Pet Care

Fear of Specific Places

Close up of sweet Italian Greyhound with large brown eyes and a red collar

Sometimes dogs fear specific places. A dog might develop fearful behavior in a particular location because something upsetting or painful happened to him there in the past. However, dogs sometimes act fearfully in specific places for no obvious reason.

Dogs respond to fear in different ways. If your dog is afraid of a specific place, like the groomer’s or the vet’s office, you might notice one or more fearful behaviors, such as trembling, panting, avoiding people or things, whining, salivating, lip licking, hiding behind people or under furniture, urinating or defecating. Your dog might also frantically attempt to escape from the place that frightens him, especially if he’s left unattended. Dogs also sometimes respond to fear with defensive aggression, which can involve barking, lunging, growling, snapping or biting.

Why Do Some Dogs Fear Specific Places?

Traumatic Event Linked to a Specific Place

If your dog was previously unafraid of a location until some kind of traumatic event happened there, he might associate the event with that location. This often occurs when a dog experiences fear or pain in a specific place, like a veterinarian’s office. (If your dog is afraid when you take him to the vet, please see our article, Fear of the Veterinary Clinic, for specific information about this problem.)

No Discernable Cause

A dog who was previously unafraid of a location will sometimes become fearful of that specific place for no obvious reason.

Is It Really Fear?

Canine submissive body postures can look a lot like fearful behavior. For example, if your dog rolls over, lowers his tail and whimpers when meeting people in a specific place but makes no attempt to avoid the people or escape from the area, he might be displaying normal submissive body language, rather than acting fearfully. For more information about interpreting canine communication, please see our article, Canine Body Language.

What to Do About the Problem

Pet parents often mistake fear-related problems for stubbornness. If you ask your dog to perform a behavior that makes him scared, he might refuse to obey. For instance, if you call your dog to come to you, but you’re in a location he fears, he might not respond to your command. Keep in mind, however, that if this happens, your dog isn’t disobedient or stubborn. He’s afraid. His anxiety and fear might make it impossible for him to do whatever it is that you’ve asked him to do. So instead of getting frustrated, try to focus on helping your dog overcome his fear. Read on to find out how.

If Your Dog Becomes Aggressive When Afraid

Dogs who respond to fear with defensive aggression might bark, growl, lunge, snap or bite if people try to interact with them in places they’re afraid of. Defensively aggressive dogs can also tremble, pant, avoid people or things, whine, salivate, hide behind people or under furniture, urinate or defecate.

If your dog displays aggressive behavior when he’s afraid—or if you think he might—you’ll need to do two things:

1. Always carefully manage your dog’s behavior to avoid or minimize problems and ensure that no one gets hurt.

2. Contact a professional to help you try to change your dog’s behavior.

Manage Your Dog’s Behavior

When animals experience extreme stress or fear, they often resort to aggression in their attempts to defend themselves from perceived threats. Although it’s a natural response, aggressive behavior can be dangerous. It’s crucial to use management techniques to protect other people, your dog and yourself. One of the best ways to avoid provoking your dog’s aggressive response is to avoid whatever frightens him. If your dog fears a particular location, try not to take him there.

Unfortunately, some dogs fear places that you can’t always avoid. For example, many dogs are afraid of the veterinary hospital. (Who can blame them? Vaccinations and examinations cause pain and discomfort.) If you must take your dog to a place he finds frightening, follow these guidelines:

1. Always keep your dog on a leash.

2. Stay as far away from other people as possible when your dog shows fearful body language. Because he’s afraid, he might growl, bark or even bite people who get too close to him or attempt to touch him when he’s upset.

3. If people try to approach or pet your dog when he’s frightened or nervous, tell them not to do so. Handling or attention from people—especially strangers—might increase your dog’s fear. You can politely explain that because your dog isn’t feeling comfortable, he doesn’t want to visit.

4. Keep your movements and voice calm. If you seem anxious or upset, your dog might become even more afraid.

5. Consider muzzle training. Teaching your dog to wear a muzzle before he has to go to a frightening place can keep everyone safe. Please read our article, Teaching Your Dog to Wear a Muzzle, to learn how to teach your dog to comfortably wear a muzzle

Get Help

A qualified professional can help you design and carry out a plan to change the way your dog feels and acts. If your dog shows fearful and aggressive behavior, consult a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB). If you can’t find a behaviorist, you can seek help from a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT), but be sure that the trainer is qualified to help you. Determine whether she or he has education and experience in treating fear and aggression, since this kind of expertise isn’t required for CPDT certification. Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, to locate one of these experts in your area.

