You’re walking down the street when all of sudden you hear this loud growl coming from one direction and then another. You look around for any signs of danger nothing. Then you notice that there are several dogs running toward you and they appear to be barking at each other.
You start to feel like you need to get out of here as fast as possible and you run into your house as quickly as you can. When you come back outside, your dog has disappeared. What happened? If your dog had human phobias, it would probably be something similar to what just occurred.
When most people think about phobias, they usually conjure up images of small animals such as mice or spiders scurrying under their feet or maybe even clowns jumping out from underneath cars on Halloween night. While these things do occur more often among smaller species, humans also suffer from phobias that affect them directly.
Some common human phobias include agoraphobia (a fear of open spaces), claustrophobia (a fear of enclosed places) and acrophobia (a fear of heights). These phobias seem pretty extreme and have been classified by psychologists, but how much more severe could our canine companions become?
One way we can classify many of our pets’ fears is through the use of terms such as “intrusive” or “uncontrollable.” According to Merriam-Webster Online, intrusive means “characterized by an inability to control behavior that interferes with normal social functioning.” This definition fits perfectly with what happens when your dog approaches a stranger. Your pet will display anxious behaviors until he realizes that someone else isn’t going to harm him.
If your pooch shows signs of being fearful or distressed, understand that it’s not necessarily because the dog is worried about himself. It might actually be due to his reaction to something that was said or done by you. In fact, according to Dr. Gary Phillips, animal psychologist and founder of the Animal Behavior Clinic, 90 percent of behavioral problems in dogs are related to training methods rather than genetics. So before making assumptions about whether your dog’s phobias are innate or learned, take a closer look at yourself and your interactions with your pet.
Let’s go over some of the different types of phobias that dogs can develop. We’ll discuss those along with some possible reasons why a particular phobia develops. Finally, let’s talk about ways to help your dog overcome its phobias.
Pets aren’t the only ones who can experience phobias. People who live in cities where crime rates are high enough to warrant police presence sometimes report feeling unsafe while traveling alone, especially after dark. For example, people who travel frequently by themselves tend to avoid certain areas of town and stick to well-lit paths during late hours.
The same goes for people who drive. They tend to stay away from bad neighborhoods and choose routes that allow plenty of space between vehicles.
In addition to avoiding certain places and situations, some people also try to prepare themselves emotionally for potential threats. Although this can be helpful in preventing panic attacks, preparing too much can cause anxiety. By trying to anticipate every situation, you risk becoming overly stressed whenever anything unexpected occurs.
As we mentioned earlier, it’s important to remember that your pet’s phobias may not stem from a direct threat to his life. Rather, they may be a result of your own actions. For instance, if you yell at your pet when he jumps on you, he’ll likely associate your yelling with negative feelings, which can lead to future anxieties. On the flip side, positive experiences with your pet can also increase anxiety levels.
Just be sure your pet feels safe and secure in whatever environment you place him in. Don’t force a frightened dog to interact with others if he doesn’t want to. Instead, provide him with familiar surroundings that make him comfortable, such as his favorite bed or blanket. Gradually expose him to new environments and people so that he can learn to trust them. Once he does, you can introduce him to scary scenarios without worrying about his safety.
Although phobias can interfere with daily life, they can also be used for good. Many people use their phobias to keep themselves healthy. For example, if you suffer from acrophobia, climbing stairs may be difficult for you. However, if you climb stairs regularly, you won’t need to worry about developing heart disease.
Likewise, if you suffer from claustrophobia, spending time inside buildings with little windows or closed doors may deter you from visiting certain attractions. But if you frequent these locations anyway, you shouldn’t feel guilty about doing so. Before long, you’ll realize that you enjoy the challenge of overcoming your phobias.
Some people believe that phobias, particularly those involving height, are genetic traits passed down from parents to children. However, this hasn’t been proven scientifically. One theory is that phobias are caused by an imbalance in brain chemistry.
Because phobias involve the amygdala region of the brain, scientists theorize that phobias are linked to deficiencies in serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine levels. Another popular theory claims that phobias are caused by changes in endorphin levels. Endorphins are neurotransmitters associated with pain and pleasure responses.
The Fear Factor
It’s hard to say exactly why your pet reacts negatively to a specific situation. Anxiety disorders are quite complicated and vary in severity. Since phobias are considered anxiety disorders, determining why your pet displays symptoms becomes increasingly important.
There are several steps you should follow to figure out the root of your pet’s fears. First, you must determine whether your pet suffers from separation anxiety or general anxiety disorder. Next, identify how your dog responds to stressful events. Afterward, you can decide what method best suits your lifestyle and budget.
To find out if your dog suffers from separation anxiety, ask your vet about his reactions to stressful situations. He should check your pet’s pulse rate and blood pressure, both of which can indicate stress. If your pet seems nervous around strangers, he may have separation anxiety.
To diagnose separation anxiety, your vet should perform blood tests to test hormone levels, including prolactin and oxytocin. An increased level of prolactin suggests your pet may have trouble getting aroused, while low oxytocin levels can mean your pet may be aggressive.
For generalized anxiety, your vet should check your pet’s overall health, including his weight gain, muscle tone and bowel movements. If your pet appears overweight, weak or lethargic, he may have other medical conditions that require treatment. Also, if your pet defecates excessively, he may be suffering from gastrointestinal issues.
Generalized anxiety is diagnosed based on your pet’s response to stimuli, including noises, smells, sights or tastes. As part of the examination, your vet should observe your pet’s breathing patterns and pulse rate. If your pet seems restless or agitated, he may have an underlying physical problem.
There are several options available to treat your dog’s phobias. Depending on your financial situation, you can opt for traditional therapy, self-help techniques or drug treatments. Most experts agree that exposure therapy is the most effective approach for treating phobias. During exposure therapy sessions, you gradually expose your pet to situations that trigger phobias.
Your veterinarian may prescribe anti-anxiety medication to help reduce your pet’s stress levels. Be aware that antidepressants such as Prozac can increase the effects of tranquilizers and sedatives. Therefore, consult your doctor before giving your pet any type of medicated food or treats.
If your pet’s phobias persist despite treatment, you should consider talking to your vet about various therapies. Hypnotherapy, which uses short hypnosis sessions to relax your pet, has shown success in reducing phobic tendencies. Veterinary massage helps relieve tension and improve circulation in your pet’s body. And finally, cognitive-behavioral therapy teaches your pet skills to deal with stressful situations.
Although phobias can be upsetting to witness, they can also serve a purpose. Animals, including dogs, rely heavily on their sense of smell to survive. Phobias can prevent animals from smelling unpleasant odors and alerting them to predators. Without phobias, animals would be constantly overwhelmed by strong scents.