Fears and Phobias in Dogs - Animals and People

By Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM

Behavior

For more information, also see our introductory handout on 'Fears, Phobias and Anxiety'.

 fears-phobias__animals-people1

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

There are many reasons that dogs can develop a fear of people or other animals. First, there may have been limited or minimal exposure to people and/or other animals when the dog was young. Socialization is an important aspect of raising a puppy. Without adequate positive interactions with people and other animals, dogs may develop fears. In fact, fears may be very specific. A dog that has been adequately socialized to a particular “type” of person, such as adult men, may show fear toward anyone else, like children, women, teenagers, or people of other races. Similarly, dogs that are well socialized to other dogs may show fear toward other animals.

"Dogs are impressionable and through the effect of "one trial learning" may take
one experience that was intense or traumatic
and generalize to many similar situations."

Second, dogs are impressionable, and through the effect of “one trial learning,” may take one experience that was intense or traumatic and 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 paired or associated with a person or animal can lead to increasing fear. 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 a painful device such as a pinch or shock collar.

Over the first few years of a dog’s life, there are a number of developmental stages when fears might arise. Although rare, some dogs, perhaps those with a strong genetic component or those that have had a poor start to life (e.g., lacking good maternal effects) may begin to show fear as early as two months of age. Fear might more commonly begin to arise as the primary sensitive period for socialization comes to an end and fear begins to take precedence at three to four months of age. On the other hand, some dogs may not begin to display fear until they approach sexual maturity (6 to 12 months of age) or even behavioral maturity at 18 months to 3 years of age. These fears may slowly progress in intensity over the years, or may suddenly seem to intensify, especially if there has been a particularly unpleasant experience. Fears that begin to emerge well into the adult or senior years might be related to medical problems that lead to painful conditions, altered mental activity as might be associated with diseases that affect neurological function, declining senses, endocrine imbalances or cognitive dysfunction.

Can I prevent fears from developing?

As mentioned above, socialization is the cornerstone to raising a dog that is comfortable with people. Early, frequent and pleasant encounters with people of all ages and types can help prevent fears later. This exposure should begin before 3 months of age and continue throughout the first year. In addition, the dog should be exposed to as many different environments, sights and sounds as possible so that they become accustomed early, before fears emerge (see Socialization and Fear Prevention).

What signs might my dog show when she is afraid?

Dogs that are frightened may display aggression or may attempt to avoid (flee). Fidgeting and freezing are two other possible fear responses. 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 duck its head and look away, and tolerate petting at first, but then snap. It is important to watch your dog for signs of uneasiness such as backing up, hiding behind you and licking his lips. When the signs above are combined with raised hairs on the back (hackles), growling and snarling, this may be fear related aggression (see Fears, Phobias, and Anxiety).

What can I do if my pet begins to show fear or begins to panic?

When interacting with a dog that is exhibiting fear and anxiety, there are two critical issues that need to be addressed. First, if there is the potential for danger or injury to the dog or others, then safety is an overriding concern. Your response to the dog is the second important factor since any anxiety, threats or punishment (which might be understandable if you are worried or frustrated) are counterproductive because they will further aggravate the dog’s fear and anxiety. Therefore, to achieve the desired outcome, you will need to control and train your dog with techniques that calm and settle.

Before getting started, please review Teaching Calm – Settle and Relaxation Training, Handling and Food Bowl Exercises, Reinforcement and Rewards, Using Punishment Effectively, and Why Punishment Should Be Avoided. If you find yourself in a situation where your pet is very anxious or fearful and cannot be settled, the best response is to calmly and quickly leave the situation.

What information do I need to identify and treat my fearful pet?

Usually a behavioral consultation is needed for dogs that are showing extreme fears and/or aggression. If the fears are mild, then owner intervention may help to improve the problem or at the very least prevent the fears from getting worse. First, it is important to identify all fearful stimuli. This is not always easy and needs to be very exact. What persons or animals is the dog afraid of and where does the fearful behavior occur? Often there are certain situations, people, and places that provoke the behavior more than others.

