Canine Fears and Phobias

There are a variety of fearful stimuli affecting dogs. They are divided into three main areas:

Fear of People
Fear of Other Animals
Fear of Noises

Development of fearful responses in animals can occur either by inheritance or through negative experiences, especially in puppies and kittens. Fearful, timid and shy behavior is a very inherited trait such that the breeding of a shy animal results in a high likelihood that the offspring will also have timid tendencies. For this reason, breeders need to consider the behavior and personality of a breeding bitch or stud at least as much as they consider their conformation. Early, positive life experiences, however, can be very effective at reducing the fearful tendencies in many pets. A conscious effort to expose an individual within the first 3 months of life to as many varied experiences as possible can help greatly in reducing that animal's later reactivity to novel situations. This is why puppy kindergarten classes begun at 8-10 weeks of age can be extremely beneficial in heightening social skills.

In treating all types of fearful behaviors, the approach is very similar.

  • Manage the Environment - Control the dog's access to the fear provoking stimulus so that the behavior does not continue to occur uncontrollably and thereby reinforce itself. This can mean, for the dog who is fearful of people entering the home, isolate it when people come into the home. This is not a permanent treatment but merely a way to allow you to control the reaction.
  • Manage the Dog - Begin a series of exercises to gain control over the dog's reactions. These are commonly called counter conditioning exercises in which the dog is taught a behavior (relaxed sit-stay) which is inconsistent with the problem behavior. This is taught in a calm setting.
  • Identify Fear Producing Stimulus - Identify exactly what is causing the fear. Is it a certain type of person? A type of animal? A typical situation in which it occurs? Fireworks? Thunderstorms? Common, sudden household noises?
  • Establish a Gradient for the Stimulus - This means to break the stimulus into small parts. If your dog is afraid of large men. We will need to begin by introducing small, familiar, girls and work our way up to large, unfamiliar men. In this way we can gradually begin to desensitize the animal to the stimulus.
  • Desensitization - Gradually expose the pet to the stimulus as defined by the gradient you set up. By rewarding calm behavior while you gradually introduce each level of the stimulus, you are teaching the animal a different response to the stimulus. The mistake often made here is that the owners commonly go too fast with this procedure and overwhelm the animal. This process can take several months to be effective.
  • Medication - With overly fearful animals, we often need to consider use of an anti-anxiety medication to help the animal to focus and be more receptive to the training. While in the past this meant sedating the animal, this no longer is the case in that there are now many alternative medications which address the animals underlying anxiety instead of tranquillizing.