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Extreme Fear and Anxiety in Dogs

Fears, Phobias, and Anxieties in Dogs


Fear is the instinctual feeling of apprehension resulting from a situation, person, or object presenting an external threat -- whether real or perceived. The response of the autonomic nervous system prepares the body for the freeze, fight, or flight syndrome. It is considered to be a normal behavior, essential for adaptation and survival; its context determines whether the fear response is normal, or abnormal and inappropriate. Most abnormal reactions are learned and can be unlearned with gradual exposure.


Moreover, the persistent and excessive fear of a specific stimulus is referred to as a phobia. is a persistent and excessive fear of a specific stimulus, such as a thunderstorm. It has been suggested that once a phobic event has been experienced, any event associated with it, or the memory of it, is sufficient enough to generate a response. The most common phobias are associated with noises (such as thunderstorms or fireworks).


Anxiety, meanwhile, is the anticipation of future dangers from unknown or imagined origins that result in normal body reactions (known as physiologic reactions) associated with fear; most common visible behaviors are elimination (i.e., urination and/or passage of bowel movements), destruction, and excessive vocalization (i.e., barking, crying). Separation anxiety is the most common specific anxiety in companion dogs. When alone, the animal exhibits anxiety or excessive distress behaviors.


Profound fear and withdrawal of unknown cause (so called idiopathic fear and withdrawal) has also been noted in certain dog breeds, including the Siberian Husky, German Shorthaired Pointer, Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Bernese Mountain Dog, Great Pyrenees, Border Collie, and Standard Poodle, among others. There appears to be a strong familial component, with the likelihood of a genetic influence.


Most fears, phobias, and anxieties develop at the onset of social maturity, from 12 to 36 months of age. A profound form of fear and withdrawal of unknown cause occurs at 8 to 10 months of age. Old-age-onset separation anxiety of unknown cause may be a variant of a decline in thinking, learning, and memory in elderly dogs.


Symptoms and Types


  • Mild fears: signs may include trembling, tail tucked, withdrawal, hiding, reduced activity, and passive escape behaviors
  • Panic: signs may include active escape behavior, and increased, out-of-context, potentially injurious motor activity
  • Classic signs of sympathetic autonomic nervous system activity, including diarrhea
  • Anxieties: lesions secondary to anxious behavior (such as licking and biting at the self)




  • Any illness or painful physical condition increases anxiety and contributes to the development of fears, phobias, and anxieties
  • Aging changes associated with nervous system changes; infectious disease (primarily viral infections in the central nervous system), and toxic conditions, such as lead poisoning, may lead to behavioral problems, including fears, phobias, and anxieties
  • Fear from a terrible experience; dog may have been forced into an unfamiliar and frightening experience
  • Dogs that are deprived of social and environmental exposure until 14 weeks of age may become habitually fearful
  • Phobias and panic may have a history of inability to escape or get away from the stimulus causing the phobia and panic, such as being locked in crate
  • Separation anxiety: history of abandonment, multiple owners, rehoming, or prior neglect is common; exacerbating the condition may be that the dog has been often abandoned or rehomed because of separation anxiety




Your veterinarian will first want to rule out other conditions that might be causing the behavior, such as brain or thyroid disease. The behavior could also be originating from a response to a toxic substance, such as lead. Blood tests will rule out or confirm such a possibility.


If your veterinarian diagnoses a simple fear, anxiety, or phobia, a prescribed medication may be all that is needed. But your doctor will most likely make recommendations based on your individual dog, the fear trigger, and types of beavhioral techniques that can be used to alleviate your dog's fears and anxieties.



What Can I Give My Dog for Anxiety?


There are medications that can be given to dogs to help with their anxiety, but drugs are not for every pet and are typically implemented only as a last resort in severe instances. Talk to your vet to see what the best option would be for your pet.


How to Calm an Anxious Dog


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. 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. 




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.



Comments  6

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  • Severe anxiety and fear
    01/27/2015 11:30pm

    My husband & I adopted a rescue dog 2 weeks ago. The dog was rescued from a hoarders home which consisted of roughly 150 small dogs. We think, our rescue suffers from severe anxiety and fear. Furthermore, the dog has been through 3 foster homes, making my home #4. Matters worse, she can't eat often times & there's lots of gurgling from her lower abdormen area. What can we do for our dog to calm her down & make her eat food.
    Can someone PLEASE help us...thank you

  • 02/01/2015 05:02pm

    I totally understand your situation! My standard poodle Clifford which I purchased from a very reputable breeder at 8 weeks of age is now almost 13 months old and he suffers from an anxiety disorder. I have him on an all natural supplement from my vet called Zylkene, I am monitoring him very closely on the medication as I really don't want him to rely on medication to help him relax and calm down. So I saw these Thunder Shirts advertised at the vet clinic and in the local pet stores that are supposed to help dogs with anxiety, I have to say I was a little skeptical at first as I passed by them a few times and then read the box a few times before finally purchasing one to give it a try as my Clifford recently lost almost 10lbs!!
    The Thunder Shirt works!! I couldn't believe the difference and of course it is immediate not like waiting for medication to work! At first I thought maybe I was just hoping something would work that I was seeing a response that wasn't there. But then he went in to the vet clinic for some blood tests and had the shirt on and the staff at the clinic could NOT believe the difference! They said they wouldn't have believed it if they hadn't seen it!
    So maybe give the shirt a try, it's an easy solution if it works for your poor little dog!

  • 02/03/2015 10:47am

    Your dog does not feel safe. The only way he will lear to feel safe, is he looks to your for everything. Exerise and learning patience are the keys to calming your dog.
    Try doing everything for your dog. Do not let him make any decisions, since most are wrong due to his anxiety. If he wants to sit on your feet, say no and ask him to sit somewhere else, like his mat. If he wants to go left, go right. Everything must go through you. Make sure he walks slightly behind you. If he goes ahead, just say "lets go" and turn around. You are in front again!

  • 02/02/2016 09:24am

    I may be a bit late responding but just saw your post. My rescue also was returned 3 times and suffers from a SEVERE anxiety. He does not bite nor shows signs of aggression but self-mutilates and scratches himself. But the reason I'm writing here is the gurgling sounds. Mine ALSO had that. We did an ultrasound, blood exams and as it turned out, due to stress, his intestines were raw with wounds. This seemed to be a somatic response to his anxiety. He had to take budesonide for some time to stop the inflammation. Then, he was prescribed a diet by a nutricionist that has kept his bowel functions great without no medication. Probiotics were given as well as glutamine. The gurgling disappeared and his stool has kept shape and there's no more mucus or blood. In short, do check your baby for intestinal problems and try talking to a nutricionist for a diet. Mine even gained wieght after that. :) As for anxiety, I am still fighting it... I tried homeopathy, Bach flower remedies but they caused more harm than good (he got even more anxious, can you belive it ?). I may have to resort to medication. One thing, though that helps A LOT is exercise. Take your dog out as much as you possibly can. Assertive and brisk walking is a very good de-stressor. All the best :)

  • Separation Anxiety
    07/24/2015 02:29pm

    3 Months ago, my family and I moved into a new home. In the 2 months prior to this we did bring the dog into the home while gradually moving in, into the yard and neighborhood just so he would be familiar with the areas, smells, etc. In the old home, he did have a big open yard and was a perfect yard dog. He required no walking since the yard was so big. With the new home, we do have a privacy fence and about a 1/3 of a yard than he was used to. We knew we would have to walk him several times a day. But after moving in, we put him outdoors and he would continously bark at the back door and even chewed up and scratched the door frame to this newly-built home. So eventually, we let him in, not wanting to be the hated new neighbors and trying to save the door frame from even more damage. So then, coming to realize he is now an indoor dog and that was fine. Until he started to scratch up the front door frame, chew and break the front window blinds when we would leave. I really do not want to surrender my dog but we do not know what to do. We show him so much attention when we are home and we simply do not understand. Please help!

  • 03/10/2016 08:57pm

    One of the best things you can do is a bit of an ask, but having a friend for your dog is often very helpful. Consider getting another dog. The best thing to do is take him with you and let HIM choose his friend. I have 5 dogs and all of them are rescue. One, Harris, also has anxiety issues, not separation, more fear based. He was always like that, but we have managed for 11 years now with a lot of time, patients, understanding, and will. I couldn't imagine my life without my little man and he's been very good with (almost) every dog we've introduced into our home (we do foster occasionally). There are plenty of training videos online about how to introduce another dog and dealing with your specific problem. It takes some work, but the rewards are well worth it.


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