Understanding Fear and Anxiety in Dogs

Many dogs we work with have varying degrees of anxiety and in case of certain breeds, it is quite disturbing to witness. For example, my favorite breed, the German Shepherd Dog is supposed to be unshockable by nature—based on the breed standard and origination. However, I work with many German Shepherd Dogs for this reason—they are fearful in some way. But fear isn't just rampant in German Shepherd Dogs. There is no dog breed unaffected in the United States. I recently worked with a Belgian Malinois, who bit people coming to the home out of fear—equally disturbing. Fear in dogs is the one most common challenges we are contacted for. The reasons for this fear epidemic in dogs are multifold but generally include one or multiple of these elements.

Causes of Fear in Dogs:
  • Separating a puppy from the mother too early—before 8 weeks.
  • Mismanagement of the fear phases during puppy development—there are two to three.
  • Poor breeding practices create genetically unsound dogs and psychologically fragile nerves.
  • Abadonment by the previous owners, ending up in a shelter and being rescued by a new family—the lucky ones.
  • Trauma and injuries from attacks by other dogs.
  • Lack of clarity about their environment, including the home.
  • Lack of understanding their collar and leash—especially if we regularly drag them closer towards things, when they are trying to tell us they are uncomfortable and we don't notice.
  • Interpreted obedience instead of literal obedience—that's a whole separate discussion.
  • Environmental stress—including having children, adding a pet, loosing a pet, moving, changing schedules, having less time to spend with your dog, dating someone new, and so on.
  • Failure to help dogs develop psychological strenght during puppy development and teaching stress management strategies.

The following list is not all-inclusive and the differences between these behaviors are somewhat fluid, so it would be incorrect to refer to these as types but we help many client dogs that …

Common Fear Symptoms in Dogs:
  • … are biting and/or attacking unfamilar vistors to the home or anyone who tries to touch them (incl. vets, groomers, and alike).
  • … are barking at unfamilar things and strangers without attacking.
  • … showing skittish behavior around unfamiliar things like hiding behind their owners or straining on the leash to get away.
  • … experiencing separation anxiety or containment phobia and as a result howl, bark, whine, self-mutilate, destroy the home, and so on.
  • … urinate out of anxiety when approached or surprised …
  • … tremble, shake, roll-over and/or shut down when confronted with stress of any kind.
  • … lie lethargic in place and suffer in silence when under duress—referred to as learned helplessness.

In this article I explain what goes on with your dog when it experiences fear and touch on some general concepts around buidling up your dog's confidence and increase its stress management skills.

Dogs have emotions. You will find places on the internet and dog trainers stuck in the 19th century, who claim otherwise but at this point it is a well-established biological fact that all mammals have emotions. If you are interested in exploring this in depth, I recommend the book Affective Neuroscience by Jaak Pankseep, 2004—a very technical but fascinating read. My explanations about the biological underpinings of fear are based on this book and also Behave by Robert M. Sapolski, 2017.

Understanding Fear on a Biological Level

Grossly simplified, we have three different brain layers, all of which evolved over time. The base layer is the evolutionary oldest brain layer and is present in all animals—including humans. The base layer is in charge of auto motor functions. When we are cold, shiver, and our body hair stands up, the base layer sent out the neurological signals to the body to cause this effect. Reptiles through mammals all have this brain layer—basically all non-plant life.

The next brain layer evolution produced is the emotional layer—which consists of a variety of emotional systems. It is present in all mammals: mice, horses, humans, dogs, and so on—all mammals have this brain layer and experience emotions. They are displayed to the outside world in different body language but all mammals experience it. So when we talk about fear in dogs, it is really not different from how humans experience fear. We may have a broader behavioral response repertoire, but the internal experience is pretty much the same. Understanding this, allows to better relate to our dog's experience under stress. Some emotional systems are more researched than others but we pretty much understand where in the brain the main emotional areas are located. We can attach electrodes to these areas and measure the brain activity for example during a fear experience or in turn (in Dr. Frankenstein's labratory) stimulate the fear center of a brain and the person or animal would tremble in fear for no other reason than the stimulation of that brain area. The main emotional systems we understand fairly well on the emotional positive side are: PLAY, CARE, and LUST —and on the emotional negative side: RAGE, PANIC and FEAR. In addition, there is another emotional system called SEEKING—more on that later. The emotional layer also communicates with the base layer. If an emotion should generate a physiological response in the body, the emotional layer delegates that to the base layer.

Animals do not have to learn to search their environment for items needed for survival; they are hard-wired to do so. Although, they do need to learn exactly when and how to search. In other words, the "seeking potential" is built into the brain but each animal must learn to direct its behaviors toward the opportunities that are available in the environment.

In addition, animals do not need to learn to experience and express fear, anger, pain, pleasure, joy, nor to play in simple rough-and-tumble ways, even though these processes are modified by learning. All these emotions are innately available from birth.

All behavior in mammals, at least from the moment of birth, is a mixture of innate and learned components. Studies suggest that approximately 50% of basic human behavior can be attributed to genetic factors, while about 50% can be attributed to learning.

