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Dog Anxiety

Dog Anxiety

Reducing fear and anxiety is accomplished by Behavior Modification. The three techniques are called: counter-conditioning, desensitizing, and flooding. If medication is needed, your vet will prescribe the right one and in the right amounts for your dog.

Counter conditioning and desensitization are usually used in combination and are powerful ways to change behavior. Counter conditioning is used to get the dog to perform the desired behavior. Desensitization provides a means of safely exposing the dog to the stimulus.

Counter conditioning is teaching a different task or behavior than the one that was previously occurring in a situation. For example, a dog lunges at the window when the mailman walks by. The new task will be sitting quietly. So, he’s conditioned to a new response – sitting, that is counter to what the animal was doing previously, which was lunging. In order to teach the new behavior, practice the new task in a location and situation which does not stimulate the animal to engage in the behavior you wish to change.

Sometimes the term ‘counter commanding’ is used when the dog is commanded to perform a previously trained behavior. Instead of trying to get the dog to sit when the mailman comes by, practice getting the dog to sit by the window when no one is there. The dog is better able to learn the new task without distractions, when the mailman is not present.

Desensitization is a gradual exposure to situations or stimuli that would previously bring on the undesirable behavior, but at a level so low that there is no negative response. As the animal experiences the stimulus, but does not respond in the undesirable way, the animal becomes “less sensitive” to the stimulus, and the undesirable response is decreased. The key to effective desensitization is to design a stimulus gradient so that the dog can be gradually exposed to progressively more intense levels of the stimulus without the undesirable behavior.

Take the example of the mailman. Begin by getting the dog to sit quietly by the window. Use food as an inducement to the dog to respond, and as a reward for performance. When the dog anticipates a food reward, the “mood” of the dog is usually happy, relaxed and not anxious or aggressive. These are behaviors that are incompatible with the behavior you wish to change, in this case lunging at the window at the mailman. This is counter conditioning. It may take days or weeks for the dog to learn how to perform this task reliably on command. During that time phase out food rewards so that the dog does the task equally well with or without food.

Next, train the dog to perform the desired behavior in the presence of the mailman. Desensitize the dog, by presenting the stimulus, the mailman, at a low enough level so that the dog will still remain sitting and be relaxed, happy and not anxious or aggressive. Start by having someone the dog knows, who is not the mailman, walk by the window. The dog gets to practice the good behavior when it is easy. Repeat this many times so that the dog does it reliably. Gradually progress to stimuli that more closely resemble the real life situation. Perhaps have the dog sit by the window when the mailman is down the street. If the dog could do this well several times, try when the mailman is across the street. It may be necessary to take the dog outside. Proceed slowly, so that the dog learns how to perform the desired behavior over and over before being challenged with the real thing, the mailman delivering the mail to his door.

Stimuli for desensitization can be arranged from mildest to strongest in a number of ways. For example, begin desensitization from a distance and move progressively closer as the dog is successfully counter conditioned. Sound stimuli can be presented in varying intensities from quietly to loud. A dog that is fearful or aggressive toward a man with a beard might be desensitized to young boys, older boys, men with no beards, a family member with a costume beard, familiar men with beard costumes then men with beards. Distance can also be varied. Dogs that are aggressive or fearful as strangers arrive at the front door, could be desensitized and counter conditioned to the doorbell being rung by a family member, a family member arriving in a car, a family member walking up the front walkway, a stranger walking along the path in front of the home (while the dog remains in the doorway or on the porch), a familiar person entering the home, and finally a stranger at the front door.

In order for desensitization and counter conditioning programs to be successful, it is necessary to have good control of the dog, a strongly motivating reward, good control of the stimulus, and a well-constructed desensitization gradient. A leash and head halter is often the best way of ensuring control over the dog. Each session should be carefully planned. Dogs that are punished for inappropriate behavior (fear, aggressive displays) during the retraining program will become more anxious in association with the stimulus. Dogs that are rewarded during the retraining program will get worse. Owners that try to reassure their dogs or calm them with food or toys, while they are acting fearful, will reinforce the behavior. Also, whenever a dog can successfully threaten and the stimulus (person, other animal) retreats, the behavior are further reinforced.


Flooding and Exposure Techniques involve continuously exposing the dog to the stimulus until he settles down. This technique will only work if the stimulus is not associated with any adverse consequence, and the dog is exposed for as long as is needed until the dog calms down. Once the dog is exposed, the stimulus must not leave or be removed until the dog calms down. Similarly the dog must not be removed or allowed to retreat until the dog habituates. Once the dog settles, reinforcement can be given to ensure that the ultimate result is a positive association with the stimulus. The dog must not be rewarded until it calms and settles down as this would serve to reward the fearful behavior. Owner intervention or punishment must not be utilized as this would lead to an unpleasant association with the stimulus. Since exposure must continue until the dog settles down, flooding is most successful for fears that are not too intense. Beginning with a somewhat lower or muted stimulus may be best. In practice, keeping the dog in a cage or crate or keeping a dog on a leash and halter during exposure to the stimulus, will prevent escape and prevent injury to the stimulus (person or dog).

