Fears, Anxieties and Phobias
Fears, anxieties, and phobias tend to be some the most common behavior problems seen in veterinary practice. Some of the most common canine fears include storms, noises, people, objects, environmental stimuli and veterinarians. Fearful behavior causes distress to the owner, destruction to the home environment, decreased quality of life of the pet and disruption of the owner's lifestyle.
When animals show an outward expression of fear it is accompanies by a physiologic response. This response is commonly known as "fight or flight". This is a response that can be mounted to many stimuli including an actual threat, perceived threat, or physical trauma.
Keep in mind that fear is a normal emotion. However fear can become maladaptive when it interferes with the animal's quality of life. Anxiety is the anticipation that something may be a threat whether or not the threat is actually present. Anxiety is usually at the root of most behavior problems in out pets. Phobias are irrational and abnormal fear reactions that interfere with normal function.
When trying to treat with fears and phobias there are five steps that need to be addressed: 1) safety; 2) environmental modification; 3) behavior modification; 4) anxiety reduction; and 5) prevention. Safety is a consideration even in the dog that has not shown aggression. Dogs under stress can act out aggressively even when they typically would not. You should make a list of situations when the dog has acted out aggressively and avoid these situations. When you modify the environment it is recommended that you: 1) create a safe zone; 2) utilize boarding/daycare during stressful events; 3) enrich the dog's environment; and 4) strategic feeding. General behavior modification includes: 1) independence from the owner; 2) adding structure; 3) focus exercises; 4) relaxation exercises; 5) distraction and redirection during stressful events; 6) counter-conditioning to fear-producing stimuli and; 7) desensitization and counter-conditioning to fear-producing stimuli.
Medications should be considered only as an adjunct to a complete treatment plan including behavior modification, safety and environmental modification when the dog's arousal level is high, when the owner cannot implement the behavior modification adequately because of the dog's anxiety level, when the dog has a short latency to arousal and when the environment is substandard. Medications can be used as a daily drug or on an as needed basis. Daily medications should be considered if the stimulus is unpredictable or frequent or the dog has multiple anxiety diagnosis. As needed medications should be administered 40-60 minutes prior to the frightening situation or stimulus.
Prevention of fear disorders is best achieved with adequate socialization before the age of 14 weeks and continued positive interactions in the post socialization period.
Storm phobia is manifested as extreme anxiety and fear during storms. Signs include panting, pacing whining, destruction, escape attempts, attention-seeking behavior, and house soiling. When owners notice these behaviors they should redirect the dog to a behavior which can be reinforced, direct the dog to a safe place, and give him a food toy or play with the dog to direct attention elsewhere. In addition environmental changes can include turning on white noise machines, closing the blinds, and turning on the lights.