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Panic Disorders in Dogs – The Ghosts of Traumas Past

Posted: Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 2:31:03 PM EST by Cam Day

Panic disorders in dogs

The 'ghosts of traumas past'

In the last two weeks I have seen some interesting panic disorders in dogs, all of which have had the theme of ‘back yard scary ghosts’.

What is a panic disorder?

A panic disorder is the ugly parent of an anxiety disorder and is easily recognised. (More information)

Panicking dogs show severe signs of distress and almost always include:-

  • hyperventilation
  • trembling
  • excessive salivation
  • hypervigilance and hyperactivity
  • dilated pupils
  • posturing signals of ears being tucked back, tail tucked  and tenseness of facial musculature.

If the owners are present, the dogs usually demonstrate profound comfort seeking (which is different from attention seeking) usually by

  • climbing onto the owner’s lap
  • nuzzling
  • distressed vocalising
  • frantic clawing of the owners.

If the owners are absent, the dogs will often attempt to escape from the area they are confined in (usually the garden or backyard) or will try to ‘inscape’ into the home. The damage to fences or to back doors can be immense.

This is an attempt to flee from the ‘ghost’ causing the trauma.

But it’s the damage the dogs do to themselves that distresses the owners.

Sometimes the ‘ghostly cause’ is obvious – thunderstorms and firework events are common traumas. However, in many cases the cause is not at all obvious and impossible to determine.

The latter we call ‘back yard panic disorders’ because we don’t know the ghost that’s causing the problem.

Here is an interesting case study  that will help if your dog is showing signs of panic.

Molly - back yard panic disorder of unknown originstaffordshireterriers

Molly is a 5 year old purebred Staffordshire Bull Terrier living on an acreage property with another male Staffordshire Bull Terrier of the same age. The owners are retired and mostly home.

The dogs are allowed to free-roam the property at night via an always-open dog door.

Molly’s panic is nocturnal only starting at about 1am.

During this time she comes into the owner’s bedroom and practices extensive comfort-seeking with clawing of the owners to wake them up. At such times she is hyperventilating, hypervigilant and inconsolable.

This behaviour started suddenly, three weeks before the consultation.  For years previously she has not demonstrated this behavioural problem. The panic did not occur during the day and was not shown by her in-contact Staffordshire Terrier.

So, what was the cause?

Simply put, we don’t know.

The features are that Molly is allowed garden access during the night, the panic disorder is only expressed at night and it started suddenly rather than being of slow and gradual onset.

So a ‘ghost of the night’ is affecting the dog and it appeared to be of a traumatic origin.

While there could be many causes,  our thoughts were mostly centred around interactions with nocturnal wildlife and particularly snakes.  Carpet pythons were known to be present.

A diagnosis of a post-traumatic panic disorder was made.


In the absence of a defined cause, the dogs were prevented from accessing the garden at night to determine if the ‘ghost of the night’ was a ‘garden ghost’ or an ‘inside the house ghost’.

The dog was already being treated with routine doses of two different anti-anxiety medications.

An Adaptil diffuser was added to the bedroom to provide additional comfort.

The owners were asked to ring to report progress in 7 days and at 14 days.

Follow up

At 7 days, the owners reported a complete cessation of the nocturnal panic which occurred from the first night of confinement.  Caming medication was being used nightly.

Because we were not convinced the nightly calmative was needed, that was stopped at this time. The second anti-anxiety medication was continued.

At 14 days the owner reported the panic disorder was eliminated apart from one minor issue of attention seeking on one night which was easily diverted.

A plan was implemented to review the need for the second anti-anxiety medication and the Adaptil in eight weeks but in the interim the owners were planning to test some garden access at night to see if the problem re-occurred with that change.


For this case the cause of the trauma is unknown. The concept of testing if the trauma was garden-related or ‘inside-the-house’ related was considered important.

If the panic had continued with night-time in-house confinement, further investigations would be needed to determine if there was a cause. Common ‘inside the house’ causes are high-pitched burglar alarms and smoke alarms and also home invasions. However none of those seemed to be the cause in this case.

We therefore concluded the trauma was an unknown event that occurred in the garden only.

We have a similar case we have just started working with involving a Staffordshire Terrier cross with panic-related escape behaviour. It is likely this dog is suffering repeated bite wounds from backyard insects. We are three weeks into the remedy and the dogs is remarkably better - likley the problem has now resolved. The remedy was as simple as using insect repellant.

