Fear, Anxiety, Stress, and Phobias in Dogs
We all have encountered fear, anxiety, and stress in our lives. Our dogs are no different. Fear and anxiety and the stress they induce in our pets is often down-played and overlooked. Most of us fail to notice anxiousness in our own pets. Once we understand stress and can recognize the signs, we can work to identify the underlying cause, and take the appropriate steps to eliminating the stress in our dogs’ lives.
The terms fear, anxiety, stress, and phobias are often used interchangeably when referring to a dog’s behavior; however, they are very different. As responsible guardians for our dogs, we are obligated to understand these principles and the impact they have on our canine companions so we can do what is necessary to minimize stress in their lives.
- Fear is an emotional response that occurs when an animal perceives something or someone as dangerous. Fear is a normal and beneficial behavior which helps us to adapt and survive.
- Anxiety is the anticipation of future danger or a threat, whether it be real, imaginary, or unknown. Anxiety and fear both lead to stress and cause a similar physiologic stress response involving the release of neurotransmitters and stress hormones.
- Stress is a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances. Stress is much more than just an emotional problem. It can cause many serious physical health issues and exacerbate other mental and physical problems.
- Phobias are persistent fears of certain things or situations that are often extreme and out of proportion to the actual threat that they pose. Unfortunately, many dogs have phobias that are often not diagnosed or handled properly.
Most fears, phobias, and anxieties in dogs develop at the onset of social maturity, from 12 to 36 months of age. Often times owners who have a dog they adopted from a shelter, or don’t know the full history of, assume that fearful or anxious behaviors they have are because of past abuse and tend to ignore the problem. While in some instances this may be the case, there are also many dogs born with heritable predisposition to being fearful or anxious. Many dogs suffer from a pathologic fear or anxiety and perceive a threat even when none are present.
As dog owners, we need to do a better job of learning normal animal behavior and becoming aware of how are dogs are learning from positive and negative experiences. Ignoring these problems will not make them go away and only prolongs your dog’s suffering. When a dog cannot change its behavior in a way to help it better cope with fear and anxiety, or escape from the situation they perceive as dangerous, the prolonged negative effects cause the body to remain in a stressed state. This can have serious negative mental and health consequences.
Let’s talk a little bit more about fear, anxiety, stress, and phobias in dogs.
Fear is an emotional response that occurs when an animal PERCIEVES something or someone as dangerous and causes them to avoid situations and activities that may potentially be dangerous. It is very important to know that just because we may think a particular person, event, or object is nothing to be feared, that does not mean that your dog feels the same. A dog's perception is their reality, and they will respond to what they perceive as a threat even if we do not see it as threatening. When a dog can’t get away from something they perceive as fearful, they may freeze up or become aggressive in a self-defense manner. This, in many cases, is a perfectly normal adaptive response. The context of the situation determines whether the fear response is normal, or abnormal and inappropriate. Most abnormal fear reactions are learned and can be unlearned with gradual exposure.
Anxiety is defined as the anticipation of future danger, whether it be real, imaginary, or unknown. Anxiety can result in similar physiologic responses similar to those associated with fear and has an effect on almost every body system. Some of the most common visible behaviors and signs are urinary or bowel eliminations/accidents, destructive behaviors, and excessive vocalization. Separation anxiety is the most common specific anxiety in companion dogs. When alone, the animal exhibits anxiety or excessive distress behaviors. Many dogs live in a constant state of anxiety, always wary of potential threats or always worrying that their owner will leave them at any minute. It is vital to your dog’s health to be aware of these issues and work towards improving them.
Stress is a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances. Stress affects dogs both emotionally and physiologically, just as it does in humans. Certain levels of stress are normal, beneficial, and even necessary for survival. The “good stress” allows us be alert, increase our sense of awareness, and use energy to help us learn new tasks and adapt. When a dog experiences fear or anxiety frequently, especially when they are unable to escape from the stressor, it is called distress. This “bad stress” can cause insomnia, euphoria, depression, mania, mood swings, irritability, suppression of the immune system, weight gain, and even psychotic behavior which further exacerbates the stress our dogs face. It is important to note that every animal is different in how they respond to stress and what their stress threshold level is. A large majority of behavior problems in dogs, especially conditions such as separation anxiety and aggression, are often the result of stress.
Phobias are persistent fears of certain things or situations that are often extreme and out of proportion to the actual threat that they pose. Phobias are quite common in dogs and can be directed at anything. One of the more common phobias in dogs is a fear of loud noises such as fireworks and thunderstorms. Dogs will often become very anxious in anticipation to exposure to these things or situations. Every dog is different; some may have very mild anxiety responses and some may panic severely and can even injure themselves or others as they attempt to escape from the stimulus. They often lose sight of everything other than getting away from the stimulus. Phobias often start out mild and increase in severity every time they are exposed to the fearful stimulus again.
Physiological Effects of Stress
When an animal is fearful or anxious, the body responds by going in to its “fight-or-flight” mode by activating the Sympathetic Autonomic Nervous System (SANS) and stimulating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) to release stress hormones. When this “fight-or-flight” system is activated, neurotransmitters such as adrenaline and stress hormones such as cortisol are released. This essentially tells our body to shut down all functions that are not essential for fighting or flighting from the stressful stimulus. At the same time, they ramp up the body systems needed to protect ourselves from the threat. The overall response by the body is to increase the energy and oxygen directed towards muscles and movement, decreasing perception of pain, and increasing memory and sensory function.
Normally after a stressful incident, the “fight-or-flight” and stress systems will turn off and all the neurotransmitter and stress hormone levels should decrease to normal. It does not happen instantly and may take up to 24 hours to stabilize. However, with frequent and constant stress, the neurotransmitter and stress hormone levels may not have time to return to normal before another stimulus is encountered. This keeps these systems constantly active and keeps the levels of neurotransmitters and stress hormones elevated. This has a strong negative impact on the body and can lead to lethargy, high blood pressure, impact normal gastrointestinal tract function, weight gain, increased thirst and urination, cause hair loss, suppress the body’s immune system, and can lead to or worsen behavioral issues.
These emotional, stressful, and fearful situations systems activate the “primitive” part of the brain which is directed at survival and suppresses the “thinking” part of the brain. This is why people and dogs don’t make the best decisions and may respond inappropriately in an emotional, stressful, or fearful situation. Brains are built to remember these negative and stressful situations in order to help adapt and be prepared for them if they are encountered again in the future. It is very important to note that when dogs are stressed, memories that occur during this time are very strong and can have lasting impacts on their behavior. Therefore, it is very important to handle these situations properly and to not worsen the situation by punishing a dog for his response to a fearful or stressful situation.
Now, let’s move on to common causes of stress in dogs and how to identify them.
Common Stressors in Dogs
- Excessive stimulation (too much play, doggie daycare, dog sports, etc.)- and the inability to escape or avoid stimulation
- Insufficient stimulation/attention
- Grief due to the loss of a companion (human or animal)
- Arguments among family members and yelling
- Too many dogs/animals in one space
- Environmental changes (new home, schedule, people, animals, increased noise)
- Punitive training (shock, choke and prong collars)-even yelling and telling “no” can cause fear, anxiety, and stress in some dogs
- Combination training (rewards and punishment)
- Inappropriate play partners
- Insufficient social time/family time
- Scary events and loud noises
- Uncertainty- Inability to predict the outcome of a situation
- Excessive play that becomes borderline “obsessive/compulsive”
- Not being taught to be okay with being left alone (separation anxiety)
Identifying Stress in Dogs
Dogs express themselves and communicate with body language, vocalizations and behavior. Most people recognize the obvious signs of stress in their pets such as avoidance behaviors, flattened ears, crouching, trembling, or panting. However, the more subtle signs are often overlooked. As pet owners, it is important to learn to read your dog’s body language for these signs to help them avoid experiencing unnecessary stress and, thus, a reduced quality of life. It is important to interpret your dog’s body language, vocalizations, and behavior as a whole.
