Ron Hines DVM PhD
Fear and aggression are the two most common behavior problems veterinarians like me deal with in dogs. Many aggressive dogs are actually motivated by fear and suspicion. It always saddens me to see a dog tremble and pull away to escape from a situation that should not cause it fear or terror. Dogs, like all animals, are creatures of habit. Their inclination is to be cautious about things they have no past experiences with and avoid situations that brought them grief in the past. I believe that the pain dogs experience due to fear is as real as any of the other source of pain that veterinarians attempt to alleviate in your pet.
Fears and phobias are also among the most common reasons that dogs are surrendered to animal shelters. These fears and phobias are also the most difficult problem animal shelters face when attempting to find new homes for their dogs.
What Are Some Clues That My Dog Is Fearful And Anxious In Specific Situations?
In many stressful situations, you cannot help but notice. Your dog stands with it head lower than its back. It avoids eye contact with people near by. It might freeze or attempt to escape with its tail tucked between its legs. Your dog might growl and raise its lips in a warning. Its tail stops wagging and its body curves sideways or arches. It might cower and look around apprehensively for a place to hide. Frightened female dogs in particular tend to urinate. Others loose their bowel control. Escape is the first thing on their mind. If your dog runs away, it might look back over its shoulder to be sure it is not being pursued.
In other situations, more subtle signs of fear can be easily missed or misinterpreted. Erect eared dogs might carry them flatter. Many fearful dogs tremble and shiver. Some lick their lips, others yawn when feeling stressed, fearful or anxious. Still others whine and whimper. Tensed muscles related to fear are also common.
Bad and self-destructive behaviors don’t just pop up suddenly out of nowhere. Its just that the early signs that they are brewing are subtle and we tend not to notice them.
What Caused My Dog To Suffer Anxiety Problems?
Lack of early positive interactions with humans and dogs, street living, a yard dog’s life and a lack of normal stimulation or abuse can all contribute to a dog’s deep-seated fears and anxiety. But not every dog that goes through those tribulations develops long-lasting psychological issues.
The critical period for canine socialization is 8-16 weeks. That is the period when the puppy’s acceptance of new experiences is most plastic. The later in life that they encounter new situations, the harder it is for many dogs to accept them – particularly when the results of their first encounters are negative.
But your dog’s genetic susceptibility to fear plays a very large part as well. To what extent unreasonable fears are due to individual or breed genetic and to what extent they are environmental is something veterinarians and animal behaviorists argue about. But they really have no way of knowing. I believe that the genetic factors play a considerably larger part than many dog therapists are willing to admit.
We know that It is common for a dog with one unreasonable fear (that might have been attributed to abuse in the past) to later develop another unreasonable fear or compulsive behavior even when living in a much better environment.
We know that shy and timid dogs tend to produce puppies that are also shy and timid. There are also breeds, such as pinchers, that tend to be more skittish and temperamental than other breeds. While experience, training and therapy can lessen those tendencies, they are unlikely to entirely erase them. (ref) For your dog, striving for improvement is probably more realistic that striving for a cure.
Dogs had no better friend that John Paul Scott
I would like to tell you about Dr. Scott. He was was to dog psychology what Sigmund Freud was to human psychology. And Dr. Scott’s theories have held up considerably better than Freud’s.
Everything I mention about critical socialization periods in my articles on aggression, neurotic behaviors, fear, and environmental enrichment, comes from him. Dr. Scott was a professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. But he also became the most influential dog trainer in the world. In 1965, along with John Fuller and the support of the Jackson Laboratory, he wrote Genetics And The Social Behavior Of The Dog, a book based on his observation since 1945 of dog behavior. Dr. Scott selected five dog breeds, basenjis, beagles, cockers, shelties, and fox terriers – each for their distinctive personalities and temperaments. He put them through, what today would be called a puppy school. From the day they were born, the pups were observed every 10 minutes through a one-way mirror until they were 16 weeks old. His was the first study to observe the significant differences in how each breed behaved. When the pups were 4 weeks old, he began to isolated some of them from their mothers to see how their personality developed under various conditions. This is how he discovered how important that early period was for a dog to develop into an adult without fears and phobias. He found that from 3-12 wks of age, puppies bonded easily with people, other dogs and develop a lack of fear of objects in their environment (fire hydrants, street signs, etc.). That was the same time they developed a lack of fear of novel locations. It didn’t take much; a brief positive encounter did the trick – for life. If that 3-12 week window closed without those experiences, their ability to accept those experiences as normal and non-threatening was never easy and sometimes it was impossible. No matter on whomever’s website you are reading about dog psychology, you are reading the thoughts and impressions of Dr. John Paul Scott.