More information

Anxiety disorders in dogs
Noise phobias in dogs
Escaping behaviour
Separation Anxiety


Comment by: Cam Day
Aug 1, 2019 at 10:32 AM
Hi Cannie. This sounds like a complex nocturnal panic disorder. That needs to be fully assessed. Can you complete an assessment form on this web by clicking the 'get started' button? Cam
Comment by: Cannie
Jul 31, 2019 at 12:54 AM
Hi, I have a 2yo wire fox terrier, she sleeps on the floor of our room and has always been a sound sleeper though the night, but about 2 weeks ago out of the blue she started getting really bad panic attacks as soon as we get in bed and turn the lights off, shaking, hyper ventilating, licking lips and whining. There’s no change to her schedule, she gets an hour walk in the morning and 1-1.5hrs at the dog park in the evening so she should be well exercised. I really don’t know what to do. During the day she is fine, eats well, pee and poop well and just happy, when its bedtime she’ll follow us into the room and climbs into her bed and curls up, as soon as we turn off the lights her panting starts and then there is no calming her. She keeps staring at the bedroom door like she wants to go out and we tried taking her outside but she looks like she just wants to run away from the house. She is indoor potty trained so she can go inside therefore I dont think it is because she needs to relieve herself, its as if once its bedtime she gets scared and wants to get away from the house. What should i do?
Comment by: Liah
May 1, 2018 at 4:29 AM
What an interesting and very relateable article! My dog suffers from a “inside the house ghost” at night as well as a pretty bad loud noise phobia. We have started using a Thundershirt at night time and it is working great. We had a solid week of uninterrupted sleep which was lovely! Last night I accidentally forgot to put it on her when we went to bed and she woke us up at 3am with her vocalising and scratching on the bedroom door. Put the shirt on and she instantly stopped and went to sleep. It doesn’t seem to help her panic with loud noises but something is better than nothing!
Comment by: Cam Day
Mar 19, 2018 at 9:13 AM
Thanks Jane, Panic disorders can be quite difficult and the Adaptil should help. While Diazpeam may be what's needed there are other alternatives too. Keep on keeping on. Cam
Comment by: Jane W
Mar 19, 2018 at 7:33 AM
I am so glad I found this site. The symptoms listed are nearly all what my 11 year old wirehaired terrier x dachshund has experienced twice in the last three months, on both occasions in the middle of the night out of a sound sleep. He had to be sedated with Diazepam. I read about Adaptil and am going to try that as it is extremely distressing for both me and my dog to experience these attacks. My vet had not suggested it. I really do not want to have to drug my dog with such a strong drug as Diazepam.
Comment by: Cam Day
Sep 13, 2016 at 7:47 AM
And one other comment Mark - you ask if your dog's age is relevant. That may be so because some older pooches have a condition called 'Canine Cognitive Disorder' for which there are various remedies including specialised diets. Cheers again. Cam
Comment by: Cam Day
Sep 13, 2016 at 7:41 AM
Your dog certainly has an anxiety disorder and, due to the sudden onset nature of her reaction, it’s likely a post-traumatic incident. Sometimes us humans can’t pick the trauma causing the mood change. More here:- You need to ‘chip away’ at her anxieties and don’t force her to confront her dragons. That’s called progressive desensitisation. There are many roads to travel with that but one main principle is to keep her at ‘a sufficient distance’ from her dragon so she ‘just touches’ on her anxiety and gets over it. As part of that process, calmatives are often needed. Sometimes homeopathic drops will help:- The Adaptil Spray may help (we have supply but you will need to ring us for that on 07 32550022 as it can’t be advertised on a web). For serious cases no-side effect anti-anxiety medications may be needed. If you are close to Brisbane we can help by way of consultation. Cheers Cam
Comment by: mark
Sep 13, 2016 at 6:50 AM
my dog in the past year will abruptly refuse to eat, refuse pointblank to continue with a favourite walk or go to a usually favourite part of our property. all efforts to calm are fruitless - she breathes heavily and back-legs tremble. I thought I could distract her at the point on the walk where she gets the terrors -- but that just made it worse. And now during a particularly favourite beachwalk I could see her struggling - and luckily overcoming her anxiety. She is 9 years old, never been anxious - but I wonder if this is some age thing... any ideas would be gratefully received.
Comment by: Cam Day
Jun 4, 2016 at 10:04 AM
Thanks for the question, Leonie. This is certainly a 'nocturnal anxiety' and we call them a 'ghost anxiety' because we don't necessarily know the cause. The hyperventiliation and other signs you describe confirm it's more than an 'anxiety' and is at 'panic' level. Firstly be sure there is no medical cause because medical conditions causing discomfort or pain can absolutely cause these signs. Next see if you can find the 'ghost' - because it's night-time look for carpet pythons, noisy possums, rodents and or course evil people ( I hope not). Sometimes what's important to dogs is not relevant to humans and odours we can't detect can be very relevant. The Adaptil Spray is a good remedy seeing you have that - spray it onto your bedspread or on a bandana placed around his neck. (On the bandana, wait 15 minutes before you place it around his neck. Homeopet Anxiety Relief could also be helpful - if it works, it will work quickly. Failing that you may want to make contact so we can consult further on the problem. Start by completing this form..... Cheers and thanks Cam
