For some dog owners, Fourth of July might signal a stressful day of fireworks, crowds, and fearful canine companions. If your pup is afraid of loud noises, he’s certainly not alone. There are plenty of steps you can take to help your dog deal with his fears and phobias. AKC Chief Veterinary Officer Dr. Jerry Klein walks us through some of the most common ones and how to help relieve them.
Fear vs. Phobia
“It is a common problem for dogs to be fearful,” says Dr. Klein. “Fear is a defense mechanism and isn’t something we have to eliminate entirely. Wolves and other wild canids rely on fear to keep them alive, but when fearful behavior poses dangers to the dog or other family members, we have to intervene.”
Dogs express fear in several ways. They may shake, pace, whine, bark, cower, hide, or even exhibit signs of fear reactivity, which is often confused with aggression. So, how do you know when your dog’s fear has become a phobia?
According to Dr. Klein, a phobia is an “intense and persistent fear that occurs when a dog is confronted with something that might feel threatening, such as a thunderstorm. Some dogs can even anticipate it.” As with people who have phobias, this fear goes beyond a rational response.
Phobias are the result of a previous experience. Sometimes they are the result of repeated experiences, but for dogs, it just takes one experience to solidify a fearful response into a phobia. “Animals don’t understand what thunder is, and we can’t explain it to them,” says Dr. Klein. “Humans, however, can have phobias, even though they understand things. Phobias are irrational and take on a life of their own.”
Dr. Klein notes that there are four basic categories of fears/phobias commonly seen in veterinary practices:
Many dogs have sound phobias to loud noises like fireworks, thunderstorms, gunshots, and firecrackers. There is even research that suggests noise phobias can be inherited. According to Dr. Klein, herding breeds are particularly sensitive to noise phobias, perhaps because they are so attuned to their environment.
Blood Injection Phobias
Many people have blood injection phobias, commonly referred to as a fear of needles. Some dogs experience a similar phobia when visiting the veterinarian. Dogs do not understand that veterinary visits are in their best interest, and many of the circumstances around these visits, such as feeling sick, pain, car rides, new locations, strangers, and the presence of other stressed animals can compound this fear into a phobia.
Separation anxiety is the most common example of a situational phobia. Dogs with separation anxiety do not seem to understand that their owners will return, and may exhibit destructive behaviors like chewing, relieving themselves in the house, and barking.
Fear of Strangers
Some dogs develop a fear of strangers, particularly men, after a negative experience. Dogs rescued from abusive homes often suffer from this fear, which can lead to reactive behavior. This phobia can also include a fear of people wearing hats or bulky clothing, and fear of other dogs.
Dealing With a Fearful Dog
Living with a fearful dog can be stressful and frustrating. Treating phobias takes patience, time, and consistency. This can feel impossible, especially when excessive barking angers neighbors and landlords. Perhaps the most stressful component is the risk of an accidental dog bite from a fearful dog or a dog that may jump or run through a window or into the street.
Luckily, there are steps pet owners can take to help their dogs deal with phobias, beginning with a visit to their veterinarian as soon as possible. According to Dr. Klein, phobias may worsen with time, and they rarely resolve on their own. In some cases, they can even lead to new phobias, so the sooner you take action the better.
Veterinarians and board-certified veterinary behaviorists recommend behavior modification techniques as a first line of defense. These techniques, such as desensitization, help dogs manage their fearful behavior. There are medications available to relieve distress, however, most drug therapies work best in conjunction with behavior modification and are not an instant cure.
Behavior modification encompasses dog behavior and owner behavior, too. Owners often contribute unintentionally to their dog’s phobias, reinforcing undesirable behaviors or even instigating them. Retraining yourself and your dog to new behavior patterns takes time and patience, and is best done with the help of a veterinarian or veterinary specialist.
“One of the things I see people do all the time is say things like ‘good boy’ during stressful situations. This can actually reinforce the fearful behavior, as the owner is rewarding the dog for acting fearful,” says Dr. Klein. Some dogs even learn to anticipate a stressful situation when they hear words like “it’s okay,” as they have come to associate those words with a stressful event, like going to the veterinarian.
Basic obedience training builds confidence in fearful dogs. It is also a useful tool for redirecting undesirable behavior, like asking a dog to sit, stay, or touch during a potentially triggering situation. Dr. Klein also points out that a constant pressure, like the presence of a Thundershirt or simply putting a hand on your dog, is better than patting, as this calms dogs down.
Planning ahead is an essential part of behavior modification. Most phobias are predictable, which means you can treat them as a training opportunity. The Fourth of July, for instance, is the same day every year and should not come as a surprise. Owners of dogs with a fear of thunderstorms should check the weather forecast during warmer months, and dogs with a fear of other animals may be exposed to their fear every time they go for a walk.
Some dogs learn to manage their phobias through behavior modification alone. Others may need the help of drug therapies, like antianxiety medications or room sprays that mimic calming therapies.
Always speak with your veterinarian before administering any medication to your dog, and while there are several categories of drugs that can relieve stress in canines, Dr. Klein cautions that the point of these drugs is to minimize the phobia to a fear, not sedate the animal. It is tempting to think that we can solve our dogs’ anxieties through medication alone, but just like with people, coping with fear in dogs is complicated. Every dog is unique. What works for one dog may not work for another, and it often takes some experimentation to figure out what plan of action will work best for your pup.
“The important thing to remember is that there is hope,” Dr. Klein says. “Fearful behavior is very common, and you are not alone in dealing with it.”