In the 1990s, using the knowledge he had acquired, Dr. Scott took a stand against the AKC. He maintained that the skin-deep judging methods of the organization had resulted in breed temperaments that were erratic and undependable. He had come to believe that if you crossed two breeds and created a mutt, you were more likely to create a psychologically healthy dog than if you continued to rank and breed purebred dogs in superficial ways. He warned that if champion breed selection criteria were not altered, there would come a time when dog owners would not be able afford the cost of the veterinary and psychological care that their purebred dogs would require. No one at the AKC took him seriously then. No one does now. The downside of inbreeding is not only psychological, it is detrimental to your dog’s physical health as well. (ref1 ,ref2)
Dr. Scott documented that cocker spaniels and shelties were considerably less likely than his other breeds to respond to sudden sounds like a doorbell ring. He also found differences in the trainability of the five breeds. Cocker spaniels and fox terriers learned the command sit-stay faster than the basenjis with the other breeds falling in the middle. When it came to problem solving, no breed outperformed the others. The beagles sniffed out scents the best. The basenjis learned how to discover hidden food treats that required them to pull strings or move objects best. When two of the five breeds were crossed to each other, their pups moved up on the ability scales one parent was low at and down on the scale a parent ranked high on. Those experiments confirmed how important your dog’s genes are in determining its personality and abilities. (ref1, ref2, ref3)
Some dog owners, after reading this far about Dr. Scott, might jump to the conclusion that what their dog missed out on as a puppy they can supply now that their dog is an adult. That must be done very cautiously – particularly when aggression is involved. Dogs that are prone to fear or to attack other dogs, people or children should never be taken to shopping centers, parks, doggy parks or doggy daycare centers without a protective muzzle. Everyone, including your dog, is put in danger when you do that. It could actually make the problems your dog struggles with considerably worse.
What Are Some Of The Most Common Situations Dogs Find Stressful And Fearful?
Noise Aversions – The Fear Of Loud Noises & The Fear Of Thunder
Fear of thunder is probably the most common of all dog phobias. My dog Maxx is quite upset by thunder. In some dogs, the noise causes only mild anxiety. Some extra coddling and praise and some hands-on comforting usually solves the problem. But in others cases, the dog becomes frantic, the symptoms are major and not easy to brush aside. Your dog might run off or hide and refuse to come out when you call. It might dash out into traffic. What begins as only a fear of thunder can progress into fear of a variety of sudden loud noises. Noise-related fear problems tend to increase as dogs age. Your dog also senses quite accurately how thunder and lightening affects you. If they cause you anxiety, they will likely cause your dog anxiety as well. Although all the methods I mention later to lessen anxiety can lessen the fear of loud noises, the best solution is always to avoid placing you dog in situations where the pet is forced to deal with loud noises. When that is unavoidable, or you just need a safe fall-back option, consider the purchase of a thunder shirt. (ref) If that is unsuccessful, ask your veterinarian to issue your dog a mild tranquilizer such as acepromazine that you can keep on hand. Some find diazepam, chlorazepate and alprazolam helpful and SILEO® claims to be helpful as well. But there is great variation as to what the effects of all these drugs will be in individual dogs. Although acepromazine has fallen out of favor, I am not convinced that any of the other medication options are superior to it when used on an as-needed basis. With time and additional non-drug approached, a time often comes when these drugs become unnecessary.
Fear of Fireworks
Dogs that are disturbed by thunder are often also frightened by the sounds of fireworks, gunshots, loud cars etc. Any sudden unexpected loud noise and flash of light can cause those dogs to tremble, drool, run and hide. Some dog owners have attempted to desensitize their dogs to those sounds by playing recordings of these sounds at the same time they give their dogs treats. They start with the volume low and gradually increase the volume in subsequent attempts. Perhaps that is sometimes effective. I have never tried it. Any pleasant diversions you can think of for the dog while the fireworks displays are in progress are likely to be calming. The same medications I mentioned for fear of thunder should be appropriate for these situations too.
There have been studies that suggest that perhaps chronic pain can also make dogs more sensitive to noise. (ref) So be sure your vet checks your dog out for pain issues as well.
Fear Of Separation – I Don’t Want To Be Alone !
I wrote a separate article on separation anxiety in dogs. You can read it here. It is a very common problem. My dog Maxx is blessed with it too. Since dogs were created as pack animals, the thought of being alone can terrify them. So anxiety on separation is really not abnormal. You know you’ll be back – but how do they? It is only when anxiety is present in the extreme that destructive events tend to occur. I believe that many medical conditions that dogs suffer from – things like periodic diarrhea, hair loss, weight loss, weight gain, intestinal obstructions, loss of house training, excessive grooming, eating stones, socks and the like, and even scratching can all have elements of separation anxiety as an underlying cause. Phobias often increase as a dog ages. So some of those events can be mistakenly written off as simple age-related dementia. (ref) Panting, vocalizing, shaking and pacing sometimes are all that occur; but just as frequently dogs dispense with those preliminaries and go on to their physical compulsions with little or no outward signs of anxiety visible to you or me. I have extracted many socks from dogs, only to have the dogs swallow the socks again when their owners leave for work in the days that follow.
Obedience training is of little help. Success lies in how you plan your departures and returns. Read more about that through the link I gave you. The signs of boredom and of separation anxiety overlap. But boredom is a much easier problem to deal with. When in doubt, try adding more mental stimulation to your dog’s daily life. Puzzle feeders when you are away, toys and the like.
This exaggerated fear of abandonment, when present, is deep in your dog’s soul. It often takes a trained dog behaviorist to improve the situation. I do not suggest drugging your dog long term; although medications can be temporarily helpful while a program of desensitization to your leaving is in progress.
