Canine fears, phobias & ANXIETY

Brian Jones, DVM, Woodlake Animal Hospital

What’s the Difference?

Crashing sounds of thunder, the booming and popping of fireworks, the jingle of your keys as you leave for work every morning, the unexpected ring of the doorbell in the middle of the day and even a trip in the car to your friendly veterinarian can all be fearful events in the eyes of your four-legged companion. Phobias, fears and anxiety all mean something different when it comes to the behavior of your dog. 

Anxiety is a generalized state of apprehension in anticipation of a fear-causing stimulus. The response may be initiated by a real threat or danger, but anxiety may also occur if there are other signs associated with the impending event (i.e. the drive to the veterinary clinic) or with no threat at all. The dog's anxiety may be reasonable or unreasonable when compared to the relative threat, and may persist well after the threat is no longer evident. Learning and past experience often contribute to the development of anxieties, but some dogs have generalized anxiety regarding change in routine or exposure to new things. 

Fear is characterized by an emotional state in response to a real threat or danger. The response may be emotional or physical (panting, increased heart rate, fleeing or even aggression). Generally, this response occurs when the stimulus (the threat or danger) is apparent, and it often dissipates soon after the fear is no longer evident. 

A phobia is an extreme emotional and physical state of distress in response to a real or anticipated stimulus response. The dog's actions are so extreme that daily activities such as eating, resting or eliminating may be affected. The dog may be so focused on escape or panic that he can injure himself or others. Dogs who display these severe, persistent and extreme responses would benefit from an assessment and the recommendations of a board certified veterinary behaviorist. 


Dogs may respond in different ways when forced to deal with fears. Escape is always a natural and obvious response, but sometimes escape isn't possible.  

Dogs’ responses to fear may be subtle; often they just freeze.  Sometimes they orient toward the fear-causing stimulus, ready to respond if needed, and other times they look away in appeasement hoping the threatening creature will get the message to diminish the threat.

Some animals may become aggressive, which is a defensive response designed to give more emphasis to communication and is intended to drive away the person, dog or animal causing the fear. This may be more likely to occur when a dog is on a leash, since retreat is not possible and a display of appeasement communication may be limited.

Some animals learn aggression is successful at thwarting a potential attack, even if the attack was only perceived and would never have occurred. Other animals learn to seek refuge in a safe, secure location, which could be in the home, outside the home, under a bed or in a crate. 

Forcing dogs to “face their fears” often results in increasing fear and stress rather than alleviating the underlying unpleasant emotional response. Punishment never alleviates anxiety and often, dogs may be punished in an effort to get them to stop performing undesirable behaviors. If the dog is afraid and retreats to the back of the couch in an effort to escape, punishment for getting on the couch will not alleviate the fear. Providing a better, safer retreat is important.

Animals assess a situation based on their past experiences, and their prediction of likely outcomes motivates their behavioral response. If thunderstorm noises terrified a cat and the frightening noises became muffled when the cat went under the bed, then the cat may seek refuge in this location again.  If a dog was going outside just as the lightning struck the neighbor’s house, he may not be willing to venture out in the rain again; he may even choose to eliminate in the home rather than go out in rain.

Many dogs become comfortable and relax in response to fear-evoking stimuli naturally; that is, they habituate. So, when most dogs face a relatively mild stimulus that startles them momentarily, they will observe, investigate and recover spontaneously. For these emotionally stable dogs, the human response may not be important or relevant in the dog's response.

Many dogs may be calmed by comforting gestures. Other dogs, especially more sensitive, reactive or attached dogs, will take cues from their parents; if the parents are calm, the dog calms down. If humans display hysteria or confusion, the dog assumes there is justification for this dramatic response. The fear or anxiety response displayed by their favored human may either contribute to the development of a fearful memory or aid this adjustment process. When the dog is exposed to a severe fear-evoking stimulus, it is not simply enough to ignore the dog's attention-seeking response and hope the dog will adjust naturally and learn that attention-seeking behaviors are not helpful.