"Usually a behavioral consultation is needed for dogs that are
showing extreme fears and/or aggression."

For treatment to be most successful, it is important to be able to place the fearful stimuli along a gradient from low to high. In other words, you want to identify those situations, people, places and animals that are likely to cause minimal fear as well as those situations, people, places, and animals that are most likely to cause the fearful behaviors. See Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning and Implementing Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning for more information on creating a stimulus and reward gradient.

Next, you need to examine what factors are further aggravating the problem. Aggressive displays are a successful way of getting the fearful stimulus to leave and thus also reinforce the behaviors if they are successful. Similarly if the dog escapes from the situation, it does not have the opportunity for improvement. The owner's response (fear, anxiety, punishment) or a fearful or threatening stimulus will further increase the dog’s fear. Owners that force the dog to confront its fears will usually end up with a more fearful, panicked dog. The owner, the dog and the stimuli must remain calm to achieve success.

After I have identified the stimuli, what do I do next?

Before a behavior modification program can begin, you need to be able to control and communicate with your dog. This will require some training. Often a physical control and safety device such as a head halter might be needed. The head halter provides a means for controlling the head and muzzle, to ensure that the dog responds to the given command (sit, quiet, and heel). To make the dog feel more secure by showing the dog that you are calm and in control, orient the dog away from the stimulus, and prevent the dog from either causing injury or escaping (see Head Halter Training, Head Halter Training – Synopsis and Teaching Calm – Settle and Relaxation Training).

"Often a physical control and safety device such as a
head halter might be needed."

Next, teach your dog that when it sits and stays it will receive a delicious food reward. The goal of this training is to allow the dog to assume a relaxed and happy body posture and facial expression on command. Once this is established, then food rewards are phased out. For more details, see our handout on 'Training Dogs - Settle and Relaxation Training'. For more information on how to reward your dog, see our handouts on 'Training Dogs – Learn to Earn and Predictable Rewards'; 'Behavior Modification – Working for Food – Dogs and Cats'; and 'Behavior Modification – Reinforcement and Rewards'.

Next, teach your dog that when it sits and stays it will receive a delicious food reward. The goal of this training is to allow the dog to assume a relaxed and happy body posture and facial expression on command. Once this is established, then food rewards are phased out. For more information on how to reward your dog, see Learn to Earn – Predictable Rewards, Learning, Training, and Modifying Behavior, Working for Food, and Using Reinforcement and Rewards to Train Your Pet.

Lastly, begin counter-conditioning and desensitization to acclimate the dog to the stimuli that usually cause the fearful response. This needs to be done slowly and cannot begin until your dog can reliably relax on command in the absence of the stimulus. This is where the gradient that you established earlier becomes helpful and can be the most difficult part of the program since it is generally necessary to set up situations where you can control the dog and the stimulus. Therefore, inviting people to the house, or having some neighborhood children ride their bikes back and forth along the street, may be necessary so that you can ensure that the stimuli are predictable and well controlled. Start by exposing the dog to very low levels of the stimulus, so low that they do not evoke fear. The dog is then rewarded for sitting quietly and calmly. Favored reinforcers should be identified and saved exclusively for pairing with exposure to the stimuli. Gradually, if the dog exhibits no fear, the stimulus intensity is increased (see Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning and Implementing Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning). It is extremely important that this is done slowly. The goal is to associate a calm, positive outcome with the once fearful stimulus, and to ensure a settle response before proceeding to the next level of intensity. If the dog begins to show fear during training, it is progressing too fast and could be making the problem worse. The session might be ended by settling the dog and then using a “let’s go” command (a previously trained command for leaving situations on a happy note). Always set up the dog to succeed and always end on a positive note. The use of the leash and head collar can greatly improve the chances of success and because of the additional control, will often help the owner to succeed in getting the dogs attention and calming it down; faster than with commands and rewards alone.