Fear of Car Rides
The early experiences of dogs condition them as to what is pleasurable and what is not. An automobile can be intimidating. A noisy, smelly, and confining behemoth to a dog that first encounters one in adolescence or later life. Dogs are born quite adaptable. But their acceptance level is greatest in puppyhood. If they learned general trust and acceptability as a puppy, they will retain more of that plasticity into adulthood. Shelter dogs often lacked that critical early exposure. Those dogs are likely to remain wary of the unfamiliar. Others associate car rides with unpleasurable experiences in their past – like trips to their veterinarian or their initial encounter with animal control. In one Italian questionnaire study of 1,031 dog owners, about 24% of their pets had some issues with car rides. The number doubled when a trip to their veterinarian was their only destination. (ref)
With time, most dog owners are able to assist their dogs in overcoming these fears and to enjoy car rides. The key is patience, small steps and lots of positive reinforcement as you and your dog progress down that path. Smaller dogs are often less apprehensive in their pet carriers – ones they already accept as a refuge or lounging bin in your home. Perhaps throw their blanket in the rear seat as well.
Frequently, one member of the family will have more success than another in reassuring the dog to enter a vehicle. A team of two or three persons the dog is familiar and comfortable with often overcome reluctance better than a single individual tugging or pushing. The more upset you become, the less your dog is likely to cooperate. Dog car seats and comfortable restraints are fine if they don’t compound your dog’s fears and discomfort. If they do upset your dog, just drive responsibly or slowly back and forth in your driveway without them for a while. For fearful dogs, nothing like this please – just a pet carrier (a “crate”) already familiar to your dog. Dogs that are unfamiliar with crates at home are not going to like being placed in them in cars.
Treats and praise will slowly lure most dogs into a car when the vehicle’s motor is off – particularly when your dog is quite hungry. If not, just time spend in happy activities near your car is a step forward. Often, having several car doors open lessens a dog’s fear of getting inside a vehicle.
If your dog suffers from carsickness, ask your veterinarian for recommendations on OTC motion sickness medications. Delay feeding your dog until after the return trip. Be sure the pet has an opportunity to void its bowls and bladder before car school begins.
Dragging your dog to the car, hollering, struggling or becoming upset are all counterproductive. They just reinforce your dog’s suspicion that cars are something to be avoided. Have patience. It can take many weeks to overcome the problem with small steps forward and occasion steps back (relapses). When you finally do take a car ride together, make the destination a park or other place you know you and your dog will enjoy.
There is another thing I harp about incessantly: be sure your dog has your identification on its collar (with the offer of a $ reward) so it can be returned to you should it run away – as fearful dogs are prone to do. Separation anxiety dogs are often fence diggers while you’re away. So that goes for them too.
Fear of My Veterinarian And Animal Hospital Visits
Two thirds of the dogs taken for a ride to their veterinarian’s office would prefer to be going somewhere else. Strange smells, strange dogs, unfamiliar people and a hoist onto an examination table – not to mention the upcoming shots – are nothing they look forward to. In one German study, almost 80% of dogs were unhappy on exam tables. Fewer than half of the dogs entered the animal hospitals willingly and 13.3% had to be dragged or carried in. (ref)
Dogs have a truly amazing sense of smell. They possess about 300 million odor receptors in their nose compared to about 6 million in yours. The hospital’s previous canine patients left behind their messages of anxiety and stress in their anal gland and pheromone secretions. (ref) Dog can detects those messages from a considerable distance (over a mile). (ref) Is their any wonder that your dog arrives at Caring Hands Animal Hospital suspicious? The animal hospital may look and smell immaculate to you. But no amount of Febreze® or Clorox® will erase those left-behind canine messages. Your dog still reads them loud and clear. The dog’s experience on exiting its appointment often confirm its earlier suspicions.
Dogs are also uniquely sensitive to the fears and emotions of you, their owner. If you are stressed, nervous, fearful or apprehensive, they are certain to know it and key their emotions off of yours. If you’ve had a hard day, they have a hard day. If at all possible, do not schedule optional veterinary appointments when you yourself are under pressure. If your blood pressure goes up when you visit your doctor, you yourself might be part of your dog’s hospitalitis problem. Perhaps another family member or friend might have better success when veterinary visit time comes around. There are things you can take. But ask your physician about that – not me.
Oftentimes, veterinary hospital staff will pick up on you and your dog’s anxiety before you do. So when they smile and suggest that your dog “be taken to the back”, don’t assume they will do something horrible back there. The pet may be considerably more tolerant and comfortable with its exam and shots without your presence than with it.
There are things you can do to lessen your dog’s fear of hospital visits:
Once your puppy’s initial series of vaccinations are complete (ref) enroll your dog in a socialization class. Until then socialize your dog with the sociable dogs of your friends and family.
Pretend to be a veterinarian at home. With an “assistant” present, open your dog’s mouth and examine its teeth, tongue and throat. Check in its ears. Squeeze (palpate) its abdomen. Lift and examine its legs and feet. Check under its tail. Put your dog on a moderately elevated table and reassure it that it will not fall off. With time, a higher one. All the while, stroke and encourage your dog and give him/her favorite treats. Don’t do any of this if your dog is inclined to bite.
If you already know that your dog would not tolerate your doing any of that, your dog has larger issues than fear of veterinary hospitals or veterinarians. Seek an experienced dog trainer. Oral and injected calming medications are no substitute for the help and advice those professionals have the ability to offer.
Visit your vet socially. Bring some tasty dog treats. Bring your dog when it is quite hungry. Have the staff pet, massage and fuss over the dog with encouragement as they give your dog the treats.
Call ahead to schedule the time. No need to bother the vet, the support staff and location is what needs to have a positive place in your dog’s mind. Ask for a time slot when the clinic is not packed and the staff is less stressed.
If you or your dog get nervous in the waiting room, ask the receptionist if there might be a side room or unoccupied exam room where the two of you could wait. Alternatively, take your leashed dog for an outside walk in the area or wait with your pet in your vehicle and ask the receptionist to inform you when the veterinarian is ready to see you. Bring no children. They are a distraction to your dog, to the staff and to you.
Use the skills that your dog already knows by asking the pet to lie down, stay, etc. and by feeding it treats every few minutes or so while you wait for the appointment. Always have the dog on a short leash. It gives dogs a sense of security.
You might search for a veterinarian that does house calls. Many more vets do that now than they once did and they tend to be an empathetic subset of individuals with excellent interpersonal and dog-intuitive skills. If it is just the hospital setting that frightens your dog, not the examination itself, you might find a house visit to be the easiest solution to your dog’s anxiety problem. If the first vet and your dog don’t click, try another.
There are some dogs in which their fear of animal hospital or handling by strangers is so strong and deep-seated that no amount of positive encouragement will make them cooperative patients. If you have a dog like that, or if it has bitten or growled at you or others in the past, bring it with a muzzle. If your dog will not let you place a muzzle on it, your dog and you need immediate assistance from a professional dog handler to overcome that. When introducing your dog to a muzzle, do so for short periods at home over several weeks so it does not associate muzzles with a trip to the vets.
Tranquilizers and sedation are not a safe alternative to muzzling fearful dogs that might bite. But they will calm the fears of those that are not inclined to bite or become fear-aggressive. Discuss that over the phone with your veterinarian’s tech and let them make that decision. Tranquilizers can also bring the dogs fear level down to the point where it is open to changing to a more positive attitude on future exams – especially when the staff practices a “fear free” philosophy I will tell you about next.
As for herbal calming remedies, Purina’s Calming Care ®, other composure products, stress-relieving concoctions with GABA, l-tryptophan and B vitamins and composure dog foods, they are all heavily marketed. You are welcome to give three of them a try. I am personally skeptical as to the benefits of any of them; but I know of no downside to the Purina®, Nutramax®, or Solliquin® products given in moderation and, perhaps, the effects will be positive. (ref1, ref2, ref3)
The “Fear Free” Movement
Many more veterinarians today are concentrating on how they can modify their hospital environment and procedures in an effort to reduce your dog’s fear level. Some of these modifications are intuitively thought to lower your pet’s stress level and probably do. But none can eliminate stress in all pets and their effectiveness in lowering stress in individual pets is quite unpredictable and impossible to quantify.
The term “Fear Free” is catchy. So much so that it is being franchised, with motivational seminars, entry door decals and much hype. Veterinary hospital owners know that many pet owners dread bringing their dog to the vet. That decreases foot traffic and revenues. So it is not only altruism that drives the movement.
Here Are Some Key Constituents Of A More Practical Fear-reducing Animal Hospital Plan:
1) Upon arrival, giving treats and a fussing-over by the hospital staff without manipulating or handling the dog tends to decrease the pet’s apprehension. Instead of a production line agenda, a greeting line can do wonders to lower your dog’s fear level.
2) There are people who are have been naturally gifted with the ability to calm frightened dogs and cats. They may not be the most organized, educated or presentable. They may not be the ones with great interpersonal skills. But they were blessed by God with that talent just as some people are gifted in music and art. I do not believe that that quality can be learned. I do not know if it can be quantified. I do not know through which of their senses dogs experience it. But I do know that dogs are too smart to be fooled. Those kind of people need to be your dog’s first introduction to an animal hospital. Basically, when the medical competencies of animal hospitals are equal, let your dog choose the animal hospital it wants to visit.
3) Dogs and dog owners suffer lower stress in waiting rooms that are properly designed to segregate dogs from dogs, cats from cats and each species from the other. (ref) Their first encounter is often the weighing scale and those are best placed away from corners where dogs can feel trapped. Some suggest they be painted blue, as dogs are said to discern and favor that color.
4) In the examination rooms, some believe that dogs are more comfortable walking on non-slip floors than tiles, perhaps that is true. Most certainly, lots of tasty treats kept on hand there, praise and encouragement from the staff go a long way in easing most pet’s anxieties. So does giving the dog time to calm down before the examination begins.
5) Throughout the hospital acoustically designed ceilings and walls are very helpful in reducing stressful noise. Many hospitals now play music throughout their facilities. What sort of music is most calming to dogs is uncertain. Many decide on “soothing” classical music. (ref) It is uncertain that dogs are truly classical music fans, other studies found the playing of audiobooks more pleasing to dogs. (ref) But any pleasing sounds that lower the stress level in hospital staff and pet owners during a hospital visit is bound to calm you dog as well. If you all get calmer and mellow, your dog is likely to key its mood off of you and those around it. I know that is wishful thinking – you came because of a concern you had regarding your pet’s health and concern and anxiety are brothers.
