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Extreme Fear and Anxiety in Dogs

Although fear is a natural and adaptive reaction, there are instances when a dog’s fear response escalates to more severe levels, necessitating intervention. Profound fear and anxiety can result in unhealthy and potentially hazardous behaviors in dogs.

To assist you in comprehending how to provide aid, it is important to grasp the subtleties and indicators of anxiety, phobias, and fear in dogs.

Does Your Dog Have Anxiety, Fear or a Phobia?

When addressing fear-related behavioral issues in dogs, your veterinarian will collaborate with you to assess the severity and underlying causes of these behaviors.

Fear in Dogs

Fear is the innate sense of unease triggered by a situation, individual, or object perceived as a threat, whether real or imagined. The autonomic nervous system’s response readies the body for the freeze, fight, or flight reaction, a crucial behavior for adaptation and survival.

Whether the fear response is appropriate or inappropriate depends on the context of the situation. Many inappropriate reactions can be unlearned through gradual exposure (counter-conditioning).

Profound fear, also known as idiopathic fear, has been observed in certain dog breeds like the Siberian Husky, German Shorthaired Pointer, Greyhound, Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Bernese Mountain Dog, Great Pyrenees, Border Collie, and Standard Poodle, among others.

Phobias in Dogs

A phobia is the persistent and excessive fear of a specific stimulus. It’s been suggested that once a phobic event occurs, any associated event or memory is enough to trigger a response. The most common dog phobias are related to noises such as thunderstorms or fireworks.

Anxiety in Dogs

Anxiety involves anticipating unknown or imagined future dangers, resulting in physiological reactions similar to fear.

Common anxiety behaviors include elimination (urination and/or bowel movements), destruction, excessive vocalization (barking, crying), excessive panting, and pacing.

Separation anxiety is the most prevalent specific anxiety disorder among companion dogs. Dogs experiencing separation anxiety display anxiety or distress behaviors when left alone for a period of time.

Clinical Signs of Dog Anxiety and Fear

The clinical manifestations will vary depending on the intensity of the fear or anxiety experienced by the dog. Below are some of the most typical clinical signs:

Mild fears: Symptoms might include trembling, tail-tucking, hiding, reduced activity, and passive escape behaviors.

Panic: Symptoms might include panting, pacing, active escape behavior, and increased out-of-context, potentially harmful motor activity. Activation of the sympathetic autonomic nervous system, leading to symptoms such as diarrhea.

Lesions resulting from excessive licking and biting of their own body. Tail-chasing and circling behaviors.


The emergence of fear or anxiety issues in dogs can stem from various factors, ranging from early puppy socialization challenges and age-related health issues like dementia to traumatic experiences or genetic predispositions.

While there isn’t a universal explanation for the origins of these issues, here are some of the most common causes of anxiety or fear in dogs:

  • Forced exposure to unfamiliar and frightening situations.
  • Lack of socialization and environmental exposure until 14 weeks of age.
  • Phobias and panic: Previous experiences where the dog couldn’t escape or avoid the triggering stimulus, such as being confined in a crate.
  • Separation anxiety: Histories of abandonment, multiple ownership changes, rehoming, or neglect are frequent triggers. The condition may persist if the dog has been repeatedly abandoned or rehomed due to separation anxiety.

Any illness or painful physical condition heightens anxiety and contributes to the development of fears, phobias, and anxieties.

Age-related changes affecting the nervous system, along with infectious diseases (particularly viral infections in the central nervous system), and toxic exposures can lead to behavioral issues, including fears, phobias, and anxieties.


Initially, your veterinarian will aim to exclude other conditions that could be contributing to the behavior, such as brain, thyroid, or adrenal diseases. Blood tests will help determine or rule out potential underlying medical issues.


Upon diagnosing simple fear, anxiety, or phobia, your veterinarian might recommend anti-anxiety medication along with management strategies and behavior modification exercises.

Your veterinarian will tailor recommendations based on your dog’s specific fear triggers, or they may refer you to a veterinary behaviorist for further assistance.

Treatment plans are typically long-term and may extend over several years, depending on the duration and severity of anxiety symptoms. The minimum duration of treatment usually spans four to six months.

It’s important to note that prescription medications are not suitable for every pet and are typically reserved for severe cases as a last resort. In instances where a dog experiences extreme panic and separation anxiety, requiring protection until medications take effect (which could take days to weeks), hospitalization might be necessary.

Otherwise, you’ll be responsible for caring for your dog at home and ensuring protection from self-inflicted physical harm until your dog’s anxiety subsides. You may also need to arrange for dog-sitting or day care services.

Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning

Desensitization and counter-conditioning are most effective when addressing fear, phobia, or anxiety in its early stages. The objective is to reduce the response to a specific stimulus, such as being left alone.

Desensitization involves systematically exposing the dog to the triggering stimulus in a controlled manner, gradually increasing the intensity while ensuring that the dog does not respond with fear or anxiety.

Counter-conditioning entails training the dog to exhibit a positive behavior instead of succumbing to fear or anxiety. For instance, teaching the dog to sit and stay, and rewarding these behaviors. Then, in situations where the dog typically feels fearful or anxious, redirecting attention by prompting the dog to sit and stay.

Signs of an impending anxiety attack in dogs are often subtle. It’s important to familiarize yourself with your dog’s physical cues of fear, phobias, and anxiety to intervene before the dog becomes panicked.

Living and Management

If your dog is prescribed medication, your veterinarian will periodically conduct blood tests to ensure the medication is being processed and eliminated properly. If behavior modification proves ineffective in the long term, your veterinarian may suggest adjusting the approach. Untreated, these disorders tend to worsen over time.

You’ll play a crucial role in implementing behavior modification exercises and teaching your dog to relax in various environments. Encourage calm behavior when your dog seems distressed, employing distractions and redirections according to the plan outlined by your veterinarian.

Fearful or anxious dogs may benefit from living in a low-stress environment with minimal social pressures. They may not thrive in settings like dog shows, dog parks, or crowded areas.

It’s important to recognize that not all dogs find solace in crates; some may panic and injure themselves if confined. Avoid using punishment for fear, phobia, or anxiety-related behaviors. If you’re struggling to manage your dog’s behavior, seek professional assistance through a referral from your veterinarian for expert guidance in behavior modification techniques.

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