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Extreme Fear and Anxiety in Dogs

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Treatment

 

If your dog has extreme panic and separation anxiety and needs to be protected until medications can become effective, which can take from days to weeks, hospitalization may be the best choice. Otherwise, you will care for your dog at home, and will need to provide protection from self inflicted physical injury until the dog calms down. You may need to arrange for day care or dog-sitting.

 

Affected dogs will respond to some extent to a combination of behavior modification and treatment with anti-anxiety medication. (Note: Drugs are not for every pet and are typically implemented only as a last resort in severe instances.) If there is a condition that causes itchiness and/or pain, it must be controlled. Your dog may need to live in a protected environment with as few social stressors as possible. These animals do not do well in dog shows.

 

Behavior modification will be up to you. You will need to teach your dog to relax in a variety of environmental settings. Avoid reassuring the dog when it is in the midst of experiencing fear or panic; the dog may interpret this as a reward for its behavior. Encourage calmness, but do not reinforce the fear reaction. Remember that not all dogs are calmer when crated; some dogs panic when caged and will injure themselves if forced to be confined. Absolutely avoid punishment for behavior related to fear, phobia, or anxiety.

 

Desensitization and counter-conditioning are most effective if the fear, phobia, or anxiety is treated early. The goal is to decrease the reaction to a specific stimulus (such as being left alone in the dark). Desensitization is the repeated, controlled exposure to the stimulus that usually causes a fearful or anxious response in such a way that the dog does not respond with the undesirable response. With repeated efforts, the goal is to decrease the dog's undesirable response. Counter-conditioning is training the dog to perform a positive behavior in place of the negative behavior (in this case, fear or anxiety).

 

For example, teach your dog to sit and stay, and when your dog performs appropriately you can reward it appropriately. Then, when your dog is in a situation where it might show the undesirable response, have it sit and stay. The signs involved in an oncoming anxiety attack are subtle; learn to recognize the physical signs associated with the fears, phobias, and anxieties and head the behavior off before it has a chance to take over your dog's behavior.

 

Living and Management

 

As long as your dog is on medications, your veterinarian will want to follow-up by conducting occasional blood testing to make sure your dog's blood chemicals stay in balance. If behavior modification does not work over the long term, your veterinarian may want to modify the approach. If left untreated, these disorders are likely to progress.

 

Most forms of treatment will be done over the long term, possibly years. It generally depends on the duration and intensity of symptoms, as well as the amount of symptoms the dog displays. Minimum treatment averages four to six months. 

 

Prevention

 

Expose dogs to a variety of social situations and environments when they are young puppies (up to the time they are 14 weeks of age) to decrease the likelihood of fearful behavior. Puppies and dogs that are deprived of social and environmental exposure until 14 weeks of age may become habitually fearful, which can be avoided with only a little exposure during this formative time.

 

Image via Shutterstock

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