6) Some believe that due to a dog’s ability to see higher into the UVB light spectrum than us, they might find bright white colors “visually jarring”. Possibly a good reason for your vet not to wear a white coat. See some colors that are thought to be pleasing to dogs here.
7) Some find that gentle pressure on a dog’s body has a calming effect – the same effect I mentioned for the thunder shirt. Body wraps come in many versions and styles and a figure-8 of elastic bandage or body wrap often accomplish the same goal. Calming caps™ can be quite helpful as well.
8) Veterinarians also use pheromones more frequently now than they once did in attempt to sooth and calm their canine patients. These products can be sprayed on exam room surfaces and even the staff themselves. Despite the frequent use of these heavily-advertised products, we really do not know if they work or not. (ref)
Supplements, New Age And Complementary Medicine
I mentioned Purina’s Calming Care®, Nutramax Cosequin Calm® and Solliquin® earlier. Besides those products, most of the major dog food manufacturers offer “calming recipe” dog foods or supplements that they claim are useful for the treatment of excitable dogs. None of them have any independent science backing up their claims. Some have even claim arsenic is a calming agent. (ref) The same goes for products containing magnolia and philodendron extracts and l-theanine from green tea. (ref)
Others have tried aromatherapy using the scent of lavender and chamomile. Those treatments are probably harmless. Essential oils are best avoided. (ref)
Bach flowers, energy channeling, reiki and shen and other forms of “complementary” therapy used by some veterinarians in an attempt to lower your dog’s stress levels are things I know nothing about. They are outside of my personal realm. If you feel things like that help you with stress – perhaps try them with your dog.
The Dreaded Nail Trim
Many dogs fear nail trims more than any other procedure. It can be a real struggle for the dog and those like me that attempt it. (ref) That fear can spill over to include veterinary hospital visits for any reason. The roots of a dog’s nails are exquisitely sensitive. Compounding that is the fact that few dogs get enough exercise on hard surfaces to keep their nails a proper length naturally. Further compounding the situation is that it is practically impossible to visualize the sensitive nail root in dogs with black toenails. It only takes one accidental clip into the quick of the nail to give dogs a lifelong fear of having their nails cut. For dogs that will tolerate the whine of an electric nail grinder, I suggest you trim your dog’s nails at home a little at a time at frequent intervals rather than bringing the pet to an animal hospital. If you are not up to that, discuss the situation with a trusted groomer. You don’t go to your doctor for a manicure and there is really no reason for most dogs to go to their veterinarian to have their nails trimmed – short of requiring injected sedation to perform the procedure.
Fear of Going Up and Down Stairs
The first thing to do when you have a dog that hesitates to climb stairs is to take it to your veterinarian to be sure the problem is not related to joint, leg or spinal pain. Poor vision can also be responsible for hesitancy. When you are certain that it is not some physical infirmity causing your dog to put on the breaks as it approaches stair steps, consider if it is a dog that never encountered stairs as a puppy. Perhaps a shelter dog or one that lived exclusively in a run or one story ranch home.
Your dog’s favorite tasty treats, placed on a stair step just above his reach when the pet is hungry, are the best cure. Start with entrance steps – no more than a few steps high. Do not attempt to drag the dog up the stairs or shove the pet from behind. Someone can go up the stairs above both of you and offer words of encouragement. Praise the dog with happy talk with every advancement. Be patient, when the pet tires of the game, call it quits for the day and begin again tomorrow. Any progress – even a no progress day- is worthy of praise. If the problem is beyond these simple suggestions, seek the counseling of a dog trainer or behavioral specialist.
Fear of Strangers And Children
Some dogs are fearful of all strangers. Others are only fearful of specific strangers such as mailmen, men in general, children, women in specific clothes, etc.
These are generally very submissive dogs. They are the kind that pee when fearful or anxious. Those dogs, when approached by strangers, tend to crouch, cower or lay down on their back when one approaches. Their body is often curved, their tail between their legs and their ears held low. They tremble, their muscles are tense and they tend to glance or dart for a hiding place where they feel safer. If they are forced into a confrontation with a feared person, they are apt to growl and snap.
Some associate this issue with prior abuse. That might be partially true, but the dog’s genetic makeup is probably to blame as well. Terriers and toy breeds suffer this type of fear considerably more frequently than the larger working breeds. Terriers, toy breeds and lap dogs in general are not breeds specifically developed to be outgoing. They were bred to be highly sensitive and dependent on their owners. Those disposition traits are magnified when they were not exposed to multiple individuals when they were puppies.
These problems are best dealt with through positive reinforcement, which I will tell you about shortly.
Fear of children requires extra caution. Just as with fear of strangers, this phobia is usually due to a lack of exposure to children when the dog was a puppy. Dog owners struggle with this problem most frequently when their dog became their pet before children were introduced into the family. The reverse is considerably less common – psychologically healthy dogs and puppies that are brought into a family with children almost always adapt well on their own to the children’s presence. You cannot just assume that a new grown or partially grown dog will love your children. Dogs with fear tendencies easily misinterpret the intents of rowdy or noisy children. If one child pulls its tail, yanks it fur, abuses it in other ways or accidentally steps on it, the dog can assume that all children will.
A problem with positive conditioning to fix this situation is that while most adults are capable of reading a dog’s intents, children are not. So incorporating them in positive conditioning can be dangerous to the child. Some dog owners themselves are competent referees in a positive reinforcement program between dogs and children, but quite a few are not. Because of that, I suggest you employ a professional dog trainer when faced with a dog’s fear of children.
If there is even the remotest possibility that someone including you will be bitten or injured, your dog needs to be muzzled during any form of behavior modification. If your dog has personality idiosyncrasies that are a danger to other people and dogs, avoid those situations and when forced into them, provide your dog with a muzzle.
What Techniques Can Help My Dog Deal With All Fear And Phobias?
Positive reinforcement is the technique of rewarding your dog for good behavior while not rewarding it for bad behavior. Notice I did not say punish it for bad behavior. The two best rewards for dogs are tasty treats and praise. Some include walks, car rides, clickers and the like as rewards. But I have found that immediate gratification seems to work better. It its just you and your dog, only two need play. But if yours is a larger family, involve everyone mature enough to take part.
Here is a simple scenario:
Say you come home only to find that your dog pooped in the house. You are angry or frustrated. You think your dog let you down. Dogs have a phenomenal ability to read their owner’s emotions. Your dog knows you are upset. It cowers and looks sad because you look sad. You misinterpret that as shame for having pooped in the house. You speak to your dog in a sharp tone or yell. The dog gets even more upset. You think your dog will never do such a thing again. The next day, you come home and the dog has pooped in the house. Your dog never had the slightest understanding why you were upset yesterday. It did not understand your lecture at all. Perhaps it now just dreads your coming home. Much as we would like them to be, dogs are not furry little people, they understand our body language considerably better than our words.
Here is what you needed to do:
The next day you come home earlier. Or you don’t feed the dog until you come home. Or, you crate the dog for the afternoon you are away. When you come home you watch the dog until it begins sniffing around and walking in circles. You immediately put its leash on and take it outside. When it poops where you want it to poop, you praise it effusively, pat it on the head and give it a few treats. You play with it. The next day and the next, you do the same thing. When it has potty accidents – as it likely will – you clean them up and ignore them. With time, those accidents will stop. If they don’t your dog might have medical issue such as IBD, garbage raiding, compulsive object swallowing, intestinal parasites and the like.
The same principle of rewarding good behavior and ignoring bad behavior is the cornerstone of all canine behavior modification. It works hand in hand with puppy and dog training in which dogs learn to perform tasks that you desire. Like walking calmly on a leash, patiently waiting, coming when called, laying down, rolling over. With every new ability, your dog’s bond with you grows stronger and its ability to learn new behaviors and let go of bad ones increases.
Conditioning Your Dog Through Repetition
Your dog is unlikely to learn a new response to a situation on its first, second or third try. Desensitization to fear and behavioral modification take many repetitions and a lot of time. It helps when you can recreate the stage set that prompts an unwanted behavior. Say your dog is fearful of the vacuum cleaner or some other object. First move it to the center of your living room so your dog gets used to its presence and odor. Introduce your dog to the object as you calm and praise the pet. If the object faintly smells like something he really likes (a food) he is more apt to show an interest and accept it.
Try to remain relaxed because your dog will clue off of your emotions. Give your pet some treats as you praise him. Hide some treats under and around the object. Do this while the dog is on a leash, quite hungry and the machine is off. Leashes, bandanas and harnesses add a sense of security to many dogs. When your pet remains relaxed near the object, turn it on or make it perform whatever action it is that frightens the pet while the dog is some distance away. Slowly, in multiple sessions, lead the dog closer to the object while praising, reassuring and distracting him. Offer him/her treats and praise.
If Behavioral Modification Techniques Are Only Partially Successful, What Medications Might Be Helpful For My Dog?
Drugs that veterinarians use to calm anxious dogs are the same ones that physicians use to treat people with similar issues. Many of these medications rely on a healthy liver and kidneys to keep the drug levels within safe ranges. So it is always wise to have your vet run liver and kidney tests to be sure your dog’s liver and kidneys are functioning adequately. When doubt exists, doses might need to be adjusted down appropriately.
All of these medications have occasionally caused a subset of dogs to become aggressive – including growling towards young children, their owner, and a lack of restraint or self-control towards other dogs. All of these drugs occasionally lead to an increase in a dog’s aggression level. I said it twice because I want you to be careful, safe and remember it. Veterinarians are the only people allowed to dispense these medications. When they consider dispensing them, they will factor in your dog’s temperament and your temperament in making their decision. It is your local veterinarian who needs to make those decisions, not someone writing articles you read on the internet like mine, not some pharmaceutical company’s website hawking (peddling) their products. They won’t be there when you need their help and the only drugs that are always harmless are those that do nothing at all.