If Your Dog Doesn’t Become Aggressive When Afraid

Keep in mind that fear can trigger aggression. Even if your dog has never displayed aggression in the past, any dog can resort to aggressive behavior if he or she feels extremely threatened or afraid. A dog who first tries to deal with his fear by running away but finds that strategy doesn’t work might then switch to defensive aggression. This is especially likely if people try to approach or touch him while he’s frightened. If your dog has a fear-related behavior problem, it’s crucial to make sure that you don’t place people at risk by putting your dog in situations that might provoke aggressive behavior.

Key Points to Remember When Dealing with Your Dog’s Fearful Behavior

1. DO NOT USE PUNISHMENT when trying to change your fearful dog’s behavior. When something frightens your dog, he experiences a great deal of stress. Any kind of verbal or physical punishment will distress him even more, making him more defensive and fearful in the future.

2. When trying to resolve any behavior problem that involves fear, you should first try to figure what causes your dog’s fearful response. After you’ve identified the objects that frighten your dog, you’ll need to do two things:

3. Use management techniques to minimize or avoid provoking your dog’s fear.

4. Design and implement a treatment plan to change the way your dog feels and acts.

Management Techniques

Fearful behavior in dogs takes a while to treat. While you attempt to help your dog overcome his fear of a specific place, try not to expose him to the scary location. If possible, avoid taking him there altogether.

Unfortunately, some dogs fear places that you can’t always avoid. For example, many dogs are afraid of the veterinarian’s office. (Who can blame them? Vaccinations and examinations cause pain and discomfort.) If you must take your dog to a place he finds frightening, follow these guidelines:

  • Always keep your dog on a leash.
  • If people try to approach or pet your dog when he’s frightened or nervous, tell them not to do so. Handling or attention from people—especially strangers—might increase your dog’s fear. You can politely explain that because your dog isn’t feeling comfortable, he doesn’t want to visit.
  • Keep your movements and voice calm. If you seem anxious or upset, your dog might become even more afraid.

Treatment for Your Dog’s Fear of Specific Places

Treatment using desensitization and counterconditioning can help reduce or eliminate your dog’s fear of a specific place. This treatment focuses on very gradually exposing your dog to the place he fears and teaching him that good things, rather than scary or painful things, always happen in that place. The good things can include highly desirable food and treats, favorite toys, a favorite game, attention, petting or anything else your dog absolutely loves. Please read our article, Desensitization and Counterconditioning, for detailed information about the purpose and effective use of these treatments.

Desensitization and counterconditioning are complex and can be tricky to carry out. Fear must be avoided or the procedure will backfire and the dog will get more frightened. Because treatment must progress and change according to the pet’s reactions, and because these reactions can be difficult to read and interpret, desensitization and counterconditioning require the guidance of a trained and experienced professional. For help designing and carrying out a desensitization and counterconditioning plan, consult a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. If you can’t find a behaviorist, you can seek help from a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, but be sure that the trainer is qualified to help you. Determine whether she or he has education and experience in treating fear with desensitization and counterconditioning, since this kind of expertise isn’t required for CPDT certification. Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, to locate one of these experts in your area.

Medications

Always consult with a veterinarian before giving your dog any type of medication for a behavior problem.

In conjunction with desensitization and counterconditioning, medication might help reduce your dog’s fear and stress. There are many different anti-anxiety medications available for dogs with fear-related behavior problems. If you’d like to explore this option, speak with your veterinarian, a veterinary behaviorist or a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist who can work closely with your vet. Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, to locate one of these professionals in your area.

What NOT to Do

  • Do not force your dog to confront his fear by taking him to the place that frightens him. Making your dog spend time in a location he fears might actually increase his fear and worsen his behavior.
  • Do not scold or physically punish your dog for being afraid—even if he responds to fear by barking, growling or displaying other aggressive behavior. Punishment will merely intensify your dog’s negative emotions and stress. Yelling or physically “correcting” your dog will probably make him more fearful and can actually worsen his fearful or aggressive behavior.
  • Do not constantly reassure your dog. You do want him to look to you for safety and security, but it’s not helpful to repeatedly pick him up or chant, “It’s okay, it’s okay....” Your dog won’t understand what you’re saying, and if you sound anxious, you might make him even more upset. Instead, you can calmly praise and reward your dog for confident, relaxed behavior if he offers it on his own.