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Fearfulness and Anxiety in Dogs

anxiety in dogsFear or anxiety in dogs is an instinctual feeling of apprehension usually caused by a person, object or circumstance presenting an external threat, whether real or perceived. Your dog’s autonomic nervous system responds by preparing their body to either freeze, fight, or flight. This is considered normal behavior, essential for adaptation and survival; Most of these reactions are learned and can be reversed by gradual exposure.

However, excessive and persistent fear of specific items, such as thunder or fireworks, is referred to as a phobia. It has been proposed that once a dog experience’s a phobic event, any event associated with it, or the memory of it, is sufficient enough to generate a response.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is the anticipation of danger from the unknown that result in physiological reactions associated with fear; most common visible behaviors are urination and/or defecation, excessive barking or whining, panting, and destruction. Separation anxiety is the most common anxiety in companion dogs. When left alone, the dog displays anxiety or excessive distress behaviors.

Profound fear and withdrawal of an unknown cause (idiopathic fear and withdrawal) has been found more prevalent in certain dog breeds such as the Chesapeake Bay Retriever, German Shorthaired Pointer, Siberian Husky, Border Collie, Great Pyrenees, Standard Poodle, and Bernese Mountain Dog, to name a few. There appears to be a strong hereditary component.

Most of these fears, phobias, and anxieties appear to develop around 1 year to 3 years of age. An acute form of fear and withdrawal will usually take place at 8 to 10 months of age. Separation anxiety in dogs at the onset of old age of unknown cause may be related to their decline in memory, learning and thinking.

Symptoms and Types

Mild fears:
can include trembling or shaking, withdrawal, tail tucked underneath, reduced activity, hiding, and attempted escapes
can include acute escape behavior, and increased, out-of-context and potentially injurious motor activity
Classic signs of sympathetic autonomic nervous system activity:
can include loose stool or diarrhea
can include skin lesions that are secondary to anxious reponses (such as biting and licking themselves)

Contributing Factors of Fear and Anxiety in Dogs

  • Any illness or painful physical condition increases anxiety and can contribute to fear, phobia, and anxiety development
  • Aging associated with nervous system changes; infectious disease (primarily viral infections in the central nervous system)
  • Toxicity, such as lead poisoning, may lead to behavioral problems, including fears, phobias, and anxieties
  • Fear caused by a traumatic experience; your dog may have been forced into an unfamiliar and frightening situation
  • Dogs under up to the age of 14 weeks that are deprived of social and environmental exposure may become habitually fearful
  • Phobias and panic may have evolved from the inability to get away from or escape from a situation causing the phobia and panic, for example, being confined to a crate
  • Separation anxiety: history of abandonment, had numerous owners, rehoming, or prior neglect is common; to add insult to injury the dog may have been previously abandoned or rehomed because of separation anxiety
  • Diagnosis

    You may want to bring your dog to a veterinarian who will first want to rule out other underlying conditions that may be causing the behavior, such as brain or thyroid disease. Your dog’s behavior could also be originating from exposure to a toxic substance, such as lead. Blood tests will confirm or rule out such a possibility.

    Treatment for Your Dog’s Fear and Anxiety

    If your veterinarian diagnoses is a simple fear, anxiety, or phobia a special shirt called a “Thundershirt” may be your solution. Thundershirts’s design applies gentle, constant pressure on a dog’s torso, and this pressure has a calming affect on dogs.

    For most anxieties, the Thundershirt does not require any dog training to be effective. Most dogs will exhibit reduced or eliminated symptoms with the very first use of the Thundershirt, i.e. eliminated shaking, reduced panting, etc. Some dogs require 3 or 4 usages before they begin to show improvement.

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    Behavior modification is essential and the task will rest on you. Teaching your dog to be calm in a variety of environmental settings is the first step. Avoid reassuring your dog when it is in the midst of fear or panic response as your dog may interpret this as a reward for its behavior. Encourage him or her to be calm, but do not reinforce the fear response. Keep in mind that not all dogs are calmer when crated; some dogs will exhibit panic when caged and could injure themselves if forced to be confined. Absolutely avoid punishment for behavior related to fear, phobia, or anxiety.

    Desensitization and counter-conditioning are very effective if the phobia, fear, or anxiety is treated early. The objective is to reduce the reaction to a specific situation (such as being left alone in the dark). Desensitization which is the repeated, controlled exposure to the stimulus that usually causes a fearful or anxious response, should be done in such a way that your dog responses decrease over time. Another step is counter-conditioning which is where you train your dog to respond with positive behavior in place of the negative behavior of fear or anxiety.

    If your find this in not effectective, your veterinarian will likely make recommendations based on your dog, the fear trigger, and types of behavhioral techniques that can be used to alleviate your dog’s symptoms. The last resort, a prescribed medication may be what is needed.


    Early exposure of your puppy before they are 14 weeks of age to a variety of social situations and environments will decrease the likelihood of fearful behavior. Unfortunately, puppies and dogs that are deprived of social and environmental exposure may become habitually fearful so a exposure during this formative time is key.

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    One Response to Fearfulness and Anxiety in Dogs

    1. Kim August 12, 2012 at 4:40 pm #

      I have a spirited chihuahua who developed a fear of the sound of our neighbour’s kids. It started when their dad built them a potato gun and even though my dog was always inside when they used it she was extremely scared of the sound of it and then associated the sound of the kids with it too. She would tremble, have her tail between her legs and hide just at the sound of them playing outside.

      A friend told me about the Thundershirt so I thought I would give it a try. I noticed a difference in her demeanor the moment she put it on! Wasn’t expecting that. She immediately was more calm.

      I have had the opportunity to have her wear the Thundershirt twice now when the kids next door were outside playing and there has been a huge difference in her reaction to them. It blows me away that something like this could have such an affect!

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