Comment by: Lee
Jun 1, 2016 at 11:35 AM
Last few nights my dog has exhibited panicked behaviours at bedtime: shivering (even when warm), hypervigilance, hyperventilating and literally trying to cover me interspersed with sitting up looking out towards the dark hallway. I let him up on the bed as my husband is away this week but nothing seemed to help. Ended up last night sleeping with a light on and cuddling him until we both fell asleep. By morning, he's racked out across most of the bed snoozing and I have to get up and get to work tired. First time it happened I thought it was cute and like he was maybe being my "protector" while my husband is away. Last night (about the third or fourth time it's happened) while I recognised he was distressed, I was exhausted and at my wit's end. I have some adaptil spray from when he used to get car sick. Would this help? Anything else I should try?
Comment by: Cam Day
Mar 14, 2015 at 9:30 PM
Hello Kel. That's similar to the last question on this blog. It's predatory aggression and usually responds well to pulsed, reward based training. This form of predation often occurs to Geckos (the lizzards I guess you are referring to) and to possums on the tin roofs we have in Queensland. The techniques are easy enough to use but need explanation. I suggest you book a Tele Assist so I can help with precision. Please ring 07 32550022 during the week to make a booking. Cheers Cam
Comment by: Kel Ryan
Mar 14, 2015 at 9:25 PM
My 2 year old male Sharpei trys to attack the lizards on the patio roof at night. He acts like a pongo stick jumping vertically and barks non stop. When I bring him inside he jumps on the glass door to get at them. I work nights and my flatmate tells me he only does this when I am home. I am scared he is going to hurt himself.
Comment by: Cam Day
Mar 14, 2015 at 10:20 AM
Hello Robyn and thanks for making contact again. The problem you describe is relatively common and dogs often react to mowers, whipper snippers and similar. It's predatory aggression and can be deep-seated. The general process is desensitisation using reward-based training using what's called the 'laser-lock' sit to measure Bonnie's calmness. 'Distance from the mower' is used to reduce her reaction while calmness is rewarded on the presumption that the 'noise of the mower' cannot be reduced. It's complicated so please ring and we can organise a session to help with that. Cam (BTW have you thought about an electric mower ?? Or timming with scissors. Or a well-trained sheep to mow the lawn??)
Comment by: Robyn Robinson
Mar 14, 2015 at 9:25 AM
Hello Dr Cam. Bonnie our 4 year Pug becomes very agitated when my husband mows the lawn. In fact the sound of lawn machines in the neighbourhood make her become overly alert and bark. When our lawn is being mowed, she goes beserk, running frantically round an enclosed veranda and barking ferociously, like she wants to get at it and fight it. Her paws often bleed from this frantic effort. Such is the problem, I have to take her for a walk or ride while the lawn is being done, because she still hears it inside the house and will carry on inside just like outside. She is already on Lovan for anxiety. Mike has introduced her to the mower, turned off, but she treats it like it is a competitor, or maybe she fears it will hurt us and is protecting us and just circles it warily and barks. He tried having her on grass as he mowed, but dangerously for her, she tried to attack it. When out walking and we hear or pass people loudly mowing, she visibly tenses but that eases as we pass. Just a single quiet bark sometimes, but not agitation. We also move on fast. We do know our dearly loved Bonnie is 'loopy' anyway, so our solution is teamwork. One of us tries to take Bon for a walk or drive during noisy yard work times. Peace for all. She is worth it.
Comment by: Cam Day
Mar 6, 2014 at 9:44 AM
Hello Lorraine, Yes your Jackie is showing anxiety - best described as the 'prediction of doom' and seems not to be enjoying the walk. Start by determining if there is a place you can walk her, or even just rest with her(e.g. under a shady tree in a quiet park) where her anxiety deflates. If that works then gradually expand her walks to the 'more scary' areas. Homeopet Anxiety Relief (available from this site) may help. If the problem is severe, complete an Assessment Form and I can help personally. Cheers Cam
Comment by: Lavinia and Michael Hill
Mar 5, 2014 at 9:01 PM
The first case sounds just like our Miss Millie was and the recovery except that we did not use an Adaptil diffuser. Miss Millie is in good form these days sleeping inside and we rarely have a problem now. If there is anything it is only mild. Happy Chappie is fine and takes everything in his stride and is not bothered if Millie has the odd problem.
Comment by: Lorraine luke
Mar 4, 2014 at 9:38 PM
When trying to walk my very anxious Jack Russell xCattle Dog she constantly looks behind her even though there's nothing behind us . She is nervous, ignores passing dogs & people & can't wait to get to where I've parked the car. She usually knows exactly where the car is even if I park in different places, she pulls with all her might then jumps in car as if to say, thank goodness. She gets excited when I pick up her lead but seems scared of every noise & is constantly looking & listening making taking her for a walk an awful experience for both of us.
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