Anxiety in Dogs
Fears & Phobias
Anxiety or fear is the feeling that something bad or unpleasant will happen. It is related to
uneasiness, nervousness, restlessness, tension and dread.
When it feels like a situation, person or object is posing a threat, whether real or believed,
an instinctual anxiety can be experienced which causes the body to prepare for freeze,
flight or fight (flee) mode. This behaviour is usually seen as normal and necessary for
adaptation and survival, unless the fear response is abnormal or inappropriate (it depends
on the context). It’s believed that most abnormal reactions are not natural, but instead
learned, which means it can be unlearned.
If the fear of something or someone is constant and almost uncontrolled then it’s called a
phobia. Often the memory of, or incidences associated with, a phobic event can cause a
response in a dog. Noise related occurrences, for example thunderstorm and fireworks, are
linked to common phobias.
On the other hand, anxiety refers to the anticipation of future threats which can
either be unknown or imagined. The associated fear can cause normal and visible body related reactions, such as urination and/or passing of bowel movements, destruction, barking or crying.
The most common anxiety that dogs can suffer from, specifically when they are
alone, is separation anxiety which reveals itself in stress behaviours. Between
one to three years of age, when a dog is socially mature, the majority of
anxieties, fears and phobias develop. The cause is unknown, but significant fear
and withdrawal can also occur between eight to ten months of age. Older dogs
may also eventually suffer from separation anxiety and though the cause is not
clear it could simply be related to age and natural regression.
ANXIETY SYMPTOMS & TYPES
WHAT CAUSES FEAR AND ANXIETY IN DOGS
TO DEVELOP OR INCREASE?
• Illness or pain
• Terrible, frightening and/or unfamiliar experience(s)
• Lack of social exposure in the first three and a half weeks of a dog’s life
• Memories related to the inability to escape a space or stimulus (e.g. being locked up)
• Toxic conditions (e.g. lead poisoning); infectous disease, usually viral
(which can compromise the central nervous system); and nervous system changes associated with aging
• Having experienced separation, whether it’s related to abandonment, having multiple owners, rehoming or neglect
(or even worse: abandonment or rehoming because of the dog’s separation anxiety)
A dog’s behaviour can be influenced by disease (e.g. brain or thyroid) or toxins, so your veterinarian will first do tests. If fear, anxiety or phobia is suspected, behavioural techniques can be recommended or medication prescribed. The choice will depend on the individual dog, its fear trigger and the owner.
CALMING AN ANXIOUS DOG
In extreme cases, if medication is not available or effective yet, hospitalisation could help. It might not be cost-effective, but
not everyone has time to care for their dog at home, often protecting them from self-inflicted injuries and other worrisome
behavioural problems. Another alternative is hiring a qualified pet sitter with the relevant experience since a doggy day care
could just aggravate the situation.
A combination of medication and behaviour modification could work. If you notice itching and/or pain you have to
intervene and try to control the discomfort. Also keep your dog away from social stressors and only allow access to a
non-threatening, protected environment that’s not too large or confined.
Modifying behaviour is dificult, but possible. When your dog seems panicked, don’t offer reassurance because it may be
understood as a reward for his or her behaviour. Instead, encourage calmness. Need to know: for some dogs, a crate is a safe
place; for others it’s a prison. Most importantly: don’t punish behaviour caused by fear, phobia, or anxiety.
Essentially you want to reduce the action caused by the trigger (e.g. isolation in a dark space) and early treatment can make
a big difference. You can either use desensitisation: expose your dog to the fear-inducing stimulus repeatedly, but in a very
controlled manner so that eventually an undesirable response is avoided. Alternatively, try counter-conditioning: train your
dog to react positively instead of showing fear or anxiety when confronted with the fear-inducing stimulus. Example: try a
sit-and-stay reward system and use this when your dog is showing signs of acting out. In this way, you can take control of
rising anxiety and turn the situation into something positive.
HOW TO LIVE WITH AND MANAGE ANXIETY IN DOGS
Dogs on anxiety medications should be monitored and taken to the vet for a follow-up
visit. If behavior modification doesn’t seem to work, medication should probably be
considered because the disorder can progress. Just remember that any treatment can take
time to be effective, meaning anything from a minimum of six months or possibly years.
The duration, intensity and amount of symptoms will play a role.
HOW TO PREVENT ANXIETY AND FEAR IN DOGS
Puppies should be exposed to social situations which include other people and
other dogs (possibly other pets, if you think it’s safe). This should be done before
14 weeks of age for the best results. If puppies do not socialise, it’s likely that fearful
behaviour will develop. Just a little bit of exposure can really help to avoid this
possibly long-term problem.