Recognize Fear in Dogs

Fear is a normal emotional response. Anxious behavior is also part of the behavioral repertoire of animals and ensures survival in nature. What is normal and what is not?

To be able to assess when an anxiety reaction is to be regarded as pathological, one must first differentiate between the terms anxiety, fear, and phobia:

  • Anxiety is an emotion triggered by threatening situations that dogs and cats perceive as dangerous but are not elicited by a specific stimulus (e.g., going to the vet).
  • Fear, on the other hand, is triggered by a concrete threat that can be rationally justified, e.g. B. by an enemy.
  • Phobias, in turn, belong to mental disorders and are “predominantly caused by clearly defined, generally harmless situations or objects”. The phobia is therefore an unfounded fear of a stimulus that usually does not pose any danger (e.g. noise).

All three emotions also trigger stress. Stress is not to be regarded as a feeling, but describes a physiological reaction of the body, activated by external (stimulus) and internal (stress) stimuli. The release of messenger substances in the body leads to general excitement (e.g. alertness). Among other things, the heart rate increases, blood pressure increases, and the bronchial tubes expand. In evolutionary terms, these reactions ensure good blood circulation in the muscles and enough oxygen (e.g. to run away). Thus, stress means an adaptive reaction of the organism to cope with environmental challenges. However, stress is not only to be viewed negatively. There is also “positive” stress, such as anticipation or exciting leisure activities.

Anxiety responses are determined by several mechanisms:

  1. The dog perceives a fear-triggering stimulus: it sees a threat.
  2. The fear-triggering information is passed on to the brain: “Danger ahead!”
  3. Parts of the brain release messenger substances from the body: including adrenaline and cortisol.
  4. An anxiety reaction occurs: e.g. B. Running away.

When fear becomes pathological

Once the frightening factor is eliminated (e.g., the enemy is gone), physiological normal levels usually return. However, if the animal cannot withdraw from these stressors in the long term or actively eliminate them, the messenger substances become chronically activated, and the body is not prepared for this. Over time, this can lead to mental and physical impairments.

Furthermore, acute panic reactions can result in physical impairments. It is not uncommon for dogs that have panicked to break their leash and become involved in traffic accidents as a result. But self-mutilation or injuries in the home caused by fear reactions can also result in physical impairments.

Anxiety or fear is to be classified as pathological if the return to physiological balance and well-being of the animal takes a long time or does not occur at all, or if normal activities or social ties are neglected.

Some dogs take hours before they get out from under the bed after a moment of shock, they refuse to eat out of sheer fear and are not distracted by treats or their owners’ requests to play. Such reactions are to be considered a delayed return to the animal’s physiological balance and well-being.

The phobia, on the other hand, is generally to be regarded as pathological, whereby the extent of the subsequent reaction should also be taken into account. Not every person who avoids spiders should immediately be classified as mentally ill, whereas a dog that panics and jumps out of the window during a thunderstorm no longer shows “normal” fear behavior.

Various causes and fears

The causes of pathological anxiety behavior are very complex. To what extent the normal fear reaction develops into pathological fear behavior is often in the hands of the breeder or the subsequent owner. Environmental influences and experiences, especially during early development, can have a profound impact on adult animal behavior. Genetic dispositions (e.g. certain dog breeds) also play a role. Some studies show that the behavior of the parent animals can be passed on to the offspring. When selecting a breed, animals with behavioral problems should therefore not be mated. Physical illnesses such as B. persistent pain or a thyroid malfunction,

Possible causes of anxiety-related behavior problems:

  • genetic disposition
  • deficiencies in puppy rearing (inadequate socialization and habituation)
  • negative experiences, traumatic experiences
  • bad housing conditions
  • mistakes in handling the animals
  • health problems
  • Other (individual stress factors)

The fears themselves, which are formed, are just as diverse as the causes: e.g. B. Fear of people, other animals, conspecifics, sounds, certain places, certain situations, or objects. And the fear of being alone (separation anxiety) is also part of it. The latter is often not considered a behavioral disorder. However, this can also lead to psychological and physical impairments, which are associated with poor well-being of the animal. Excessive anxiety reactions (e.g., destructiveness or defecation/urination in the home) provide the owner with obvious indications of a pathological anxiety reaction.

