Can Dogs Have a Phobia?

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Introduction

Life is a crazy ride where anything can happen and often does. You can liken it to a rollercoaster of highs and lows with unexpected events that alter your perception. You may have thought the water was childhood fun until the day you nearly drowned, or a traumatic relationship break-up caused you to fear leaving your house. 

Dogs are a lot like their human friends and have a glossary of phobias that make them anxious and fearful. It could be the memory of a past owner who locked them in a crate, so now your rescue Retriever can’t handle being cooped up, while a neighbors sweet Maltese thinks the fireworks on the 4th of July is the day the world ends. Can a dog have a phobia? Let's find out.

Signs Your Dog Has a Phobia

What’s up with your frenzied pooch hiding under the bed as thunder and lightning dances overhead? They howl and whine with intrepid fear as all efforts to comfort them are lost in a whaling chorus of doggy stress. You manage to coax them out but they shiver and shake, their raspy panting an indicator of thunder phobia.

Or maybe you’ve noticed Marcy, your cute Afghan Hound, gets hung up about the vacuum cleaner and retreats to her pet bed whenever that noisy contraption is turned on. Marcy suffers from phonophobia, a fear of loud noises. She even makes a beeline for the corner of the wardrobe when the TV is turned up.

This sad, wee woofer can’t get a break in a super-boisterous world. Loud noises are the enemy and when a car screeches outside, she’s pacing up and down, yawning profusely as the panic sets in.

Her pet mom always knows there’s a storm coming as Marcy starts whining, her tongue hanging out as she drools on the hardwood floor. Dogs can sense the barometric pressure changes and are storm-alerts in their own right. This gives Marcy’s guardian a chance to soothe her before the lightning sends her scurrying.

Fear of cars, kids, and rowdy voices are not unique to dogs, whose puppy days may have set them up for a lifetime of fear. If a pooch has a new owner and is immediately locked in a crate for eight hours a day, they could become petrified of sounds they can’t see. This can create a super-jumpy dog that barks at everything or cowers in the corner when their pet-dad is mowing the lawns.

A jittery pup could be the victim of a terrifying past and experience a frenzy of feelings when reminded of their former life. Shelter dogs often have phobias from being abandoned or abused and they manifest in the way they behave. Volunteers might notice the banging of their gate sets a scared pup into a tailspin, as their instant response is a rigid body stance with teeth bared and hair raised at the back of the neck.

This poor pup may have been stuck on a chain or far worse. The noise sets off their danger alarm, sending their fear into overdrive as they wait on sweaty paws for a re-make of the historic event.

Body Language

Here are signs that your dog may have a phobia:
  • Whining
  • Cowering
  • Panting
  • Howling
  • Pacing
  • Yawning
  • Drooling

Other Signs

More signs you dog has a phobia are:
  • Hiding
  • Becoming Aggressive
  • Fearful of being in a car
  • Overly afraid of children
  • Terrified of fireworks
  • Scared of thunder and lightening

History of Dog Phobias

Our wonder-dogs were originally wolves who wondered the plains, bathed in the moonlight, howling to long lost friends. Storms would have come and gone with fear only being realized if a wolf was injured.

The domestication of our furry friends has ingrained many human traits - including phobias of weather events and past experiences. As mankind created various breeds of woofers, the wilderness wolf became a distant vision as dogs were manufactured for work purposes and display. With the emphasis on a particular look and human companionship, genetics evolved breeds with nervous dispositions, prone to phobic disorders.

Instead of breeding these unsettling traits out, mankind went on his merry way stylizing the designer dogs with Labradoodles (Labrador/Poodle), Yorkipoos (Poodle/Yorkshire terrier) and Pomskies (Pomeranian/Huskey), to name a few. Over thousands of years, we’ve tampered with the DNA and bred versions of the wolf with issues.

Dogs are impressionable creatures and watch their human guardians with interest. It’s likely if their pet mom jumps at the sound of thunder, so might they. Like kids are heavily influenced by the reactions of their parents, so also, are dogs. We’ve made them our pet-kids, so if you’re pretty Poodle freaks out when the fire alarm goes off, you might want to check out your response and how it affects your pup.

