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.
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.
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.