He may whine when left alone, be terrified during storms, be afraid of strangers, suffer from full scale panic attacks from separation anxiety, etc., etc

Your first instinct when your dog displays anxious behavior such as trembling or hiding is to comfort him by petting, soothe him with your voice, babying him, or pick him up. Reassurances will make him feel better but comforting also rewards him for acting afraid and makes it more likely that he will use the same strategy next time he needs to feel better. It also reinforces in the dog’s head that there is a good reason for his anxiety.


Treating simple anxiety isn’t hard. Find something that your dog really likes such as a doggie treat or a squeaky toy. Plan an activity that usually brings about anxious behavior. If your dog is anxious around strangers, have a friend come over who is a stranger to your dog. Ignore any trembling, whining or hiding. Sit beside or perpendicular to your friend (face to face orientation signals confrontation to a dog).

Chat, laugh, share food, watch TV, or listen to music. You can bounce a ball (which will interest your dog) and acknowledge your dog calmly each time he moves forward to play ball.

Basically what you are trying to do is act like everything is perfectly normal. Don’t ask the dog to approach you by calling him or offering food and ignore all fearful behavior and respond to all interactive behavior. At any sign of overwhelming the dog, go back to a previous level of exposure to the fearful situation, perhaps by moving away from your friend or going outside to talk. Work up to the new level gradually.

If your dog is afraid of riding in the car, try to get him to jump in and out of the car. You will not be taking a trip. The next day, get him to jump in, start the car while rewarding him, but again do not take a trip. After he gets familiar with the car and realizes it’s a safe place then you can start by taking several very short trips. You’ll want to make this very brief – perhaps around the block and back home again – before he becomes nervous and overwhelmed. Praise him for good behavior. Gradually move up to longer trips but keep these car rides pleasant and don’t end up at a scary place like the vet. Over time, he’ll become accustomed to riding in the car and might even jump in and wait for you to take him on a trip! The focus is to make him feel comfy and accustomed to the things he used to fear.

Many dogs become very distressed when they hear loud noises such as thunder. Fireworks, vacuum cleaner noise and other types of noises can also cause certain dogs to become distressed. A fearful dog’s actions include hiding, shaking and occasionally destructive behaviors like chewing through screen doors to escape to safe territory.

Noise phobias can stop a dog from hearing you when things become out of control for the dog.

Dogs react to a variety of things associated with storms. The loud noise is scary to some dogs, and the dog can hear it at a much greater distance than humans can. The dog has early audio warning of an approaching storm, and most storm-phobic dogs eventually start reacting long before the sounds are loud. Electricity in the air may be a major factor in dog storm phobia. The smell of the air changes when a storm approaches, and of course the keen nose of a dog detects this early. The air pressure changes, too, and a dog’s ears are more sensitive to pressure changes than most people. In some cases, it might hurt.

There are several things you can try to help calm your dog down depending on the severity of the problem. If you are anticipating a storm or fireworks a good extra long walk can help by tiring out your dog so that fatigue wins out over fear. Playing the radio or TV at a high volume can also mask the noise and relieve the fear. Providing your dog with a safe space of the dog’s choosing usually where the noise level is lower, can often lessen the anxiety.

A technique that has been very successful treating anxiety and phobias is called desensitization. The technique involves exposing the subject to a low level of what actually causes the anxiety while paired with something positive. Get a tape recorder and get your hands on sounds of a thunderstorm or fireworks or loud noises (perhaps the vacuum cleaner) that normally cause your dog to become afraid. Have your dog in a quiet room with you and start the tape off at a very low (barely audible) volume. Reassure your dog by petting him and saying “good dog” (or something similar) in a regular non baby like voice. Give your dog a couple of treats. Start off very slowly the first few times, perhaps just a couple of minutes of the low volume noise. Then gradually over a week or so make the volume louder until at the end of the exercise it is very loud. The goal is for the dog to associate these loud noises with calmness and treats thereby relieving the fearful behavior. This technique works well for most dogs, but it must be done correctly or it can worsen your dog’s reaction.

If you want to take your dog outdoors during a storm, do it safely. Some dogs do better when protected by raincoats and boots. Make the trip outside a fun adventure or calm occasion rather than a stressful experience. Special rewards for pottying outside in the rain are a good idea. Make storms occasion for special times with your dog to create positive associations. Games, treats and special activities are time well spent during storms. Don’t be tense during storms. Be upbeat with the dog, not impatient or pitying with your touch or your voice. The dog will pick up on your emotions and body language, so make them confident.

Seek advice from your veterinarian when in doubt.

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