Some key indicators of stress in dogs are listed below:
- Dilated pupils
- Tightness around the eyes
- Avoiding eye contact
- Wide eyed
- Blinking, squinting
- Whale eye- when the dog’s head is turned away from a stressor while keeping their eyes focused on it causing you to see the whites of their eyes
- Furrowed eyebrows
- Lip/nose licking
- Lip curling
- Excess salivation
- “Smiling”/showing teeth
- Teeth chattering
- Cheek puffing
- Wrinkled muzzle
- Mouth closed tightly or pulled back
- Mouth pursed forward
- Pinned back/flattened
- Upright and alert
- Freezing or walking slowly – little or no movement
- Cowering- crouched low to the ground, tail hanging low with head down
- Excessive shedding
- Urogenital licking/“check-out”- your dog may turn their head around and inspect and lick/groom their urogenital region
- Low body posture, weight shifted back
- Sweaty paws
- Tight brow
- Shake off
- Lifting one leg
- Nails extended
- Hair standing up
- Turning away (C-shaped)
Dogs may indicate that they are stressed by vocalizing. Some of the more common stress related vocalizations are:
- Barking: growling, howling, whining, screaming
- Hissing: Low pitch = threatening / High pitch = fear/stress
Signs of a dog that is stressed include:
- Restlessness, inability to relax
- Poor sleeping habits
- Excessive sleeping, often due to exhaustion
- Excessive self-grooming
- Loss of appetite
- Obsessive-compulsive behaviors
- Inability to focus, appearing distracted
- Increased urination and defecation
- Vomiting and diarrhea
- Biting, nipping, snapping
- Clinging to owner
- Running off Jumping and startling easy at slight changes—hyperalert state
- Taking treats harder than usual, being pickier with treats, or not taking treats at all even if hungry
- Turning away (C-shape) or turning head
- Will not settle down and rest, or will for a moment but back up and moving again
Steps to Reducing Stress in Dogs
There are many approaches to eliminating stress in dogs. In order to reduce our dogs’ stress we first need to understand it and identify the underlying cause in each situation so we can take the appropriate steps to correct this.
The first and simplest way of helping reduce stress in your dog is safety and avoidance of the situation or environment which stresses them out. This will not fix the underlying problem, but it will temporarily alleviate it and not further subject them to the stress. If the specific situations that dogs become stressed in is something they cannot avoid completely, such as separation anxiety or a hatred towards the local mailman, you may need to work with a qualified behavior consultant to help get your dog over this fear. While there are thousands of books, articles, and TV shows directed at correcting behavioral issues, you need to be very cautious with these. Most owners find themselves unsuccessful trying to resolve these problems on their own and often make them worse by trying to follow bad advice. In addition, dog training classes are rarely recommended for dogs with anxiety or aggression issues as it puts them in an environment where they will be constantly stressed and unable to learn and adapt. This is known as flooding and sensitizing. Research tells us that using aversive and punishment training methods can cause and worsen anxiety and fear in dogs. Every dog and every situation is different, and thus require different plans to try and correct these problems.
A behavior consultation with a certified behavior consultant will help you identify your dog’s stressors (triggers) and develop a personalized treatment plan. The behaviorist will almost always recommend a behavior modification protocol, specifically tailored to your dog’s situation. Additionally there may be recommended changes in diets, treatment with products such as pheromones, and medical managements through the use of certain drugs prescribed by your veterinarian. If your behavior consultant is not a veterinarian, it is strongly recommended to have your behavior consultant and veterinarian work together to help correct these issues. Some veterinarians have a special interest in behavior and are members of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. You can find nearby veterinarians that are AVSAB members by visiting their website: http://avsabonline.org. In addition, some veterinarians pursue years of advanced training to become a board-certified veterinary behavior specialists through the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. To locate a veterinary behaviorist near you, please visit the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists website: http://www.dacvb.org/.
Treatment plans for fear, anxiety, and stress in dogs involve:
- Avoiding known triggers and negative stimuli- PREVENTION IS KEY
- Cue-Response-Reward-teaches predictability and structure to interactions with humans and reduces stress and anxiety by making sure anxious behaviors are not rewarded
- Teaching new coping skills-hand targeting, eye contact on cue, and how to relax on a mat are techniques that can help to redirect and refocus. These also make hand and eye contact less scary.