Signs of anxiety and stress

Anxiety, fear, and phobias, but also stress, are associated with corresponding expressive behavior and physiological changes. Therefore, by looking at the dog, and observing its behavior and physical signs, one can infer the emotional state of the animal. In dogs, the reactions are very varied. To evade the fear-triggering stimulus “stressor”, the animal can react with many different behaviors. The answers to fearful behavior can be made more specific by using the “5 Fs” (fight, flight, freeze, flirt, fiddle/fidget). Often the dog reacts either with aggression (“fight”), escape (“flight”), freezes with fear (“freeze”), or shows soothing or humble behavior (“flirt”) such as B. lying on your back, walking in an arc or lick your lips. Or he tries to defuse the situation through other behaviors and shows skip actions (“fiddle” or “fidget”) such as e.g. B. intensive sniffing at a blade of grass or invitation to play. Ambiguous reactions are also possible: the dog walks e.g. B. first in a humble attitude (“flirt”) but then becomes offensive (“fight”) or he goes e.g. B. in the “fight” position, but then runs away (“flight”). However, all responses ultimately have the purpose of removing or keeping away the stressor.

However, the signs of an anxiety reaction are often shown in a much more subtle way and are therefore often overlooked. Not every owner perceives yawning, panting, or salivating as a stress reaction. Some breeds also make it difficult to recognize signs of stress due to physical events. Ruffled fur, dilated pupils, flat ears or a tucked-in tail are not fully visible in every breed (e.g. Bobtail) and therefore make it even more difficult for some owners. Nevertheless, such signs should not be overlooked and owners should be sensitized to this as best as possible.

At a glance: signs of stress or anxious behavior:

  • panting
  • saliva
  • perspiration (e.g. wet paws)
  • hair loss
  • laid ears
  • retracted rod
  • dilated pupils
  • humility (e.g. lying on your back)
  • freeze
  • hide
  • up and down
  • tail wagging
  • urination and defecation
  • (also stress diarrhea!)
  • emptying of the anal glands
  • vocalization (eg, barking, yelping, whining).

Frequently Asked Question

What is fear in dogs?

Shyness or fearfulness is a personality trait of dogs. These dogs have an innate reticence towards new and unfamiliar things, which includes unfamiliar people and their kind. Even though dogs aren’t people, it certainly helps to imagine shy people.

How do you calm a dog down when it’s scared?

As with humans, the dog can be calmed down by the mere presence of a reference person and the fear can be taken away somewhat. Understand your dog and put yourself in his situation. The dog is often already relaxed by the calm and deep voice of the master and a few comforting words.

Does my dog have an anxiety disorder?

With an anxiety disorder, your dog is completely different in certain situations: it howls, whines, and trembles or growls and barks aggressively. In the case of extreme anxiety, the only thing that helps is a visit to the veterinarian or animal psychologist, where you can have the anxiety disorder treated professionally.

What should I do if my dog is scared?

Under no circumstances should you scold your dog in fear-inducing situations. Even very intensive “consoling” can be counterproductive. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore your dog: talk encouragement to him but don’t coddle him.

What to do if the dog is shaking with fear?

But at the latest when dogs are trembling with fear, you should react differently. If your dog keeps staring at you and wants to stay close, give him a quick scratch behind the ears and say a few soothing words. By ignoring it, your dog could feel misunderstood or even punished.

What breed of dog is fearful?

And the dog breed also plays a major role: the Spanish Water Dog, the Chihuahua, the Border Collie, and, interestingly enough, the German Shepherd dog proved to be particularly fearful of strange dogs. On the other hand, Corgis and some small terrier species were more trusting.

How do I gain the trust of an anxious dog?

To build trust with your anxiety dog, your dog must first feel safe in his environment. He has to be sure that nothing can happen to him on his pitch. If he explores the house or apartment – which is unlikely at first – then he must not be hassled.

How do you tell a dog I love you?

Dogs communicate a lot through eye contact. If they look you in the eye for a long time, it’s a way of saying “I love you.” Conversely, you also trigger this feeling in dogs if you look lovingly into their eyes for a long time. This is even scientifically proven.

Mary Allen

Written by Mary Allen

Hello, I'm Mary! I've cared for many pet species including dogs, cats, guinea pigs, fish, and bearded dragons. I also have ten pets of my own currently. I've written many topics in this space including how-tos, informational articles, care guides, breed guides, and more.

Leave a Reply


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *