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SIMPLIFIED: The Fear & Anxiety Study

Updated: Feb 6, 2023

The studies performed by the Center for Canine Behavior Studies are filled with an extensive amount of statistics and science-based language. A guest contributor, Robin Grimm, has joined CCBS to help translate our important study results into an easier-to-read version below.


So many of us have watched our dogs struggle through situations in which they exhibited horrible anxiety and fear. For many who adopt dogs from a shelter – or even sometimes buy from a pet-store, or breeder – our dogs come to us with past physical and emotional traumas that we cannot identify – but struggle to help our friend work through the resulting behaviors. An article published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior in the Summer of 2022 by Ian R. Dinwoodie, Vivian Zottola, and Nicholas Dodman entitled, “An Investigation into the Effectiveness of Various Professionals and Behavior Modification Programs, With or Without Medication, for the Treatment of Canine Fears,” seeks to provide guidance to dog owners dealing with fear and anxiety-based conditions exhibited by their dogs. Unlike most prior studies in this field which tend to be very specifically targeted toward the veterinary community, this study was designed to help dog owners determine which course of action might provide the most positive outcome for their respective canine. Additionally, the article seeks to provide a reasonable expectation of improvement that one might see.


Data for the project was gathered through surveys completed by dog owners who had been involved in a previous study that reviewed trends related to the demographics of problematic behavior and had opted to participate in this follow-up. Additionally, all participants had described their dogs as exhibiting some form of fear/anxiety. The survey was designed to gather overall treatment information for the dog to include visiting a trainer or behavior consultant, obtaining veterinary advice, the administration of medications, etc.


The study reviewed five types of fear/anxiety categories based on information gathered in the prior study: inanimate (things like fireworks, and thunder), animate (people and other animals), situational (separation anxiety, etc.), Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Some dogs exhibited more than one category of anxiety with almost half inanimate fears or anxieties. Further, this study analyzed overall response to treatment collectively.


Dogs participating in the study encompassed several breeds in addition to nearly half who were mixed breeds. Most dogs were spayed/neutered and the median age at the time of the study was 6 years. Only 50% of owners sought professional help for their dog. Of those that did, 69% saw at least one trainer. Forty-eight percent of the dogs saw at least one behavioral consultant. Twenty three percent saw a veterinarian – and of those dogs, 15% were found to have a medical issue relevant to the behavioral issue. Contributing medical conditions included ongoing pain, partial seizures, an underperforming thyroid gland, and cognitive dysfunction, in addition to some general non-specific medical conditions.


Of those dogs who saw veterinarians, 45%, were prescribed medication to assist in the treatment of the fear/anxiety. Ninety-two of those dogs were given fluoxetine (Prozac), in addition to others who were given benzodiazepines, trazadone, paroxetine, and several other alternatives – including some non-specified medications. The only medication found to improve odds of success belonged to the benzodiazepine class of drugs featuring Valium and Xanax. The only specific fear/anxiety-based conditions in which benzodiazepines were found to be beneficial were those in the inanimate fear/anxiety category. Benzodiazepines were found to decrease the odds of success for conditions involving animate fears toward people and other dogs.


The study then compares the responses to treatment both overall – and in specific categories. Overall, in looking at a generalized condition of fear/anxiety, the most significant positive responses resulted from reward-based training, mental stimulation, and habituation. Dogs who had been reported to have exhibited aggression had a lower degree of positive response in all cases.


In the specific categories, dogs with inanimate fear/anxiety, responded most favorably to the use of benzodiazepines, the use of unspecified herbal medicines and diet change.

For dogs with animate fear/anxiety, consultation with a behavior consultant, relaxation protocols, systematic desensitization, and counterconditioning seemed to have the most positive impact. However, negative responses to treatment occurred with neutered dogs, consultation with a veterinarian, consultation with a certified applies animal behaviorist (ACAAB/CAAB), and the use of benzodiazepines.


