Dog Anxiety and Fear

Our 4 year old female house dog periodically exhibits fear or anxiety and refuses to enter the house. When finally coaxed in, she attempts to squeeze into small places and constantly wants to go back outside.

Situational anxiety can be a problem for puppies and adult dogs. Many times we don’t know why the dog is anxious even if we investigate potential causes.

In every case of anxiety, a thorough examination with the veterinarian is necessary before starting any behavioral modification. Sometimes, a medical issue and even vision problems can predispose anxious behavior. For example, some dogs with vision problems, may become fearful when going from a brightly lit to dimly lit room, such as stepping over the threshold into the house. The owner may think this is just the dog being stubborn or being afraid of ‘nothing’ but in fact the dog cannot see well and may be anxious or fearful of the unknown and unseen.

Dogs also can develop anxiety and aversion to certain locations due to memory of a previous experience. A dog that refuses to enter the front door may have been afraid in that location previously (for example, if a car had backfired nearby or if a child was screaming nearby and startled the dog). Often these memories have nothing to do with any sort of ‘abusive’ situation.

Reward-based training and ‘desensitization’ can help these dogs become less fearful when in these ‘anxiety-causing locations.’  It is important not to scold the dog for being afraid or refusing to go near an object or location. Instead, stay calm and reward the dog’s calm behavior and progress in approaching the area. Keep the dog focused on you, and have them come to you. If the dog takes a small step towards the item or location, stop, give lots of verbal praise and offer a small treat.  Keeping Cheerios-brand oat cereal in your pocket provides a good source of crunchy, tasty and low-calorie treats. Use a long leash and open the door wide. Step into the house and ask the dog to come to you on a slack leash. If she tries to back off, keep her in one place with the leash but don’t pull through the door. Keep rewarding calm behavior and steps toward the door with treats. Once through the door and in the house, keep her on the leash. This may also be a good time to reinforce obedience training such as ‘sit’ and ‘stay.’  Keep in mind that forcing her through the door will only increase the level of fear. Repeating these actions and using rewards can teach the dog to associate problem areas with good things and not with anxiety. This may take less time than you think it does, especially if your dog is food-motivated.