Fear of Places in Dogs

By Ellen Lindell, VDM, DACVB; 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?

If your dog is frightened in a specific location, it is possible that she experienced an emotional trauma during a prior visit. Dogs can perceive scents and sounds that people cannot detect.

It is also possible that a stimulus you don’t find scary, such as a large statue or dumpster, could frighten your dog. Your dog would associate the feeling of fear with being in that place; in a way, the place itself might seem to have “caused” the fear. Now your dog might anticipate the unpleasant emotion of fear even when the original trigger is not present.

Fear may also develop if a dog has an unpleasant or uncomfortable encounter at a location. For example, dogs who have had an uncomfortable experience during a veterinary visit or grooming may become frightened as soon as they arrive at the facility.

"It is important to provide young puppies with many comfortable experiences in many locations."

Negative experiences may be particularly consequential for young puppies, those less than 14 weeks of age, while they are in their most sensitive period for socialization. On the other hand, positive experiences during this stage may protect puppies from becoming fearful of places. It is important to provide young puppies with many comfortable experiences in many locations.

It is important to recognize subtle signs of fear. A fearful dog may cower, retreat, tremble, bark, or whine. Your dog might even refuse to move. She is not being stubborn, and it is important that you do not scold your dog or force her forward. The best thing to do is to gently remove her from the situation, if possible.

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

Try to identify the stimulus that triggered the fearful response, if possible. Treatment with systematic desensitization can be effective if the stimulus intensity can be reduced, so your dog can adjust without becoming frightened. Treats are used to condition a positive emotional response with the sight, sound, or smell of the stimulus.

"If your dog is exposed too quickly, her fear could escalate."

Once your dog relaxes, the intensity can be gradually increased. Exposure to the stimulus must be gradual and it may take many training sessions. If your dog is exposed too quickly, her fear could escalate. One sign of fear is the refusal to take food treats during the session. While desensitizing, it is important to avoid exposure to the full-strength stimulus.

Consider getting help from a qualified animal behaviorist and/or a skilled positive reinforcement trainer to ensure the rate of progression is neither too slow nor too rapid.

Are behavior medications helpful for fear of places?

For some dogs, behavior modification can be enhanced by medications that reduce the intensity of fear and anxiety. Adding medication to the treatment plan may reduce the time required for a positive outcome. If your dog’s level of fear is very high and occurs in a place that is frequented regularly, then your veterinarian might prescribe medication that your dog can take every day. On the other hand, if the fear is not extreme and/or if the location is only visited occasionally, then your dog might benefit from taking medication that works quickly and can be used only when needed.

  • Benzodiazepines or “valium-like” medications, such as Alprazolam (Xanex®), Clonazepam (Klonopin®), Lorazepam (Ativan®), and Diazepam (Valium®), act quickly and the effects do not last long. They are often effective situationally, in reducing fear, phobia, or anxiety; however, they can inhibit learning and frequent dosing can be undesirable. 
  • 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 is recommended with use in patients displaying aggression. 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. It may take several weeks for this drug to act. It is generally well tolerated, with fewer 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.

How do I reduce my dog’s fear of the veterinary office?

Dogs with high levels of fear at the veterinary office can benefit from a structured and comprehensive behavioral treatment plan. Here are some things you can do to prevent or minimize your dog’s fear.

  • Bring some of your dog’s favorite things for the visit: 
    • Favorite food treat: Pack 50–100 tiny, pea-sized tidbits. Ask your veterinarian whether it would be safe to withhold your dog’s breakfast so that she is extra hungry and more apt to eat the treats.
    • A favorite toy if your dog likes to play, or a brush if your dog likes to be brushed.
    • A familiar towel, blanket, bed, or shirt that smells like home.
  • Dab a blanket with Thunderease® calming pheromone and/or a calming scent, such as diluted lavender, for the car ride and then bring the blanket into the hospital. If your dog likes to wear bandanas, spray the bandana 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 already anxious before setting foot into the veterinary office, it will be difficult for him to become calm and comfortable in that environment. If your dog experiences motion sickness, ask your veterinarian whether anti-nausea medications could be used before your appointment.
  • Talk to your veterinarian about adding medications or supplements that can reduce anxiety.
  • Most dogs are more comfortable when a familiar member is present. Ask your veterinarian whether that would be an option for you. If you are nervous about watching a procedure, or if you are distressed in the presence of needles, ask if you can step out of the room so that your dog does not have to be relocated to another area. 
  • If your dog is large or seems nervous on the examination table, ask whether his exam can be done on the floor. Many large dogs are more relaxed on the floor. If your dog is small, be sure that a non-slip surface is placed on the exam table. 
  • If medically appropriate, use small treats liberally throughout the visit. 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 are needed. During the visit, your dog can engage with the team and get many tasty treats. Before you know it, he will be pulling you into the veterinary hospital instead of pulling you to leave. If you do not see a decrease in your dog’s fear, ask your veterinarian for further assistance or referral. A board-certified veterinary behaviorist, certified applied animal behaviorist, or professional positive reinforcement trainer can design a customized treatment plan.
  • For more information on how your dog can be more comfortable with veterinary visits, see handout “Fear Free for Dogs: Overview”.
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