -- even if he continues to wag it. If he's really frightened, he may tuck it up so tightly that it's lying against his stomach.
Body Signals and Hair
A fearful puppy will try to make himself smaller. He'll cower by lowering both his body and his head to the ground; the tucked-in tail adds to this effect. He'll back away from something or someone that scares him, possibly leaning back on his hind legs so he can make a quick getaway. You'll probably notice he seems tense, and he may shiver uncontrollably. Scared puppies can also shed hair excessively. Another hair sign is if it sticks up. This effect is called "pilerection" or "raising the hackles." Think of it as the human equivalent of goose bumps; it can signal several emotions, including fear, anger and extreme excitement.
Puppies in particular are prone to submissive urination, indicating they are not a threat to humans or other dogs. This submission can also be rooted in fear. If you notice this in your puppy, it should resolve by the time he's a year old if he's appropriately socialized, but it may reappear during critical fear periods, which can occur periodically until he's 18 months old. If you scold him, he can feel even more afraid and actually try to convince you he's submissive by urinating more, not less. Fearful puppies can act out aggressively, with growling and barking, even at things and people they seemed accustomed to a week ago. If your pup does this, he may be in one of his critical fear periods. Increase his confidence by calming him with treats and praise, associating the fearful object or event with something positive.
By Karen S. Johnson
ASPCA: Canine Body Language
Modern Dog Magazine: What is My Dog Trying to Tell Me?
ASPCA: Socializing Your Puppies
Berkley East Bay Humane Society: Critical Fear Periods in Puppies
ASPCA: Submissive Urination
About the Author
Based in Central Texas, Karen S. Johnson is a marketing professional with more than 30 years' experience and specializes in business and equestrian topics. Her articles have appeared in several trade and business publications such as the Houston Chronicle. Johnson also co-authored a series of communications publications for the U.S. Agency for International Development. She holds a Bachelor of Science in speech from UT-Austin.