Why Do Dogs Act Scared of Their Water Bowl?

Adrienne Farricelli

Some dogs act scared of their water bowls, and the behavior often leaves dog owners baffled. What's wrong with the dog's water bowl? And why do dogs act scared as if their water bowl is their biggest enemy? Last time we checked, water bowls didn't bite, so what's up with these dogs?

When dogs act scared of their water bowls, dog owners often wonder whether they should start putting a doggy psychologist on speed dial. The behavior is certainly odd after all, especially considering that water is essential in order to live, thrive and quench that annoying sensation of thirst. In order to understand this behavior, let's try to put ourselves a bit in our dog's shoes (ehm, paws!).

An Issue With Metal 

Many dogs who act scared of their water bowls share the fact that their bowls are made out of metal, why is that? Well, turns out, there are several features of metal that can cause dogs to want to back off. 

First of all, consider sound. Metal bowls produce sounds which can prove to be frightening to puppies and dogs. This may seem like no big deal to us, but dogs who are particularly sensitive to noises can get easily startled by the clacking noise of kibble being dropped in the food bowl or when their collars or ID tags make contact with the bowl, startling them

If at any time you tripped on a metal bowl or it fell from your hands, this may have startled your dog enough to become fearful of it. 

On top of sounds, we must consider the look of metal bowls. Sure metal bowls are appealing to us because they are shiny and easy to wash, but from a dog's perspective,  practicality is not much of a big deal, while instincts are. 

Thing is, dogs unlike humans, do not understand reflections. This means that any reflections of lights or shadows observed on metal bowls may startle them. This includes their own reflection by the way. 

The puppy or dog may therefore lean over the bowl to drink and then startle upon seeing his reflection. Because these dogs are scared, they'll often take quick sip and then move away, leading to approach-avoidance behaviors. 

A Matter of Location

Sometimes, the issue is not the water bowl per se, but rather its location. Maybe there is a vent that blows air that way. Or maybe there are too many distractions going on in that area and your dog isn't comfortable enough to drink. 

A  Matter of Negative Associations 

Dogs tend to associate stimuli with situations, so if your dog was drinking water one day and happened to hear a loud sound that startled him, he'll likely associate the water bowl with that frightening event. 

"Single event learning" is a technical term that depicts an animal's or person's ability to learn in one single event. Fear causes dogs to learn fast when it comes to avoiding situations or stimuli that the dog perceives as frightening. 

It can make no sense to us to become fearful of something as innocent as a water bowl, but the dog listens to his instincts, and if they tell him to avoid the water bowl because it's unsafe (and he can rely on other water sources), he can get quite determined about it unless proven otherwise through a countless number of positive associations. 

"Single event learning creates powerful associations. Counteracting these negative associations requires a lot of patience, diligence, and careful management on the part of the handler while behavior modification techniques are implemented. It may take hundreds or thousands of reinforcements to counteract one bad association."~Casey LoMonaco,

A Matter of Pain 

Sometimes, dogs may act scared of the water bowl because they are in pain. They simply end up associating the water bowl with their pain. 

This is often the case when dogs act afraid of their water bowls out of the blue. One day they are fine drinking, then another they are suddenly reluctant to drink from it. 

What medical conditions may cause a dog to become afraid of their water bowls? A possible condition is neck pain. Neck pain in dogs may manifest when dogs lower their neck as it happens when drinking. 

Sometimes oral pain may be the culprit. Dogs may have gum or tooth pain and this may lead to reluctance to drink from the water bowl, especially cold or cool water. After a dental cleaning and extractions, my male Rottweiler, Kaiser, refused to drink regularly the first days as if his mouth was sensitive and the water caused him some level of discomfort or pain. 

Further down, dogs may also be reluctant to drink water if they have throat infections, ear infection or sinus infections causing pain when swallowing.

Other Medical Conditions

There are other medical conditions that may cause dogs to sometimes act odd and develop new fears or phobias. 

For instance, dogs suffering from hepatic encephalopathy from liver problems, such as a liver shunt, develop a build-up of toxins which can cause some odd behavioral changes. 

If your dog has ever suffered from seizures, there may have perhaps been chances that, one day, your dog may have accidentally fallen into the water bowl frightening himself. 

Eye problems may contribute to fear of water bowls too. If a dog has a vision problem that impacts his depth perception, he cannot see well the surface of the water. He may therefore dip his nose too deep into the water and getting water into the nose can be quite a frightening experience for dogs. 

Depth perception vision problems are more common in older dogs. Nuclear sclerosis, in particular, causes the appearance of blue, hazy eyes and impacts depth perception. 

"Luckily, nuclear sclerosis will not lead to blindness. It affects only depth perception. As our pets do not read, nuclear sclerosis has little effect on their daily lives. You may notice that they are a little more hesitant on stairs or curbs and may take some additional time to jump up on familiar furniture."~Dr. Lynsey Wagner, board-certified veterinary ophthalmologist. 

A Dislike of Something

Sometimes, things may be a little more subtle. Perhaps the dog is a little uncomfortable about something concerning the water bowl or the simple act of drinking. 

It could be there may be some soap remnant in the bowl and the water tastes funny or perhaps the dog simply dislikes having his fur or whiskers wet as he drinks. 

Now That You Know...

As seen, there are various reasons as to why your dog may act scared of the water bowl. If you have found the exact culprit, that can be very helpful so that you know what you need to work on. 

Drinking water is important for your canine companion, so if he refuses to drink water from his bowl, you want to take action fast. Here are some general tips and ideas. 

  • Have your dog see your vet. Any time Rover is acting weird, we owe it to him to play it safe and rule out potential medical problems. As seen, there are several medical problems listed that may cause dogs to fear their water bowls. 
  • If your dog is not drinking water, try to offer water in other forms. For example, soak his kibble in water or meat-based broth (with no sodium, garlic or onion) or try to offer ice cubes.
  • If you really need your dog to drink, you can try to offer water from a hose or from  your cupped hands. 
  • Try offering water in a variety of locations to rule out your dog being scared to drink in a certain area of the house. 
  •  Try using a variety of bowls of different depths and sizes like big bowls, small bowls, high bowls and low bowls. Elevated bowls may help if your dog may have neck pain. 
  • Try also varying the temperature. Offer cold water and water at room temperature and see if that makes a difference.
  • Try bowls of different materials like ceramic, stainless steel and plastic and see whether your dog has preferences. 
  • Try alternatives to water bowls such as a pet water fountain or a drip water bottle for small dogs. 
  • Create positive associations with the water bowl. Play nearby it, place treats around it, praise your dog for drinking. 
  • Make sure the water bowl is clean and has no soap residue. 
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