Fear of Places in Dogs

By Kenneth Martin, DVM, Diplomate, ACVB; Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM

For an introduction to this topic please see the handout "Fears, Phobias, and Anxiety in Dogs and Cats".

Why would my dog become frightened of certain places?

Lack of early positive environmental exposure during the socialization period can be as damaging as a traumatic or negative experience in a particular environment. Put another way, no experiences during the socialization period can be as damaging as unpleasant experiences.

The sensory perception of dogs is different than that of humans. Dogs have a sharp sense of smell, they can hear higher frequencies than humans, yet have poor visual acuity. Fear may be associated with unfamiliar sights, sounds, or even the odors of a particular location.

For example, dogs that are fearful or anxious with traveling in the car may be so because they become nauseated or car sick. Anxiety may be associated with the dog anticipating getting motion sickness. Dogs may be anxious because the car ride is always followed by an unpleasant experience, such as a veterinary visit or being dropped off at the groomer. A dog may become fearful of the veterinary hospital or groomer because of unpleasant experiences while in those environments (e.g., vaccinations or surgery; nail trims or brushing matted hair), A particular room or area of the house (such as a basement or a cage) may be avoided because the dog is confined in that area when left home alone. Some dogs even become frightened of the outdoors because of unpleasant experiences that have occurred in that environment.

Use of verbal reprimands, punishment, or correction in a specific environment may lead to fear and anxiety associated with that environment.

How can I treat my dog's fear of places?

First, identify the triggering stimulus associated with the place that induces fear in the dog. It might be a sight, sound, or smell. If exposure to stimuli that induces fear can be controlled, consider exposing the dog to those stimuli in a gradient fashion. This is called systematic desensitization. The dog is exposed to the stimulus in a gradient fashion, whereby the full-strength stimulus is avoided, and stimulus exposure is manipulated such that it avoids inducing fear reactions. Often, distance from the stimulus is controlled to prevent inducing fear responses. Treats are used to condition a positive emotional response with the sight, sound, or smell of the stimulus. The dog is offered readily consumed food treats of high value with exposure from a safe distance. Gradually, the distance from the stimulus may be reduced without inducing fear in the dog. The dog may be trained with treats on leash at a distance from the place, and the distance may be gradually reduced at the dog’s pace. Pushing the dog to face his fears too quickly, will likely only make the fear worse. Enlist the assistance of a qualified animal behaviorist and/or a skilled positive reinforcement trainer.

Exposure to the stimulus must be gradual and it may take many training sessions. If the dog is not consuming food treats in the situation, it is an indication that the dog is over the threshold for being able to form a positive association to the environmental stimulus. If the dog is taking treats roughly, it is an indication that the dog is nervous, and the exposure should be decreased.

Behavior medications may be necessary to reduce fear and anxiety so your dog can learn to overcome the fear. Behavior medications are commonly used to reduce fear, anxiety, and panic reactions and their use can dramatically expedite treatment in an emotionally protective manner.

"Behavior medications may be necessary to reduce fear and anxiety so your dog can learn to overcome the fear."

Dogs that become car sick or suffer from motion sickness often need a medication to treat the nausea alongside the behavior training. Anticipation of feeling ill in the car will often produce fear and anxiety. Even after the motion sickness has been addressed, previous learning experiences (memories) can perpetuate the fear cycle unless appropriate behavior modification and training are implemented.

How do I deal with fear of the veterinary office?

Depending on the level of fear your dog exhibits, he might need a detailed behavioral treatment plan to overcome his fear. Here are some things you can do to prevent or minimize fear associated with the veterinary office.

