Claustrophobia is the fear of small, enclosed spaces. For instance, many people feel uneasy in an elevator. But did you know dogs can be claustrophobic too? When in a tight space, they might become nervous because they are unable to run away.
Even though their wolf ancestors often made snug, enclosed dens to keep them safe, some of our canine companions can feel fear when they think they are trapped in a very tight spot, like a carrier, for instance.
Claustrophobia in dogs isn’t bound to their carriers only; it can manifest inside your home, or even when you are outside.
Signs of Claustrophobia in Dogs
The main trigger of claustrophobia in dogs is being in a closed, tight space, which they can’t get out of. This fear can be very intense, as the dog’s first instinct when afraid is to run away. When enclosed in a crate, for instance, the dog can’t do that and will start showing signs of stress and anxiety. You will immediately be able to tell if a dog feels claustrophobic, as there are very clear symptoms and signs they will be exhibiting.
The most common signs include:
Whining – when feeling scared in a confined space, your dog might start whining. This might not be the only vocalizing present: anything from howling, barking, all the way to screaming will be a clear sign your dog is very upset.
Panting – a dog suffering from claustrophobia will be under a lot of stress when confined, and panting is one of the clearest signs of stress in dogs. Make sure that your dog is comfortable in any type of tight space they might be in, be it a crate, a room or a car.
Shaking – debilitating fear that your dog will experience when feeling trapped in a tight space without any way to get away from it might lead to shaking, drooling, hyperventilating, and urinating. All these signal that the dog is under a tremendous amount of stress that can even prove to be fatal.
Pacing – an anxious and stressed dog will start pacing nervously when in an enclosed space.
One more sign that your dog might be claustrophobic is a change in their appetite as soon as they are in an enclosed space. If the dog refuses to eat and drink, chances are, they are not feeling safe and are under stress.
If the signs are not noticed on time, the dog might also start exhibiting self-destructive behaviors such as destructive licking, chewing or biting. There were cases where dogs would lick their fur off, or even cause self-inflicted bite wounds because they were under a lot of stress when in an enclosed area.
If the signs are overlooked or ignored, a dog will develop serious behavioral issues because their physical and mental needs are not met.
The History of Claustrophobia in Dogs
Throughout history, dogs were selectively bred for their highly social genes. Because of this, today’s dogs require our attention, time, and dedication. Even though we primarily have them for companionship, they require our companionship too.
Just as being in a solitary confinement is a form of punishment for a human being, dogs that feel like they are in a solitary confinement will feel the same effects. They can become lonely, frustrated, and stressed out. This dates back thousands of years and has much to do with domestication.
Our canine companions have wolf ancestors, who, as mentioned earlier, loved tight, snug dens. Such dens would keep them safe, and they had complete control over the area. Nobody and nothing could approach without them noticing and reacting accordingly.
If they would feel endangered in any way, they would have to weigh their options: abandon the den and run away, or fight for it if they feel they can win. In case they can’t, they would run away. This instinct prevailed until this very day. When a dog feels fear, they will run away from the thing that’s causing it. That can be anything: people, objects, other dogs, locations, or situations.
So when you put your dog in a crate and drive them in a car, they might be very stressed because they dislike car rides and can’t run away. By continuously exposing them to this trigger, they will start associating the crate and being confined with the car ride they are scared of, and can become scared of any other confined space too.
The Science Behind Dog Claustrophobia
Claustrophobia in dogs is the fear of restriction and can vary in intensity from one dog to another. Whether a dog will develop this fear is influenced by their genetics, conditioning, as well as the amygdala in their brain.
The amygdala plays a major role here because it’s responsible for fear conditioning, as well as the flight or fight response. A claustrophobic dog will not be able to tolerate confinement because they weren’t exposed to it when they were young. For instance, if puppies are crate trained the wrong way, they will fear the crate in their adult age, especially if it was used as form of punishment. They will associate it with punishment later on and it will be impossible for them to accept it for anything else.
By making sure crate training is a positive experience, they will not develop such issues. Positive experience with tight spaces can be nurtured by giving them treats and rewards while in confined spaces.
Training Dogs That Suffer From Claustrophobia
Because claustrophobia in dogs isn’t caused by neurosis, there are ways to make sure that your dog doesn’t suffer from it. Training your dog from a young age is key. Puppy socialization, as well as obedience training, are the only ways that you can prepare your dog for their adult age.
Through these two actions, puppies will learn to cope, accept, and tolerate confinement when visiting a vet, or if they have to be hospitalized or transported.
If a dog already suffers from claustrophobia, behavioral training will be required to help them overcome their fear of confined spaces. This is done by making sure they have positive experiences with confined areas. The process is known as counter conditioning, and the goal is to change the dog’s negative, fearful, and anxious reactions for positive and relaxed ones.
Another approach known to help is desensitization training, the goal here being to gradually lower excessive reactions to the trigger (confined spaces, in this case).
By Charlotte Ratcliffe
Published: 03/21/2018, edited: 04/06/2020