But my dog may still encounter the fearful stimulus when we are not in a training exercise. What should I do then?

Each time the dog experiences the fearful stimulus and reacts with fear, the behavior is further aggravated. If possible, it is helpful to try and avoid the fear-producing stimulus. This may mean confining the dog when children visit, or the house is full of strangers. Alternately, walks may need to be curtailed or scheduled at times when encounters with other people and animals can be minimized.

"Each time the dog experiences the fearful stimulus and reacts with fear,
the behavior is further aggravated."

If you do find yourself in a situation where the dog is responding fearfully, do not raise your voice or punish your dog as this will further increase his or her anxiety. If your dog is wearing a head halter it may be possible to reorient the dog so that you can get eye contact and then to pull up and settle the dog so that the dog learns to ignore or accept the approaching stimulus. Another option is to use a “happy” tone of voice and walk just far enough away that the dog can be successfully distracted and settled.

How might these techniques be used in a training situation?

Take the example of fear toward a delivery person:

fears-phobias_animals-people2Begin by training the dog to sit and stay quietly throughout the house and then by the window and doorway in the absence of anyone approaching. Use only reward based training techniques along with perhaps a head halter to ensure success. Use clicker training (see Clicker and Target Training) or a favored reward such as a toy or treat to mark and reward acceptable responses. As the dog begins to anticipate that a favored reward is imminent the dog's attitude or “mood” should be positive rather than anxious and aggressive. The relaxed sit stay and expectation of rewards are incompatible with the behavior you wish to change – in this case lunging at the window at a delivery person. Once the dog learns to quickly settle and anticipate food at each location on command, training with varying forms of the stimulus can begin. It may take days or weeks for the dog to learn how to perform this task reliably on command. During that time, phase out food rewards so that the dog does the task equally well with or without food.

Next, train the dog to perform the desired behavior in the presence of a variety of stimuli that are similar to the actual problem stimulus (e.g., strangers walking across the property). Using desensitization, the stimulus is presented at a muted or low enough level that the dog can be kept settled and shows no fear or anxiety. Training could begin by having a family member stand by or walk by the window, and then progress to a stranger at the edge of the property. The owner then practices the training to ensure that a calm settle response is achieved and rewarded. Again, favored rewards, toys, or clicker training should be used for each new step in the program. The use of a head halter will help to ensure a quick and successful response. Repeat this many times so that the dog does it reliably, and gradually have the person move closer to the window until the person can walk by while the dog relaxes or plays and gets its reward. Rewards are phased out once each new level is achieved and reintroduced for each new step along the way. The dog is learning the new acceptable response that earns the reward (response substitution) and is acquiring a positive association with the stimulus. Proceed slowly, so that the dog learns to perform the desired behavior over and over before being challenged with the real thing.

Finally, progress to stimuli that more closely resemble the real life situation. Perhaps have the dog sit by the window when a friend or family member dressed as a delivery person walks by the property, and finally, progress to sessions with delivery people. Some dogs may progress faster if the training is done outside with stimuli across the street.

Can drugs be helpful?

For dogs that are excessively fearful or exhibit extreme panic responses when exposed to the stimuli, then a drug to help the dog maintain a more relaxed state might be helpful. Antidepressants take several weeks to reach effect but may be useful at controlling the severe anxiety states from being expressed. In addition, Adaptil™ collar (see Medication – Complementary), melatonin and other natural components might be considered for use alongside the training. For more immediate effect, if the dog is likely to become extremely anxious, or panic, then benzodiazepines such as alprazolam may be useful, but they have a short duration of effect and there may be a rebound effect as the drug wears off. Anti-anxiety drugs may occasionally lead to an increase in aggression due to disinhibition or paradoxical drug effects. While medication may help the dog in the short term, in some cases the responses are not sustained once the medication is withdrawn. Therefore, if drugs have been effective, gradual dose reduction is suggested.

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