For situational fear/anxiety, the most positive responses were yielded from consultation with a behavior consultant and/or an ACAAB/CAAB, mental stimulation, implementation of a relaxation protocol, and short, frequent training sessions. Changed management and pre-existing aggression reduced the odds of improvement for this category of anxiety/fear. General anxiety disorder was impacted positively by nutraceuticals and participation in dog sports. Negative outcome occurred with when trainers were consulted and with unspecified hormone therapy. Finally, in dogs with PTSD none of the above techniques was effective. Of particular note was a negative response when increased physical exercise was employed as therapy and when there was pre-existing aggression.


Overall, of the 1308 dogs studied, 64% showed an overall improvement with 17% showing no change and 19% having a worsened condition. Seventy-two percent of those improved, improved by at least 25%. Thirty-one percent showed improvement up to approximately 50% degree, and 7% improved to a degree of 75%. Of those who showed worsened fear and anxiety, 23% were at least 25% worse, 3% were 50% worse, and 1% were 75% worse.


So, what does this mean for a dog owner struggling to deal with a fearful or nervous dog and not sure where to start? Given that 15% of the time there was a medical condition correlating to the behavior, an owner is always wise to start with a visit to the veterinarian. But from there, should an owner seek a trainer, engage in home behavior modification, seek out a certified veterinary behaviorist, and consider nutraceuticals or pharmaceuticals? Without identifying the specific type of fear/anxiety – and simply looking at it overall, visiting a consultant does not always improve a dog’s situation. Generally, mental stimulation strategies seem successful – i.e., using puzzle toys, playful interaction, sniffing and exploring on walks, etc. helps a dog settle. Further, habituation (getting a dog used to something that had been frightening) has proven highly effective. A challenge in looking at overall anxiety exists for the dog who exhibits pre-existing aggression as odds of treatment success through these generalized methods dropped significantly.


However, if a dog’s behavior can be linked to the one of the five categories, there may be certain “dos” and “don’ts “that might make for a better experience. Because inanimate fears are triggered by situations that owners cannot control, i.e., fireworks, thunder, etc., pharmacological, nutraceutical, or physiological intervention seems to show the most positive result – whether through benzodiazepines, herbal supplements, or dietary changes. Conversely, in cases where the fears are animate – and more easily controlled by owners, i.e., exposure to other dogs and strangers, consulting with a behaviorist (though not necessarily a certified behaviorist - CAAB or ACAAB) showed 4 times the odds of improvement. Counterconditioning techniques show 8 times the odds of improvement, and systematic desensitization works well also.


Dogs exhibiting situational anxiety – often seen in situations such as separation anxiety – consultation with behaviorists and CAAB/ACAABs can result in a positive outcome. Additionally, habituation and behavior modification sessions were generally successful.

For a dog experiencing GAD, intervention with nutraceuticals seemed to produce a strong positive outcome. Often, these dogs regressed with formal training sessions but thrived with dog sporting activities – likely because of the social integration involved.


Finally, for dogs with PTSD, sadly, no effective treatments were found. In fact, things that might be assumed to help, like exercise were detrimental. This may be because of the type of exercise employed and environment in which it takes place. If the environment is reflective of the trigger for the PTSD, logically exposure to certain environments would be counterproductive.

In the end, a keen awareness on the owner’s part of what triggers a dog’s fear and anxiety clearly, as evidenced in the varying success rates for each type of treatment for a related trigger, will provide the dog the best chance for improvement so that our best friend can enjoy life to its fullest. Further, the study, given the fact that there is a marked improvement even in the overall analysis, shows that fear/anxiety in dogs is very real and certainly worth the effort of treatment and might encourage those represented by the 50% of respondents who did not seek help to do so. The more aware people are of the options, the better chance our shelters have of reducing the number of owner surrenders and the challenge of rehoming these dogs who, with proper treatment, could have lived out there lives as happy, healthy companions.

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