For the dog with a severe fear or phobia, a learned response has already become a pattern. The pattern could even start with a single event if the stimulus was terribly frightening at the first exposure. These dogs do not readily habituate naturally once the severe fear or phobia is established. These severely affected dogs do not just get better on their own.

So, should we reassure or ignore a dog that is fearful? The simplest answer may be to ignore mild responses to mild anxiety-evoking events if you can observe the dog closely to see if he can recover spontaneously as this is natural and appropriate. But for the dog that is severely fearful - help gently guide him into a calmer response and coping strategy. Avoid adding to the emotional trauma.

Strategies for calming a phobic dog may include helping him to find a safe place to hide, or using a leash and maybe a head halter to reduce pacing. You can settle with him on a dog bed and massage him gently and calmly. Severely phobic dogs need a complete program and these strategies merely get him through a fearful experience; contact your veterinarian to discuss use of medications and behavior modification strategies.

For thunderstorms, you can play sounds to associate them with pleasant outcomes. Some programs that offer gradual and positive exposure to noises in a non-threatening manner (systematic desensitization and counter conditioning) are useful to treat and prevent progression of noise-related fears. Rehearsing a safe haven routine or redirection strategy while listening to recordings of storm noises will prepare your dog for more imposing threats.

To avoid making your dog’s anxiety worse, don’t panic or show your own anxiety during storms. You may reassure him to encourage relaxation or direct him with obedience or trick cues. If your dog’s anxiety is minimal and he startles but recovers quickly, it may be appropriate for you to ignore him and observe his natural ability to adapt to storms (habituation). Ignoring severe anxiety or extreme displays when the dog is not likely to adapt naturally is not necessary and may be confusing and could contribute to your dog’s anxiety. If his anxiety persists, seems extreme or your dog is at risk for self-injury, be sure to consult your veterinarian.

For separation anxiety, resist the temptation of petting a dog with separation anxiety when you are approached for play or contact. Be aloof when greeted upon arriving home.  You should be the initiator of contact with your dog.  Do not allow her to settle down in close proximity (within one yard) of where you’re settling down. 

Arrange objects on the bed, sofa or floor so that your dog must settle at a greater distance. If possible, verbally reward her for settling at a distance (although taking care as continued attention may be seen by the dog as an invitation to approach, which is not the desired behavior). If your dog normally sleeps on your bed, provide her with her own bed. You may need to start with the dog bed at the foot of your bed before ultimately moving her bed to the floor or even outside the room.

If there are other people in the home besides yourself, try to divide the care giving among the different people so that your dog is not as dependent on one person.

Encourage independent play by using interactive toys that do not require human participation (like a Kong toy containing a food reward).

It is also important to create a positive environment in your absence. There are several ways this might be achieved. Provide a special treat (food, toy or both) only available when your dog is left alone. Do not forget to remove the item when you return home. It is also helpful to have pheromone diffusers going at the same time or to leave the TV or radio on.

Your dog will not be fooled in to thinking that someone is home; the point is to recreate a sense of cozy relaxation. Most people at home relax while listening to the radio or watching TV, and the dog often sits in the room relaxed, too. The sound of the broadcast becomes a classically conditioned cue to your dog and may be helpful in creating a sense of comfort.

Dogs readily learn the cues that indicate that their parents will be leaving the house soon. It is helpful to uncouple these cues from the actual leaving. At random times, go through some of the rituals of leaving: put on cologne, shower, wear work clothes, jingle the car keys, even go outside and lock the door - but then come in again. This helps your dog to remain relaxed when she hears or sees these cues at the times when you are actually leaving. It is important to repeat these cues so many times daily that they become meaningless to your dog.

Do not punish your dog for behavior demonstrated in fear. Punishment usually only leads to more fear or more anxiety. Unless the dog is actually in the process of performing the behavior you wish to discourage, she will not understand what behavior is being punished.



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