Fears and Phobias in Dogs - Animals and People

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

For more information on fear and phobias, also see the handout on “Fears, Phobias, and Anxiety in Cats and Dogs”.

Why is my dog afraid of people and/or other animals?

There are many reasons why dogs can develop a fear or phobic response toward people or other animals including:

  • Lack of socialization. There may have been limited or minimal exposure to people and/or other animals when the dog was young. The socialization period is a sensitive period of development which occurs from 3 to 12 weeks of age, whereby dogs learn to communicate with animals and people and to adapt to a variety of environments. Socialization is an important aspect of raising a puppy. Lack of exposure can be just as detrimental as a negative experience.  Without adequate positive interactions with people and other animals during this time, dogs may develop fear and phobic reactions. To prevent fears and phobias, dogs need to be adequately socialized to a variety of people, such as the elderly, adult men and women, teenagers, and children. Similarly, dogs should be socialized with different breeds of dogs and other animals to prevent fear or phobic responses.
  • Traumatic learning experiences. The brain is adult-like by 8 weeks of age and negative or traumatic experiences are likely remembered into adulthood. Dogs are impressionable, and through the effect of 'single event learning,' one negative or traumatic experience may induce fear or phobic responses that generalize to many similar situations. This can occur, for example, with a bad experience with a small child, which then makes the dog fearful of all small children, or from a fight and subsequent injury caused by another dog. Sometimes a number of unpleasant events are paired or associated with a person or animal which can intensify the fear response. For example, if a dog is punished when exposed to a person or other animal, it may begin to pair the stimulus (the person or other animal) with the unpleasant consequence (punishment). This is especially true with the use of devices such as choke, pinch, or shock collars.
  • Genetic predisposition. Dogs may have a genetic predisposition to developing fear or phobic responses during different life stages, and that predisposition may be exacerbated in those dogs that have had a poor start to life (e.g., poor nutrition in the mother while pregnant or while nursing).
  • Medical conditions. Fear and phobic behavior may be related to pain or other medical problems which reduce the dog’s fuse of tolerance. In senior dogs, painful conditions and altered mental activity might be associated with neurological dysfunction, declining senses, endocrine imbalances or cognitive dysfunction.

Can I prevent fears and phobias from developing?

As mentioned above, proper socialization is the cornerstone to raising a dog that is comfortable with people and animals. Early, frequent, and pleasant encounters with people of all ages and types can help prevent fears later in life. This exposure must begin before 3 months of age and continue throughout the first year. Exposure should be associated with readily consumed food treats offered to the dog, so the dog makes pleasant associations. Puppies who have had no or limited exposure to people prior to 14 weeks of age behave as if feral (wild).

In addition, the dog must be exposed to as many different environments, sights, and sounds as possible so that they become accustomed to a variety of things early, before fears emerge (see handout “Puppy and Behavior Training - Socialization and Fear Prevention”). Socialization and exposure are only beneficial if the dog is having an enjoyable experience and is not overwhelmed. It is imperative to monitor the dog’s response to the situation, give frequent breaks, allow the dog to choose to explore or interact, and use frequent food treats throughout these experiences.

What signs might my dog show when afraid?

Dogs that are frightened may display fight (aggression), flight (attempts to avoid or flee the situations), freeze (remain motionless), fidget or fret (small nervous movements) responses when afraid. When attempting to avoid a threat (or a perceived threat), a dog may cower, look away, tuck its tail, and perhaps tremble or pant. At other times the signs may be more subtle. A dog may only lower its head and look away when uncomfortable with a social encounter, even tolerating petting at first, only to later growl and/or snap. It is important to watch for signs of avoidance or uneasiness such as backing up, hiding behind your legs, lip licking. When the signs above are combined with raised hairs on the back (hackles), growling, snarling, snapping, or biting, this may be fear and/or anxiety related aggression (see handout "Fears, Phobias, and Anxiety in Cats and Dogs").

What can I do if my dog begins to show fear or phobic responses?

Dogs that experience extreme fear and/or phobic behaviors need professional intervention. The first place to start is with scheduling an appointment with your veterinarian. Your veterinarian can rule in or rule out medical conditions that may cause or exacerbate your dog’s behavioral response. Your veterinarian may diagnose the behavioral condition, prescribe medication, and design a treatment plan for the dog’s specific condition. Your veterinarian may refer you to a board-certified veterinary behaviorist or a certified applied animal behaviorist. Dogs who exhibit extreme fear or phobia are emotionally suffering, at risk of harming themselves or personal property, and may be predisposed to developing other serious behavioral problems. Dogs that experience fear and phobic reactions in one context are at risk for developing fear or phobic reactions in another situation.

What can I do to treat my fearful dog?

Professional intervention can help to prevent the behavior from worsening. If the fears are mild, then owner intervention may help to improve the problem or at the very least prevent the fear from getting worse.

  • Identify and avoid causes of fear responses. Fearful memories may be easily consolidated and long lasting. Avoid certain situations, people, and places that provoke the behavior.
  • Use positive reinforcement training and classical conditioning/counterconditioning. Add small readily consumed food treats to situations that have in the past induced fear responses. The sight of people and/or dogs may be associated with offering the dog a food treat. Consumption of the treat can change a negative emotion (fear) into a positive emotion. Foster positive emotional states rather than neutral or negative experiences.
  • Avoid adding drama with extensive coddling or consoling of the dog when he is afraid. The change in your behavior may justify or become predictive of the fear inducing stimulus, thereby exacerbating it. Alternatively, while attention may calm the dog in the moment, attention does not teach the dog to not be afraid of specific stimuli. Instead, it conditions attention-seeking as a coping strategy when the dog is afraid, leading to codependence. This coping strategy can be problematic when the dog is exposed to fear inducing stimuli in your absence. Therefore, attention and consoling should not be the primary strategy for addressing fear.
  • Avoid using punishment or correction as a way of mitigating fear or phobic reactions. Discipline is unlikely to reduce fear and it is likely to make the situation worse. Avoid punishment or correction in dog training. The use of punishment or correction collars, choke, pinch, or shock is likely to exacerbate fear responses and it may lead to aggression.

Can medications be helpful?

There are many behavioral medications that can be helpful for reducing fear or phobic responses in dogs.

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 for coping with the situation. While behavior medications may reduce anxiety in general, concurrent behavior modification is necessary to help the dog to learn to overcome the specific fear. Behavioral medications should always be used concurrently with behavior and environmental modification as the medication will not teach the dog to be comfortable in a given situation. Behavior medication may be warranted to help with 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 for coping with the situation."

Most dogs with excessive fear or phobic responses 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 perhaps 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 or phobic responses. 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 fearful or phobic patients who also display aggression.

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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