  • Bring items your dog loves to the visit to help keep him calm such as:
    • 50 to 100 of your dog’s favorite food treats (they should be pea-size or smaller). If medically appropriate, avoid a meal at least 4 hours prior to the visit. Treats should be small and tasty.
    • a favorite toy or brush, if you dog likes to play or be brushed.
    • something that smells like home and is familiar (towel, shirt, blanket, or bed).
  • Use calming pheromones, such as Adaptil®, and/or calming scents, such as diluted lavender, during the car ride and in the hospital. If your dog likes to wear bandanas, spray the bandana with a pheromone and/or calming scent 15 minutes prior to placing it on your dog.
  • Make sure your dog has good footing in the car and at the veterinary office. Feeling off-balance due to slippery surfaces will increase your dog’s fear.
  • Train your dog (with the assistance of a professional positive reinforcement trainer if needed) to be comfortable with travel. If your dog is worked up and anxious before setting foot into the veterinary office, it will be difficult for him to learn to be calm and comfortable in that environment.
  • Talk to your veterinarian if you think anti-nausea or anti-anxiety medications or supplements would help your dog be more comfortable and learn to overcome his fear and anxiety. Most dogs are more comfortable if their owners are present. If you can remain calm and relaxed and are not nervous about needles and blood, it is usually best if your dog can stay with you during the visit. Avoid having your dog taken out of the exam room. If you prefer to not watch or your dog does better without you around, step out of the exam room while your dog’s care is performed. This allows your dog to stay in the exam room instead of being moved to a new environment.
  • If your dog is large or seems nervous on the examination table, see if his exam can be done on the floor. Many dogs are more relaxed on the floor. Small dogs might be more comfortable on a bench or a non-slip surface on the exam table with the pet owner nearby.
  • If medically appropriate, use small treats liberally throughout the veterinary experience. Do not wait for your dog to show signs of fear, proactively give him treats to condition a positive association with the situation.
  • Plan happy or fun visits to the veterinary office when no medical procedures need to happen; your dog visits the hospital and gets many small tasty food treats and then leaves. Before you know it, he will be pulling you into the veterinary hospital instead of pulling to leave. If you are not seeing a decrease in your dog’s fear, ask your veterinarian for further assistance or a referral to a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, certified applied animal behaviorist, or professional positive reinforcement trainer.
  • For more information on how your dog be more comfortable with veterinary visits, see handout “Fear Free for Dogs - Overview”

Are behavior medications helpful for fear of places?

For dogs that are excessively fearful, phobic, or anxious, behavior medications can be helpful to reduce the negative emotional state, help create new positive associations, and allow your dog to cope with the situation. While behavior medications may reduce anxiety in general, behavior modification is necessary at the same time to help the dog learn to overcome the specific fear. Behavioral medications should always be used at the same time as behavior and environmental modification as medication will not teach the dog to be comfortable in a given situation. Behavior medication may be warranted to help facilitate the learning process in a humane and emotionally protective fashion and aid in successful behavioral modification.

"For dogs that are excessively fearful, phobic, or anxious, behavior medications can be helpful to reduce the negative emotional state, help create new positive associations, and allow your dog to cope with the situation."

Most dogs with excessive fear, phobia, or anxiety of a chronic nature will benefit from daily treatment with a primary mainstay medication such as fluoxetine (brand names: Prozac®, Reconcile®) or clomipramine (brand names Clomicalm®, Anafranil®). However, the onset of action is delayed, taking up to 4 to 6 weeks in order to achieve clinical effects. Short-acting situational anxiety relieving medication might also be necessary. The goal is to eventually wean the patient off medication. This is typically accomplished by gradual dose reductions where the dosage is reduced to the lowest level that provides good emotional welfare or the patient is completely weaned off the medication.

Benzodiazepines or 'valium-like medications', such as Alprazolam (Xanex®), Clonazepam (Klonopin®), Lorazepam (Ativan®), and Diazepam (Valium®) are rapid acting and of fairly short duration of effect. They are often effective situationally, in reducing fear, phobia, or anxiety. However, frequent dosing can be undesirable, and they can inhibit learning. Benzodiazepines may induce tolerance with waning effectiveness. In some patients, they may produce paradoxical excitability and in others they may disinhibit behavior, leading to increased aggression. Caution with use in patients displaying aggression is recommended. Other undesirable side effects may include sedation and muscle relaxation.

Buspirone (brand name BuSpar®) is a serotonin agonist/antagonist that can be helpful for situational and social anxiety. The onset of action may take several weeks. It is generally well tolerated with less side effects than benzodiazepines. Buspirone, like benzodiazepines, may disinhibit behavior, leading to increased aggression. Caution is advised in aggressive patients.

Medications such as gabapentin (brand name Neurontin®), trazodone (Desyrel®) and clonidine (Duraclon®, Catapres®) alone or in combination, may be prescribed for dogs displaying fear, anxiety, and/or aggression in the veterinary hospital or other contexts.

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