Fear and Anxiety in Dogs – Causes, Signs and Solutions

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Fear is the instinctive feeling of anxiety in dogs – a motivational state resulting from a situation, person or object or noise perceived by the dog as a danger or threat.

This fear triggers appropriate adaptive responses known as the ‘freeze, flight or fight’ response, brought about by a complex system in the body, known as the ‘Autonomic Nervous.

Resulting behaviour patterns are designed to help the dog respond or remove itself from the fearful situation within the shortest amount of time. Ultimately it is normal and an essential mechanism for survival. However, many life experiences or poor social lessons can result in dogs employing this effective survival behaviour excessively and in an unbalanced manner. This becomes potentially dangerous for all as the dog struggles to interpret domestic situations effectively.

If a persistent and excessive fear is allowed to develop this learned behaviour very quickly becomes a phobia and is much more difficult to manage and eradicate. This is because the behaviour becomes so embedded that any associated event may be enough to trigger a fear response.

As a behaviour practitioner, anxiety-related behaviour patterns make up a huge percentage of my work, as such they became the focus for my Master’s degree thesis. It is also apparent that the problem is becoming progressively worse. Sadly many of these dogs resort to extreme measures of aggression or destruction of their environment or themselves before the problem is considered severe enough and help is requested.

It is worth mentioning that Fears and Phobias are difficult behaviours to treat. While the advice in this article is designed to be informative you may find it is necessary to contact a professional behaviourist to work one to one with your dog’s problem.

Breed Predisposition

Any breed of dog has the potential to become fearful but it is likely the more highly strung breeds such as the Border Collie, Hungarian Vizla, or German Shepherd will display these traits more readily.

It is simple to understand that these breeds have been designed to be highly reactive in their working role, therefore it stands to reason if working traits are not controlled and exercised then they have the potential to focus on threats to their survival. Another example of the primitive behaviour of the dog.

Relevance of age

The age of a dog is highly relevant when recognising fears and phobias, it is essential to understand that dogs who are denied human contact and poorly socialised before 12 weeks of age, rarely make good family pets. Damage is done at an early age and when this happens it sticks!

Likewise older dogs may have a medical condition causing or creating the problem. They are also more likely to suffer from a fear that is learnt and embedded making it much more difficult to treat.

Origin of Fear

  • Lack of early positive socialisation
  • A nervous mother (dam)
  • Negative experience
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Medical conditions

Common Fears

The most common fears, recognised as such by owners that ultimately result in phobias are those concerned with noise, such as fireworks, thunderstorms and gunshots. It is not unheard of for gundog breeds such as the Labrador or springer to become gun-shy as a result of a negative experience, potentially rendering them retired from the sport.

When anxieties develop I often see random fears associated with shadows, walking on hard or slippery surfaces, tea towels, certain areas of a house, and the list goes on. It may be that this resulting behaviour has a totally dis-associated trigger for general anxiety which has been overlooked.

This would be common in dogs who are exposed daily to stressful scenarios but these scenarios are not perceived as stressful by the client.

Dogs left alone for long periods of time may not display any outward signs of discomfort while the owner is away but upon the owners return, obsessive behaviours such as tail chasing, licking and chewing or destruction may be reported. While the owner drastically tries to pinpoint the behaviour triggers as to what is present at the time of the behaviour, the long period of boredom and separation anxiety has been overlooked and dis-associated from the moment.

A fundamental understanding of the dog’s lifestyle is essential if the correct management is to be advised.

Question: My dog is well trained but I still lose control when she/he’s scared

This is a common statement from owners who spend time obedience training their dog and conditioning them to particular environments.

It should be understood that the chemicals produced during a ‘freeze, flight or light’ episode, have a physical effect on the brain making it impossible for the dog to process learnt obedience commands in many instances, or even respond to an owners recall.

Again, this is a normal and expected response from a dog who is essentially having a ‘panic attack’. Remember how you feel when you are at your most stressed and working to impossible time constraints, the level of stress you deal with at this point is likely to give you an idea of how your dog feels each time it has to face its fear.

Signs of Fear

  • Running away (flight)
  • Barking
  • Tail between their legs
  • Arched back
  • Drawn back lips
  • Hackles raised
  • Ears flattened against the head
  • Increased heart rate
  • Trembling
  • Urination
  • Aggression

How to Manage & Improve your Dog’s Perception of Fear

First and foremost, make sure you are meeting your dog’s essential needs, physical and mental stimulation, obedience, manners and discipline are all factors that if not addressed may exacerbate or allow a fear to develop.

Never engage with your dog on a sympathetic level if your dog’s displays fear. This will only re-enforce the motivation and convince them there is something to be fearful of.

You need to act confidently and ignore the trigger, remaining positive in the way you handle your dog. If aggression is a symptom then muzzle training your dog is essential management.

For object human or other dog fears. Your goal is to ignore the fear and associate the situation with a positive reward, ensuring your dog is far enough away from the fear to remain relatively relaxed, you can begin to offer simple basic training commands such as sit, and stay, reward and then gradually approach the fear from the side, never expect your dog to deal with anything head on.

If necessary you may wish to use a ‘clicker’. This little training aid can be sourced anywhere and can be a useful tool in keeping your dog’s attention while working around the fear. Conditioning to any training aid needs to be done away from the situation it is required for.

Persistent, positive low level exposure. Exposing your dog for short periods, rewarding and removing is also beneficial and simple to do with object, and human fears, it is not so easy with sound and other dogs.

Conditioning the dog to a hand signal and down time area is really effective at creating a confident response from the owner and managing the dog’s physical behaviour. Leaving a lead attached allows you to control the dog without direct physical contact, reducing the stimulation.

Keeping your vocal control to a minimum also allows the dog to focus on the handler without added the distraction of extra sound.

CD’s are available that contain a series of recorded sounds of various social noises such as fireworks, gun shots etc. I have had mixed responses when using these and in order for them to be really effective they should be used in conjunction with a behaviour modification program. Unfortunately this may require the help of a professional.

When to Consult the Vet

While fears and phobias are common there are a number of factors to consider before assuming it is just a behaviour problem:

  • Is the fear sudden onset
  • Is it accompanied with period of staring into space
  • Is it associated with a particular scenario or trigger
  • Does your dog shake/ shiver consistently after the event
  • Is your dog responsive and physically active throughout
  • Does your dog have any other underlying medical condition

If the answer is yes to any of these questions then your Vet should be consulted first. A behaviourist will question you about your dog’s history and will want to know if the Vet has ruled out a medical concern.

Published: 16.02.2015

Author: Jo Croft

Canine Behaviour Practitioner - VN MCFBA GODT

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