Valium® and Similar Drugs – benzodiazepines
The most common one used in humans and one commonly used in dogs to allay fear is diazepam (Valium®) or one of its sister benzodiazepines such as alprazolam (Xanax®) or clorazepate. There are those that believe that some, like diazepam, are perhaps more likely to make dogs lethargic than others such as Xanax. There are three problems with the long-term use of these medications. The first is that your veterinarian might be reluctant to prescribe them because they are regulated by the DEA and prone to diversion to humans. The second is that all of them share the problem of eventual resistance to their calming effect and increased dependency on the medication as time goes by. With time, the dose often needs to go up to achieve its original effectiveness. The higher the dose, the more likely side effects are to occur. The third problem is the great variability of the effects of these drugs between one dog and another.
When used, the effects of these drugs generally last 4-6 hours. They all work considerably better when given before an anticipated fearful event than during one (say one conservative dose 2 hours before an anticipated storm and a half dose a half hour before the storm’s arrival). My experience with this class of drugs is that the effects and the dose required are highly variable between dogs. A few dogs (a subset) seem more frantic after receiving the medication than they might have been without it. Perhaps the feelings these drugs impart are in themselves fearful to some dogs. My advice is to observe how your dog reacts to say, one quarter its calculated dose, then to a half dose the next day before venturing on to full doses. All drugs in this class can increase appetite. Your dog might sleep a bit more and more soundly. But it should wake up quickly when called.
Never leave your dog alone when it is beginning these medications – at least not until you are certain how the specific dose size and dose interval affect your pet.
Tricyclic Antidepressants ( TCAs)
Because of the limitations of the Valium® group of medications (the benzodiazepines), many veterinarians suggest antidepressant medications that are also known to decrease anxiety in humans but are not heavily controlled nor known to cause dependency .
The oldest of these on the market is amitriptyline (Elavil® ). It is not a drug that one can give on an as-need basis. To obtain positive effects, a daily dose is generally required. It is inexpensive in its generic form. Its daily dose is generally divided into a morning and evening portion. Give it about a month to show its maximum positive effects.
A TCA more likely to be dispensed is clomipramine (Clomicalm®, Anafranil™). Veterinarians also dispense it for obsessive-compulsive disorders. It is not suggested for dogs in which aggression is an element of their psychological issues. It is not suggested for dogs less than 6 months of age nor dogs with a history of seizures or in dogs currently or recently receiving other mind-altering medications (eg SSRIs) . Read the full product label and warnings here.
This drug (and amitriptyline) do have other possible side effects. They relax the bladder and slow the intestine (anticholinergic effects), which in some dogs can lead to difficulty passing urine (urine retention) leading to UTIs, or constipation. They have also been known to elevate pressure within the eye. They can interact with drugs given to combat canine dementia or Cushing’s disease (selegiline) and some drugs used for pain control (tramadol). TCAs are said to have the potential to alter blood glucose levels. They are also thought to reduce male fertility – but you ought not breed a dog with psychological issues.
Drugs In The Prozac (fluoxetine) Group – SSRIs
Like the TCAs, these drugs work best when given every day. They are unlikely to be helpful when just given before a stressful event occurs or during one.
Fluoxetine is an SSRI marketed for dogs as Reconcile®. It is approved for the treatment of separation anxiety and destructive or inappropriate behaviors such as barking and house soiling in dogs. It is the same compound as Prozac®. Just like Clomicalm®, this manufacturer also mentions that the drug is most likely to help if non-drug behavior modification techniques are used as well. It is not approved for use in dogs weighing less than 8.8 lbs (4Kg) or dogs with a history of seizures. The drug can take up to eight weeks to exert its full effects. You can read an article on Reconcile that is basically a promotional brochure from the company that manufactures it here.
Another SSRI, sertraline ( Zoloft® ) has occasionally been dispensed for fearful dogs. It is more frequently dispensed for obsessive-compulsive behaviors like licking (ref) and continuous barking while the dog owner is away. (ref)
Dexmedetomidine is a sedative. It is sold as an oral gel by Zoetis under the trade name SILEO®. Their product is meant to be placed in your dog’s inner cheek (an oromucosal gel) – not swallowed – when your dog faces an impending noise-related event. It is marketed as helpful in the treatment of fear of loud noises (noise aversion). Although Zoetis markets SILEO® as being a non-sedative (“Calms without sedating”), reducing only the fear of noises, the drug is actually a powerful general sedative. (ref)
I am conflicted about this product. The FDA’s Center For Veterinary Medicine saw fit to warn the company by pointing out that some of their claims for the product were unsubstantiated. (ref) To the best of my knowledge, no studies were ever run by the company to verify that the drug was any better, or even as good as acepromazine or Valium for the uses for which SILEO is suggested.
In 2017 and again in 2018 the FDA issued warnings to the public and the manufacture of a substantial numbers overdose cases being reported to them regarding SILEO®. (ref) To be fair, it has to do with a poorly designed dosing apparatus – not the drug itself.
Basically, when giving in the amount suggested, the sedative and extended release rates of the drug were low enough in the dogs they ran tests on to do no more than mildly sedate those few dogs. What it will do in your dog is something I cannot predict. The product has not been around long enough in its present delivery form for me to know.
Zoetis markets this product on their website as a quick fix to a complicated problem “A simple approach to a complex problem”. They say nothing about non-drug options or the benefits of combining non-drug therapy and behavior modification with their product.
Time will tell. If you would like to tell me about your experiences using SILEO® let me know and I will post them on an owner feedback page I’ll create.
Acepromazine (PromAce®, etc.) is still dispensed by a lot by veterinarians as a tranquilizer and sedative for dogs. Many vets give it by injection as a prelude to gas anesthesia, blood draws, x-rays or as an aid in the examination of intractable pets. It is a safe drug. Even 3 times the suggested dose caused no adverse reactions – just increased drowsiness.
However, acepromazine has gone out of favor as an as-needed treatment for fearful dogs. Where once some acepromazine tablets might have been sent home with you to give to your dog before your next trip to the vet’s office or during a thunderstorm, it will probably be clomipramine now.
One study indicated that acepromazine did not reduce transport stress. (ref) Another by some of the same authors came up with the same conclusion. (ref) Acepromazine ’s cousin, chlorpromazine (Thorazine®), which is given to people for its calming effect, has gone out of favor as well.
Some veterinarians believe that acepromazine can actually caused dogs to startle more when exposed to loud noises or to become aggressive. I have been dispensing “Ace” to dogs for longer than most of those vets have been in practice. There were times when individual dogs appeared refractory to its sedating effects. But I do not recall a single case where a dog behaved any worse after taking Ace than it did on prior appointments when no drug was given.
I cannot tell you if medicating your dog with acepromazine during stressful events will be helpful or not. The 2006 study that found Clomicalm® (clomipramine) superior to acepromazine was paid for by Novartis Animal Health, the makers of Clomicalm® (clomipramine), the competitive product. The only way for you to know if Ace will be helpful to your dog is to obtain some from your veterinarian, give it to your pet and see. As you know if your have read this far, how dogs psychologically react to any of these psychotropic drugs is quite unpredictable. You might find that it works as well or better than some of the other medications I mentioned, or you might find that it does not.
Imepitoin – Pexion®
In December of 2018, the US FDA approved the use of Pexion in the United States. Read their approval letter here and an article that alludes to the drug’s ability to reduce fear here. I have written about Pexion® before. That was in relation to its anti-seizure effects. You can read that article here. Pexion has been sold by Boehringer Ingelheim in Europe for years. My European clients with epileptic dogs often find that it causes considerable fewer side effects than phenobarbital. However, the FDA approved Pexion in the United States in 2018 only for the control of canine anxieties – specifically the fear of loud noises like thunder or fireworks. Most medications that reduce epileptic seizures are sedatives. So it is not surprising that Pexion has the ability to calm and sedate dogs as well. Why Boehringer Ingelheim did not attempt to have Pexion® also approved in the United States for canine epilepsy is something I do not know. My guess would be that Boehringer’s strategy was that revenues from Pexion product sales would be greater if it was marketed here for noise-aversion. Many more dogs are afraid of thunder and a multitude of fear-generating situations than suffer from epilepsy. Besides, Boehringer needed a product to compete with Zoetis’ SILO® and Purina’s Calming Care®.
Boehringer plans to sell this medication here as scored tablets that will be available in 100 and 400 mg sizes prescribed according to the dog’s weight. The plan is to medicate the dog twice daily starting two days before an expected noise event and continued through the event. Perhaps some UK, EU or Australian readers have already used Pexion® as a treatment for anxiety in their dogs and would like to share their experiences with other readers here in America. If so, let me know and I will add a link to your comments.
It may be some time before Americans have access to Pexion. The company’s spokesman did not envision introducing Pexion to the United States in 2019. The reason given was “capacity constraints at the manufacturing site”. But those decisions frequently change depending on the veterinary market. If they sense financial opportunity, they will likely provide it here earlier. The reverse is also true.
This is a note from the FDA-approved label for Pexion. But it really applies to all drugs I mentioned that alter mood:
“The owners of three of the 90 dogs that received Pexion in the effectiveness trial also reported that their dogs became aggressive, including growling towards a young child and lack of restraint or self-control towards other dogs. Certain drugs used to reduce anxiety, such as Pexion, may lead to lack of self- control of fear-based behaviors and may therefore result in a change in aggression level. The label information accompanying Pexion notes the recommendation that owners should carefully observe their dogs during treatment.”
Other Possibly Helpful Medication Strategies
Medications that affect blood pressure (propranolol), heart rate (clonidine) and sleep cycles (melatonin) as well as gabapentin have also been suggested to lessen fearfulness in dogs. There is no published information on their effectiveness that I know of and I have never prescribed them for that use.
Your veterinarian might decide that lower doses of two or more medications I discussed, given together, might be more helpful to your dog than a single medication.
I mentioned earlier that some believe that products that contain dog pheromones exert calming effects. Dog collars (Adaptil® Collar, Sentry® Good Behavior®, etc) contain synthetic pheromones. But 12 of the 14 reports reviewed in one study provided insufficient evidence to support the effectiveness of pheromones for the treatment of undesirable behavior in dogs and cats. (ref) None to my knowledge found them dangerous. You can give them a try and let me know how you like them. If nothing else, your optimism and hope might transfer to your dog. Like I said, your dog reads you like a book.