- Social and Environment Enrichment- food dispensing and puzzle toys-reduces stress and gives the dog more control over their environment. One-on-one human play and training time is important as well for social enrichment. Sometimes another animal (dogs, horses, cats, cows, etc) can provide social enrichment.
- Desensitization/counter-conditioning- the only way to change fear is by eliciting a new positive emotional response and gradually reintroducing triggers in a controlled environment. Counter condition is a way of training an animal to elicit a behavior or response that is counter to, or opposite of, the unwanted behavior or response to a particular stimulus. Desensitization is the process of slowly exposing your dog to a stimulus without causing the unwanted response. By introducing them to the stimulus or trigger very slowly, many dogs begin to realize it is not something to be feared and do not elicit the undesired behavior. These methods are not simply training the dog to accept the trigger or stimulus, as this type of training does not change the emotional response. These methods help the dog realize there is no need to be fearful of the stimulus so that they are no longer fearful of it. Remember fear is irrational and cannot be reinforced, therefore desensitizing/counter-conditioning will not make fear worse unless you go too fast at the gradual reintroduction of the trigger. For example, a dog that is fearful of the car and car rides can be gradually counter conditioned and desensitized to not be fearful of it. You can slowly bring the dog closer to the car each time and reward them for not acting in the undesirable manner. As they are successful, they can slowly be moved closer to the vehicle until they are getting into the car, and eventually riding in the car in a calm and quiet manner while still being rewarded for accomplishing their goal. It is important to watch for the signs of stress listed above and work to keep in a calm emotional state when working.
- Medications- medications are not a cure for behavioral problems, they must be used with behavior modification but can be very helpful by decreasing overall anxiety and fear levels and increasing learning and behavioral modification potential
- Tools- in addition, there are many tools on the market designed to help your canine companion with their behavior conditions. The ThunderShirt uses pressure in a manner similar to being hugged to help reduce anxiety and trigger relaxation. Supplements such as Calm K9 use all natural ingredients to help support proper nervous system function and help keep your dog calm and relaxed. Other options include caps that can be used to reduce visual stimulations, and DAP sprays that emit drug-free, natural vapor signals to your dog that the area is friendly and safe by mimicking a dogs natural pheromones.
Stress makes us feel miserable; it makes our dogs feel the same way. The effects of fear and anxiety are serious and distressing for the animals that experience them. As dog owners, we owe it to our best friends to become better at recognizing signs of fear, anxiety, and stress and do more to decrease their fear when possible. In addition we must work to help prevent fear in new pets by understanding the principles behind it and avoiding actions and situations that predispose our dogs to stress. Dogs that show a pathologic level of fear or anxiety need to be recognized and treated to prevent them from a reduced quality of life and the long list of medical problems that occur secondary to prolonged stress. They do not deserve to suffer simply because we are not adept at recognizing their suffering and the signs of stress. It’s time to take action and work to improve the lives of our four-legged companions.
Do you want to learn more?
- Herron, Meghan E., Frances S. Shofer, and Ilana R. Reisner. "Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors."Applied Animal Behaviour Science 1 (2009): 47-54.)
- O'Heare, James.Canine Neuropsychology: A Primer on the Canine Nervous System, Stress, Emotion and Stress Reduction. Ottawa: DogPsych, 2005. Print.
- Overall, Karen L.Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals. St. Louis: Mosby, 1997. Print.
- Pfaffenberger CJ, Scott JP. The relationship between delayed socialization and trainability in guide dogs. J Genet Psychol 1959, 95: 145-155.
- Radosta, Lisa, DVM, DACVB. "Canine Fear-Related Aggression Toward Humans." Clinician's Brief, n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.
- Scholz, Martina, and Clarissa Von. Reinhardt.Stress in Dogs. Wenatchee, WA: Dogwise Pub., 2007. Print.
- Spencer Mills, DVM