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Managing Fears, Phobias and Anxieties in Your Dog

Caroline has more than 12 years of experience solving canine behavior problems either with families, in rescue or at her own home.


Why is my Dog Scared?

Whilst fear, phobia and anxiety might present with similar symptoms, there are distinct differences. Determining what you are dealing with is the first step in the rehabilitation process.

What Is Fear?

We'll start with fear as it is probably the easiest and most common form of anxious behavior. Fear is a rational and emotional response to an actual threat or danger. For example, a dog that has been scratched by a cat will learn to be afraid of the pain that the cat caused him and will behave fearfully next time he finds himself in the same situation! In any case, the fear is real and, like all types of anxious behavior, it is there to prevent future pain or even death.

What Are Phobias?

We are all familiar with phobias. Most of us probably know someone, or maybe it's you, that is living with one such as agoraphobia (fear of open/public spaces) or acrophobia (fear of heights). The term "phobia" describes an irrational fear that has no specific cause or basis. Dogs can experience phobias just like people can; for example, a fear of shadows, sciophobia, is not uncommon in dogs. Zuigerphobia is a familiar phobia in dogs—more commonly known as the fear of vacuum cleaners.

What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is different from fear and phobia in that there does not need to be an actual solid reason for the fear, just the potential for it. For instance, anxiety can be seen in dogs during the fireworks season, the responses to the loud bangs are actual phobic responses, but many dogs become extremely anxious during the day in anticipation of the fireworks, and this part is anxiety.

Dogs can also become anxious about going for a walk, and this is again in anticipation of what could happen on the walk and not a fear of the walk itself. A dog that is anxious about walking may be responding to a bad experience that has happened on a walk once, such as being attacked by another dog, or a loud noise from a car or lorry. This dog will know your routine and behavior well and will start behaving fearfully as soon as he thinks you might take him for a walk, which could be ascertained just by the way you get out of your chair or even the shoes you have chosen to change into.

What's the difference?

Whilst fear, phobia and anxiety might present with similar symptoms, there are distinct differences. Determining what you are dealing with is the first step in the rehabilitation process.

What Causes Anxious Behaviour?

As a young dog, problems relating to fear can come from a few different places.

Lack of Confidence or a Personality Trait

For some, it starts as a general lack of confidence or a personality trait; in these cases, training will be ongoing throughout the dog's life. They will need constant reassurance and they may never be the most outgoing pup in the park, but they can learn to cope in normal social situations as long as they have you by their side.

Inadequate Socialization

Inadequate socialization will have a big impact too, especially during the critical period. The critical period is an extremely important stage in a puppy's life. Between the ages of 4–14 weeks of age a pup is at his most receptive to new experiences, he is fearless and will want to interact in some way with everything and everyone he comes across, and in doing so he will learn to accept everything he has a positive experience with as normal and nothing to worry about. After this period, he can still learn to accept new things as non-threatening, but this ability is fading with his age.

Leaving the Litter Too Soon

For a young pup, leaving his mum and litter-mates too soon can have a big impact on his ability to cope too, it is recommended that puppies stay with their birth family until they are at least eight weeks of age, if they leave any sooner they run the risk of missing out on important interaction with their littermates and mother, which in turn will affect their ability to interact appropriately with other dogs as an adult.

Difficult Life Experiences

As dogs get older, life experiences become more important and are the biggest cause of fear-related problems; frightening experiences, pain, illness and abandonment are the biggest contributors. These types of fears are common and are thankfully the easiest to overcome too, as they have been learned and with time, effort and patience, they can become unlearned, provided all future similar experiences are positive for the dog.

How to Tell if You Have an Anxious Dog

On their own, most signs of anxiety could be easily mistaken for something else, so it is important to view these behaviours in context and look for a range of signs so as to be 100% sure. For example, a barking dog could be anxious, excited or just plain demanding, but a barking dog with his tail between his legs, his ears down and his lips pulled back is definitely nervous.

Panting, staring, pacing and trembling are fearful behaviours that should never be ignored, as a frightened dog acting like this could quickly become unpredictable and possibly dangerous. Other signs of fear to watch for include avoidance behaviours such as hiding or escaping, self-harming, loss of bowel and bladder control, licking or chewing at objects, howling, and aggressive behaviours including snapping, growling and biting.

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Read More From Pethelpful

You can sum up these types of behaviours into two groups: those seeking to avoid trouble, and those that are seeking to scare it away. You can tell a lot about your dog's personality by which group he chooses in a frightening situation!

Lips pulled back and panting, both typical signs of mild stress.

Lips pulled back and panting, both typical signs of mild stress.

Helping a Fearful Dog

Now we have figured out what kind of anxiety the dog has, it is time for the crucial bit: how to help him. We’ll start with a fearful dog.

What Is the Threat?

We already know that this dog's anxiety has come from an actual threat, so before all else, we will have to figure out what the threat is. For most dogs, it will be pretty obvious, as it'll be the person or object that the dog is directing his behavior towards, or trying to avoid.

Is the Fear Useful or Not?

Then we have to decide whether the fear is useful or not. For example, a dog that shows a fear of snakes should be not be discouraged. This fear may save his life, and possibly yours, as would a fear of cars. However, useful fear should be managed carefully so that a dog is able to walk calmly along a footpath but retain enough apprehension that he does not run in front of the cars.

Tips for Managing Fears That Aren't Useful

Let’s talk about a fear that is not particularly useful, such as a fear of other dogs, this fear has most likely come from inadequate socialization or a bad experience, in any case the solution will be to gradually re-introduce the dog to others in a gentle and controlled way.

  1. Initially, the trick is to establish a distance from other dogs that is close enough to trigger a mild fear response but far enough away that the dog can still respond to well-known commands, such as the Sit command.
  2. Now work at this distance for as long as it takes for the fear response to subside, you could do some basic training, heel walking or play with a toy, whatever it takes to distract and refocus your dog's attention.
  3. As he starts to relax, the next step is to move a little closer and repeat the whole process, keep going until you are close enough to be able to introduce him to a calm dog. It might be useful to know that depending on how bad the fear is, this process could take hours or even weeks!

If the fear is noise based, you can do a similar thing with a noise CD, simply turn the volume down so that it is barely audible at first and play the CD over and over again. Over time, gradually increase the volume, just make sure your dog is coping well as you increase the volume and don’t be afraid to go back a step if you think he is starting to stress too much.


Helping a Phobic Dog

Phobias are a little trickier, as well as working with the source of the phobia, for example the hoover. Work also needs to be done towards building a stronger bond with your dog and boosting his confidence in general. The best way to achieve both at the same time would be to take up a hobby together such as obedience training, agility or heel work to music, all fun for you both and great for pooch's mental and physical health.

In the example of the hoover, you should first assess how bad the phobia is, some dogs are happy for you to push a quiet hoover around but will worry when it is switched on, but for others, just touching it will send them into a full-on panic attack. Let's assume you are working with this dog; you will need a volunteer, your normal vacuum cleaner and a long hall or room.

  1. Start with your dog on a short lead and, when you are ready, have your volunteer bring him into the room you are working in, you will already be at the far end with your hand touching the hoover.
  2. Have your volunteer distract your dog by doing some obedience work or playing with a favorite toy.
  3. As he relaxes, take your hand off and then replace it, repeat that over and over until your dog stops noticing, then you can make things a little harder by moving the hoover forwards and backwards, try moving it closer to him, then away, until eventually, he will let you push it right past him.
  4. Continue to increase the difficulty as he makes progress until you are ready to have the hoover switched on, then simply repeat these steps as before, starting with him being brought into the room while you are already waiting for him, just this time, the hoover will be on.

Helping an Anxious Dog

The most common type of anxiety suffered by our pet dogs is separation anxiety, so let's talk about ways you can help this dog cope better.

A confident dog will not fret, as long as he is not left for too long, and a tired dog will cope better too. So it stands to reason that in the first instance you should work on increasing the amount of exercise your dog is getting, as well as building confidence by joining a training class or taking up a similar activity together.

The next step is adjusting your routine slightly so your dog can cope better in your absence. Your new routine should be calm, and without drama, you want your dog to feel reassured that nothing scary is happening, so tone down any behavior that might alert him to the fact that there might be a problem or that you are about to leave.

Try this for a new routine:

  1. Ten minutes before you plan to leave, start ignoring your dog; no attention at all, no petting, no talking and no eye contact.
  2. Distract yourself with a book or magazine, or start a job that requires your full attention if you find that hard to do, then, just before you put on your shoes, change your coat, grab your keys, or whatever it is you do right before you leave, take him to his safe place.
  3. Quietly close the door behind you and only then get yourself ready to go. When you leave, do not look back or say goodbye, just go.

When you return, do the same but in reverse:

  1. Do not rush to see him. First, take off your coat and put down your keys and bags.
  2. Then when you do go to him, continue to ignore him for around ten minutes, no matter how hyper he is. Allow him to calm down (let him out to go to the toilet if he needs to go).

Now you have mastered the routine, start small and leave him alone for a few minutes at a time at first, and gradually build up until he can be left for a couple of hours successfully.

A Note About Your Safe Place

Some people like to use a dog crate, and I would be very supportive of that. Whilst to us, a crate is essentially a cage, your dog will see it as his den; it will make him feel safe, especially if you cover all but one side with a blanket, and due to the lack of space, it will stop him from pacing and panicking without you, just please introduce it carefully to your dog, if you don’t, the crate may have the opposite effect and cause him anxiety.

If you don’t like the idea of a crate, a small enclosed space such as a utility room will do nearly as well. Whatever you decide on, make sure your dog has access to water and a warm, comfy bed, it can also be a good idea to leave a radio on, but definitely don’t leave food. Anxious dogs do like to chew, it helps to relieve pain and releases dopamine, so it is always a good idea to offer something safe for him to chew on, but he won’t feel like eating!

Things to Remember

While you are working with your dog, whatever the type of fear, there are a few things that you must remember.

  • Your body language is very important, make sure you are projecting confidence, stay calm and remember to breathe slowly. You should also make sure that whatever you are doing with your dog, when he is afraid, you should always move between him and the thing that is making him afraid, this will reassure him that you want to protect him.
  • Remain vigilant; as your body language is important to him, so should his be to you. Make sure to never overstress your dog, if you feel things are getting out of control you must stop immediately and re-evaluate what you are doing.
  • Remain patient, it can be a slow process to rehabilitate a dog with anxiety; it will take as long as it takes, and there is no quick fix. It can help to keep a diary of your progress, log every detail of your training sessions and then every few weeks, take a look back and you will hopefully be encouraged with your overall progress.
  • Use appropriate tools to maintain control of the situation and keep everyone safe; muzzles, leads and harnesses are all good tools to use, as are panic alarms and dog crates, why make things harder than they need to be, there are no medals for heroics when it comes to dog training.
  • Finally, I must recommend getting help from a qualified, experienced behaviorist. Anxious dogs, no matter what the cause, can be easily damaged by poor training methods and you could, inadvertently make things worse, not better.

Apart from that, good luck!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2016 Caroline Brackin


Mary on January 09, 2020:

I’m wondering if my lab is afraid of heights! She is now 5 months old And won’t go up my steps that goes up to my bedroom she will lay down at the bottom on the floor with her head on the steps! I have force her to come up my 13 steps and she’s ok until I get her on my bed and she starts acting like she wants something to drink and I even took notice when she’s climbing on my chair she seems to do the same thing! Now she dose go up my 3 steps and down my 3 steps to go outside! Is it possible that she is afraid of heights?

Caroline Brackin (author) from Bangor on August 16, 2016:

Hi Lions44, I would agree with you, those weeks make such a big difference, I work with pups all the time that were taken at 6 weeks and they often have low self esteem and problems socializing. Your dog is lucky to have you :-)

CJ Kelly from the PNW on August 16, 2016:

Great hub. Sharing.

Our toy poodle was removed from him mom within 6 weeks and we always felt that had a big effect on him. Two years later, his anxiety still ebbs and flows in strange ways. Other dog owners have scoffed at us about it but we're convinced that is the main source of the problem.

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