Fearful Fido?

Fear and stress play important roles in the ability to function, for humans and dogs. Fear, for instance, helps to protect from danger. Stress aids in reacting to and learning from threats and improves memory. Too much fear, stress and anxiety isn’t healthy, though. Excess stress and anxiety affect the immune system, negatively influencing both physical and emotional health.

Causes Of Anxiety

An estimated 20 to 30 percent of dogs may be prone to fear and/or introversion. Proper socialization improves puppy confidence, but abuse or poor socialization can result in anxiety-ridden adults. Pain or illness also can cause anxiety, so these dogs associate certain kinds of handling with discomfort. Ongoing anxiety, stress, or fear may lead to fear aggression.

Extreme fear interferes with learning, making it even more difficult to help dogs overcome the angst. Fearful dogs quickly recognize that escape behaviors or fear aggression makes the scary situation go away, so they learn to repeat these behaviors.

Panic attacks may be prompted by a sound, smell, or sight the dog associates with a frightening event such as thunder or fireworks. When a panic attack happens, the dog may stop thinking, and simply react. One study by veterinary behaviorist, Karen Overall, suggested that 86 percent of thunderstorm phobic dogs and 88 percent of noise phobic dogs may also suffer from separation anxiety; whereas 63 percent of separation anxiety dogs may also suffer from noise phobia and 52 percent of separation anxiety dogs may also suffer from thunderstorm phobia.

Recognizing Signs

It’s important to recognize signs of canine stress, anxiety, and fear. That way, you can identify some of the triggers and help your dog learn ways to cope before the stress or anxiety turns to fear.  Nervous dogs aren’t happy pets, or fun to be around, and above all, we want our dogs to enjoy life. Signs of anxiety, stress, and fear occupy a spectrum, with some dogs exhibiting only one or two behaviors while others display a whole range of signs, including the following:

  • Staring
  • Panting
  • Shaking
  • Crouching
  • Squinting
  • Furrowed brow
  • Whale eye (showing whites/corners of eyes)

Signs Of Separation Behaviors

It has been estimated that 17 percent or 10.7 million U.S. dogs suffer from separation anxiety or separation distress related behaviors. Mixed breeds and dogs adopted from shelters or rescued are more commonly affected. Signs may present in aging or senior dogs (7 years and older). Puppies separated from the litter prior to eight weeks of age may also be more prone.

Some dogs show no signs until after you’ve left home. Others act distressed as you put on your coat or pick up car keys, cueing your departure. These dogs follow you about the house, whine, pant, or become immobile (freeze) and become increasingly distraught as you prepare to leave. These are some common behaviors of dogs with separation anxiety:

  • Property destruction
  • Self-injury from chewing/clawing to escape
  • Barking or howling
  • Bathroom lapses

Signs Of Fear And Fear Aggression

Well socialized and confident dogs rarely resort to using their teeth. Most dog bites arise out of fear aggression. When a scared dog can’t get away, he resorts to biting to make the scary person or situation go away.

Normal dogs will have a smaller flight zone and tolerate other dogs approaching more closely before feeling anxious or moving away. But a fearful dog’s sensitive distance is much greater, and these dogs may attack if a perceived threat encroaches on that space. Scared dogs try to make themselves look small. Here are common signs of canine fear.

  • Displacement behaviors: licking or chewing themselves, sniffing, lip licking, and yawning
  • Vocalizations: growls and snarls mixed with whines or yelps
  • Body language: same as “anxiety signs” above, plus raised hackles (fur on back stands up), tucked tail (sometimes wagging), slicked back ears, rolling onto back, urinating
  • Fearfulness prompts increased heart and breathing rate, and scared dogs signal unease with yawns, pinning ears back, tucking tail, urinating or even defecating.

You may need professional help to learn how to defuse your dog’s fearful behavior. In some instances, behavioral medicines can help dogs take a “vacation” from fear so they are better able to learn how to deal with anxiety. Ask your veterinarian for the best options for your dog’s situation.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT