Common Dog Fears and Phobias | How to Help Treat Them

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Tetiana Zhudyk
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Anxiety, fear, and phobias are common in dogs. Depending on the circumstances, treatment can be straightforward or complex.

Fight or flight behavior, in the short term, is necessary and healthy. When the dog feels endangered, the stress response makes them alert and ready to take action, such as running away from a possible threat. However, when the response is prolonged, for example, fear occurring throughout a stormy season, physical and emotional pathologic conditions may develop.

Fear vs. Phobia

Fear is an emotion caused by the presence of something conceived as threatening. It triggers an immediate response in the amygdala (brain), telling the subject to get ready to take action. It's a normal and adaptive response because it gives the dog the necessary energy to act when they’re in danger. Most fears are learned and can be unlearned with gradual exposure and counterconditioning.

A phobia is an extreme and abnormal fear so extreme that it affects a dog’s quality of life. It's irrational and not adaptive.

Unnecessary fear has physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral drawbacks. As rising cortisol levels suppress the immune system, stressed and fearful dogs are more prone to disease.

When a dog is fearful, they typically bark, lower their tail, hide, jump to seek higher ground, whine, tremble, pant, lick lips, lift a paw, cower, raise their hackles, refuse food, growl, freeze, mouth, nip, and/or snap.

Dealing with Common Fears and Phobias

In positive reinforcement training, desensitization and counterconditioning are used to deal with fears and phobias. By doing so, you can gradually expose the dog to the object, sound, person, or animal they’re afraid of and pair it with special treats or toys.

To effectively change the emotional response of fear your dog has in the presence of the thing/person/animal they’re afraid of, you should be very careful, look for signs of stress, and increase the level of exposure very gradually, one step at a time. Otherwise, you might reinforce the fear.

If, at any point, you feel that the fear response is getting more intense and your dog starts to fear other things they weren’t afraid of before, you should contact a certified dog trainer to help you.

Noise and Thunderstorm Phobia

Fireworks and thunder are the most common causes of noise phobias, but dogs can develop a phobia of any sound.

Dogs can become fearful of a sound after a specific event, such as hearing fireworks during a New Year’s celebration. But they can also become fearful of a sound after multiple exposures to it, and the fear develops gradually, such as when a dog that is afraid of thunderstorms becomes more afraid with the thunderstorm season.

Noise and thunderstorm phobia is a complex phobia because it encompasses sound, changes in barometric pressures, darkening skies, flashes of lightning, and the presence of rain and wind.

Depending on what your dog is afraid of, you can use several techniques to manage phobias. Avoidance is possible if you can ensure that your dog never encounters the noise, such as if you don’t go to places where guns are being shot, if that’s the type of noise they hate.

When avoiding the noise isn’t possible, behavior modification, desensitization, counterconditioning, pressure wraps, pheromones, music, and medication can be used.

To start modifying behavior, you should

  • Find a special treat only used when the scary sound is present, starting well before the dog hears the sound.

  • Teach your dog to “relax” by reinforcing every few seconds when they’re relaxed.

  • Next, you can gradually expose them to the scary sound. Start with the sound set very low, almost inaudible, and reinforce relaxed behavior with the special treat.

  • Gradually increase the sound until your dog is indifferent to it. If the scary noise occurs and you’re not expecting it, minimize your anxiety (your dog can feel it) and get them to do a behavior they know. Get them to do it in a rapid sequence.

  • Give them lots of special treats to help redirect them. For dogs that love to play, prompt an instinctive behavior, such as throwing a ball or moving a tug toy, and reinforce them if they chase it. For food-oriented dogs, you have to associate the noise with tasty treats.

If your dog is unable to focus on food, commands, or play, you can use compression garments (gentle pressure seems to have a calming effect on some dogs), music, pheromones, and medication (contact your vet and only give your dog medication specifically prescribed for them).

To prevent noise and thunderstorm phobia in puppies

  • Expose them to those sounds when they’re in the socialization period.

  • You can start exposing them to the sounds of fireworks, thunderstorms, vacuum cleaners, and hair dryers by delivering treats or playing with them whenever the sound is present.

  • The sound should be set low, and you should gradually increase the sound if the dog is indifferent to it.

At that age, dogs are very curious about new things, and unless they’re very insecure, it should be easy to get them used to those sounds.

Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety affects about 20% to 25% of dogs (Becker, M. (2018). From fear-free to fearful. Health Communications, Inc.). Dogs with this problem show signs through voiding in the house, chewing furniture, and barking persistently when they’re alone. They may have been through a traumatic experience when they were alone or have been abandoned in a shelter by previous owners.

Treating this involves reducing your dog's dependence on you and gradually increasing how long they can stay home alone without exhibiting signs of stress.

To do it, you should

  • Ignore your dog when they misbehave to get your attention (jumping up, barking, whining), and teach them a calm way to interact with you (sitting).

  • Change your leaving routine, such as giving your dog no attention for 10 to 15 minutes before you leave.

  • Enrich the environment to prevent boredom and anxiety using chew toys and mental stimulation toys filled with delicious treats (give those toys about 10 minutes before you leave to ensure they will play with them).

It’s also important that you provide your dog with consistent physical and mental activity when you are at home.

Obedience training, mental stimulation games, playing, and walking are excellent ways of keeping your dog stimulated, and they all help increase their self-confidence.

In addition, you can find many practical and useful tips on the Petkeen website.

Furthermore, when you’re at home, your dog shouldn't always be with you. Remember that they don’t understand why you leave, and they should be able to enjoy their time alone. For instance, if you are cooking, you can leave your pet in another room (with a chew toy) until you have finished the task. This way, your dog will learn that spending time alone means they will have a chew toy and that they won’t be alone forever.

To prevent separation anxiety in puppies, the most important thing is to condition them to be left alone for short periods.

  • Start with crate training: Put them in the crate while you’re leaving and entering the room. Seeing you go out and come back will help them understand that you will always come back.

  • If your furry fellow already has some obedience training, you can practice down-stays on their bed and gradually increase the distance between you and your pup until you’re able to leave the room and they wait for you to come back.

  • Just like with adult dogs, puppies need toys or activities that will keep them entertained and help them associate being alone with good things.

If you need extra help with Home Alone training, feel free to check out one of the dedicated courses in the Woofz app.

Fear of Other Animals

Dogs normally develop a fear of other animals when they’ve been attacked by one or if they’ve had a negative experience when meeting animals.

If they have been attacked, this fear may manifest only when they see an animal of that species or breed, or they may generalize the fear to all animals. More typical signs of fear in this situation are trembling, panting, running away, and whining, but a fearful dog may become aggressive in the presence of strange animals.

To start modifying behavior, you should

  • Understand what your pet is afraid of (dogs, cats, horses?) and introduce them to calm individuals of that species at a great distance, pairing their presence with positive experiences.

  • Gradually expose your pooch to the sound that the animal makes. For instance, if your dog is afraid of other dogs, you can go to a dog park, stay at least fifty meters away from the park, and start to play with your dog, or give them food when they’re calm.

  • When your dog is comfortable with the presence of other dogs, you can gradually decrease the distance from the dog park, rewarding the dog if they stay calm.

  • When your dog is indifferent to the presence of other dogs when you’re right next to the dog park, you can start introducing them to other dogs with your dog off-leash (they must be able to run away if they need to) and the other dog on-leash.

  • At first, only introduce your dog to calm and sociable dogs, as bad experiences can exponentially increase fear.

It’s also important that you always have treats easily accessible when you walk your dog so that you can get them to do a specific action/behavior if needed, such as a “Sit” and “Look” if you encounter an animal while walking.

Fear of Places

This is a common fear when dogs don't get out much, for example, dogs that only leave the house to go to the vet. The problem may also develop after your doggy pal has had a negative experience and associates the experience with the place.

To start modifying behavior, you should

  • Start to gradually introduce your dog to the places they fear.

  • First of all, understand what type of places they’re afraid of, e.g., vet clinics, places with loud noises, places with lots of people, etc.

  • Go there with your dog and pair the place with the presence of good things (food, toys, affection).

  • This process must be gradual so that your dog doesn’t feel overwhelmed and starts refusing food or freezing. For instance, if your dog is afraid of the vet clinic, you should go there, stay outside, and reinforce the dog every few seconds with special treats.

  • After a few consecutive days of doing this, and if the dog is relaxed and focused on you, you can enter the clinic and reinforce the dog every few seconds if they’re calm.

  • Do this for several days: You can even ask the vet to give your dog some treats to strengthen the association of the clinic with good stuff.

To prevent this fear in puppies, you should

  • Introduce them to various places with different noises, smells, people, and animals while they’re in the socialization period.

  • Ensure they have a good experience there.

  • Always beware of signs of stress and remove your puppy from the place if they’re uncomfortable.

Fear of Objects

Any object that frightens the dog can become an object of fear to them. They may be afraid because they’ve never seen something like that or because they’ve had a bad experience with it

To start modifying behavior, you should

  • Identify the objects your dog is afraid of, and start introducing them to those objects step by step. For instance, if your dog is afraid of trash bags, you can pick up a small piece of a bag. When they notice it, reinforce them with a treat. Repeat several times until your dog is comfortable with it.

  • Once they are, gradually increase the size of the piece, always reinforcing the dog if they stay relaxed.

With repetition, the dog will learn that the bag isn’t a threat. You can repeat this exercise with every object your dog is afraid of, and for objects you can’t make smaller, use great distances to start the process.

To prevent this fear in puppies, you should

  • Expose your dog to as many different objects as possible (vacuum cleaner, hair dryer, broom, trash bags, walking stick, wheelchair, plastic bags, crate, leash, hat), pairing their presence with good things (food, play, affection) during the socialization period.

  • Always beware of signs of stress and remember that every experience they have with any object must be a positive one.

Fear of Unknown Cause

A dog with this fear may be afraid of people, sounds, situations, places, unexpected movements, etc. It's known as idiopathic fear, and its origin is unknown.

This fear is more common in certain breeds, such as Border Collies, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Siberian Huskies, Great Pyrenees, and Poodles.

To start modifying behavior, you should take steps to generally increase reinforcement in your dog’s life.

If you can find some things your dog is afraid of, you should use desensitization and counterconditioning to change their emotional response in the presence of that thing, but if you can’t identify the things that scare your dog, you should contact a certified dog trainer to help you.

To increase the general level of reinforcement in a dog’s life, you should

  • Practice obedience training using exclusively positive reinforcement.

  • Exercise your dog daily with fun activities (fetch, tug-of-war).

  • Use meals to stimulate your dog with mental stimulation games.

  • Let your dog sniff whatever they want during at least one walk a day.

  • Introduce your dog to new things/people/dogs/sounds very gradually and pair them with something good.

To prevent this fear in puppies, you should

  • Consider this fact when choosing a breed.

  • Invest as much time as possible in socializing your puppy with everything they will have to deal with during their socialization period.

  • Remember that first impressions matter and are crucial when introducing a new thing to a dog.

Drug Therapies

Depending on the fear or phobia the dog has, there are several medications the vet may prescribe as an adjunctive measure. For instance, for noise or thunderstorm phobia, vets commonly prescribe Alprazolam and Fluoxetine, while for separation anxiety, it's common to prescribe Clomipramine.

Also, there are pheromone products, such as Adaptil, which contains a synthetic analog of dog-appeasing pheromone and helps provide comfort to dogs, and various capes and wraps which are reported to help reduce a dog’s anxiety and fear during stressful moments.

Nutritional supplements, such as L-tryptophan, can also be used to lower anxiety and stress associated with fearful situations.

Summing Up

To sum up, tackling common fears and phobias in dogs is key to their happiness. Recognizing signs and using effective treatments helps create a supportive environment. From gradual desensitization to seeking professional help, the path to easing fears is rewarding. With patience and empathy, we can ensure our furry friends lead happier, more confident lives.

Preventing fear is even more important than treating it. Even though your dog might be prone to fearfulness due to genetics, socialization in early-life stages is the key to preventing this problem.

If you have a puppy, show them the world, show them everything they might have contact with later. If you do this and if they have good experiences when with all the things they might consider a threat, they will grow up healthy and fear-free.

Written by

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Tetiana Zhudyk

Woofz Content Manager with a deep passion for dogs and a strong affinity for positive reinforcement training methods.

Reviewed by

Frederica Caneiro

Certified dog trainer, exclusive positive reinforcement methods & tackling aggression problems.