The Tufts University of Massachusetts ran a survey to find out what breed of dogs experience thunder phobia the most. They found dogs bred for herding were at the top of the list. These working mutts are genetically designed to think on their paws, making them super-reactive.

The erratic evolution of dogs and close interaction with humans has inspired a world of phobic dogs, which run for the hills at the sound of both nature and human-made sounds. The fearless wolf has become a dog that requires counseling.

Science Behind Dog Phobias

We know that stress is a killer, but possibly have never equated this life-stealing condition to our dogs. The reality is, our woofers are exposed to the stresses of human life and take on board the emotions of their guardians.  Ironically, we humans seem to get high on fear, watching spooky movies and dressing up for Halloween. Dogs are different. They don’t look for fearful situations.

Many dog owners might be surprised to learn the first 7 months of a puppy's life is their learning time and being vulnerable, cuddly balls of fluff, they soak up their environment and reactions to the people in it. Imagine a 6 month old Mastiff being exposed to harsh treatment or loud noises. This is likely to leave an imprint on their brain and form a fearful personality. The world is a scary place, and people yelling and slamming doors are frightening. If done right, the same junior Mastiff will think humans are okay-looking aliens who seem to like him.

Once a puppy leaves its mom and siblings for a new home, it should be reasonably socialized and ready to face life in a human world. Between 6 and 12 months, when puppies are discovering their mojo, a fearful situation could leave a lasting impression. Guardians need to keep their puppies safe in the early months to avoid negative behavior and phobias.

Pet Psychology tells the story of Allie, a Pomeranian with an aversion to kitchen toasters. The clicking sound made when the bread is put in causes her to run and hide. It turns out Allie’s pet mom was clicking the toaster one morning when a contractor made a huge racket, dumping construction materials in their driveway. Allie now equates the toaster with a very scary sound.

Helping a Dog Overcome Phobias

Your bashful Boxer has once again dived behind the sofa as the neighbor's kids are letting off fireworks. The whimpering makes you sad and you wonder what you can do to help your pup.

Dogs are often fearful toward cars, going to the vet, thunder, and children, which can be addressed with desensitization techniques - even if it’s progressed all the way to a phobia. You might see this just before a storm when your Basenji, who rarely barks, suddenly finds their voice, whining and woofing - pacing relentlessly around the house. A car backfires outside and they’re suddenly nowhere to be seen. Like an agoraphobic who is afraid to leave their home, your dog is a terrorized maze of emotion.

Playing bio-acoustic music through a storm or when they are left alone creates a wonderfully calming vibe for a dog that hates loud noises or suffers from separation anxiety. Victoria Stilwell, renowned for her positive-reinforcement style of training, has created music tapes that also gently introduce the typical loud noises many dogs find offensive. She also believes massage and pleasing scents can help relieve the panic attacks that are prompted by a noise phobia.

Some trainers use counter-conditioning strategies where a dog is gradually introduced to the object of their fear. So many dogs have a fear of getting in a car, so taking your woofer to the scary metal monster will be easier if you place treats around it, praising your pooch through the process. While you are by the car, get your dog to sit, and then lie down while you massage their head, neck, and ears. Dogs love this, and will feel more relaxed as you try to move them into the car. Once they are inside the vehicle, make sure there are already treats and maybe their favorite toy on the seat so they feel right at home. You are trying to diffuse a phobia of cars, so patience is the key

These are positive ways to help your pooch, but there are some things you should never do to a dog with fear or phobias. Never punish a frightened dog, as you’re likely to make them crawl deeper into their neurotic shell. Do not yell at your pup, remember, they are scared to death and this negative assault could cause them to become aggressive. Make sure you are confident, as dogs pick up on our body language and emotions. They are not going to feel better about the buzzing vacuum cleaner if you are feeling anxious. If the phobia persists, seek advice from your vet.

Put yourself in your fur-babies paws. Are you afraid of snakes to the point that you break out in a cold sweat at the thought of ever encountering one. That extreme fear could be what your dog is experiencing every time lightning strikes.

How to React When Your Dog has a Phobia:

  • Calm them with bio-acoustic music.
  • Give them a massage.
  • Never punish them for feeling afraid.
  • Use desensitization techniques.
  • User counter-condition training ideas.
  • Read articles about dogs that have a phobia.
  • As your vet for advice.