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Help Your Dog With Separation Anxiety and Other Common Fears

Animal Planet’s popular dog trainer Victoria Stilwell shares solutions for getting your dog through anxiety, fear of storms, and other worrisome behavior.
By Sandy Eckstein
WebMD Pet Health Feature
Reviewed by Audrey Cook, BVM&S

You've heard the stories: a dog is so terrified during a thunderstorm that he jumps through a picture window to escape. Or maybe your dog is the one that ate the living room couch while you were out.

We asked Victoria Stilwell, the internationally known author, dog trainer, and star of Animal Planet’s "It’s Me or The Dog," why dogs do these things.

 

Q: What are the most common fears or anxieties you’ve seen in the dogs you’ve worked with over the years?

A: The biggest one is separation anxiety -- that’s pretty major. It’s when the dog is hyper-attached to the owners and cannot cope when the owners aren’t there.

Another big one is aggression, which is deeply based in anxiety and insecurities. Many dogs that show aggressive response to other dogs or humans have incorrectly been labeled as a dog that’s trying to be dominant. Aggression starts as a purely defensive gesture. But it can become offensive when the dog realizes that he has been successful.

 

Q: What causes these fears?

A: It can literally be from lack of exposure when young -- lack of socialization. When you have a puppy, you have to introduce it to 100 new experiences and all different kinds of people and all different kinds of dogs in a lot of different environments. You cannot overwhelm your puppy, and you have to make sure all the experiences it has are pleasurable. There’s no doubt that genetic predisposition has a great effect too.

 

Q: Are some dog breeds more prone to fears or anxieties?

A: Border collies, the herding dogs, because I think they’re bred to be so sound sensitive and to be environmentally sensitive. You’ll find that collies and shelties and even German shepherds can be predisposed to suffering very much from fears and anxieties. It’s almost like they’re wired in a different way. They are hyper-aware.

That’s not to say if you get a border collie your dog’s going to suffer from anxieties. And I’ve had golden retrievers that have had severe separation anxiety or storm phobia. Any dog, really, has the capacity to suffer from it, depending on their upbringing and their predisposition.

 

Q: What should I do when I see that my dog is afraid of something? Should I comfort him? Ignore him?

A: Obviously, it’s different for every fear. It used to be thought that you should ignore your dog when it was fearful because, if you were giving comfort or attention, you were reinforcing the fear.

But research has shown that’s actually not the case. You don’t want to go completely crazy with your dog and mollycoddle it. But you need to provide a reassuring arm and a reassuring voice and a reassuring presence so that the dog knows you’re there.

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