A major opponent emotional process to the innate SEEKING impulses arises from a brain system that energizes the body to angrily defend its territory and resources; called the RAGE system.

Another brain system that appears to be central for generating a major form of trepidation that commonly leads to freezing and flight is called the FEAR system.

The brain system that generates feelings of loneliness and separation distress is called the PANIC system.

The third—and for now evolutionary highest—brain layer is the prefrontal cortex; the "executive functions" part of the neocortex. This layer is most developed in humans but many—not all—animals have it to some extend. Dogs have a prefrontal cortex, but it is smalled than in humans. This is the part of the brain where planning, goals and actions are handled. The human prefrontal cortex is the reason we have self-driving cars and monkeys don't. The neo-cortex also communicates with the emotional layer and the base layer.

So when a dog experiences any type and level of fear, it is because the neurons in the FEAR system of the emotional layer are firing on all cylinders.

The Seeking System

The four most well studied systems are an appetitive motivation SEEKING system, which helps elaborate energetic search and goal-directed behaviors; a RAGE system, which is especially easily aroused by thwarting frustrations; a FEAR system, which is designed to minimize the probability of bodily destruction; and a separation distress PANIC system, which is especially important in the elaboration of social emotional processes related to attachment. These four major emotional systems of the mammalian brain are referred to as "Blue-Ribbon, Grade A" emotions.

The SEEKING system is a coherently operating neuronal network that promotes a certain class of survival abilities. This system makes animals intensely interested in exploring their world and leads them to become excited when they are about to get what they desire. It eventually allows animals to find and eagerly anticipate the things they need for survival, including food, water, warmth, and their ultimate evolutionary survival need, sex. In other words, when fully aroused, it helps fill the mind with interest and motivates organisms to move their bodies effortlessly in search of the things they need, crave, and desire. In humans, this may be one of the main brain systems that generate and sustain curiosity, even for intellectual pursuits. This system is obviously quite efficient at facilitating learning, especially mastering information about where material resources are situated and the best way to obtain them.

From the behaviorist perspective, the incentive properties of a reward were traditionally defined in terms of attributes such as the quality, quantity, and delay of reward rather than in terms of any conception of what the nervous system experiences or undergoes when it is confronted by highly desirable objects.

An increasing number of studies measuring cellular activity, as well as dopamine release in the pathways now indicate that this system is especially highly tuned to stimuli that predict rewards, rather than to rewards themselves.

These systems are hard-wired in the brain and we measure and/or stimulate physically.

Emotional Systems

SEEKING system behaviors: forward locomotion, sniffing, investigating
FEAR system behaviors: freezing, flight, escape
PANIC system behaviors: agitation, distress vocalization, social contact
RAGE system behaviors: attack, biting, fighting

Negative and positive emotional systems are mutually exclusive. The distribution of activity between both sides always adds up to 100%. If the FEAR system in a dog is 20% active, a positive system like NURTURE can only be 80% active.

As the Seeking System turns on, it pulls the dog out of the negative emotional system and moves it to a positive emotional system. The goal is to turn off RAGE, FEAR and PANIC and turn on PLAY, CARE and LUST (or in case of training EAT is a better goal).

The SEEKING System can be activated in one of three ways:
  • Desire (for something good)
  • Expectation (of something good)
  • Novelty

The general approach of utulizing this understanding in training is to block negative emotions (not correcting them), encourage positive emotions and trigger SEEKING to help with the transition between the emotional states.

With repeated execution of this process the neurons in the brain areas of the negative emotions fire less frequently and as a result diminish, which makes these systems harder for the dog to access with enough repetitions. By encouraging the positive emotions, the neurons in those brain areas become more pronounced and those systems become easier to access. This process literally rebuilds the neural pathways and restructures the brain to seek positive emotions over negative ones, which arguably is a more natural, healthy brain state. With enough repetitions, the previous behaviors are extinguished, and a new 'positive' default activated.

Lowering your Dog's Stress Level is Step One

Obviously, by now it is clear that this is a gradual process and takes time. Also, dealing with the actual fear response is not the first step. The stimulation that causes your dog to act in a fearful manner is literally just the tip of the iceberg—referred to as trigger. When a dog is a afraid of skateboards and acts fearfully—including attacking the skateboard as a defensive measure—the skateboard is the trigger. However, there are many other components building up to the skateboard being that scary, which have nothing to do with the trigger itself. Dogs experience a significant amount of stress in their daily lives and we acknowledge stress in dogs in layers that stack upon each other and build up. If all the added stress becomes to much, your dog reaches its threashold and shows the fear-driven response. The Layered Stress Model by Chad Mackin describes this process in detail. You can read more about it in this blog post and/or listen to the corresponding podcast.

How we Help your Dog

Step by step we build up your dog's confidence and teach stress management skills to maneuver the world without fear.

The first step is gaining the dog's trust. Most dogs have been in a fearful state for quite a while, so trusting a stranger doesn't come easy—but it is a vital first step and we must take the time to do so—there are no shortcuts and moving forward without trust is doomed to failure. Also, overcoming a smaller stress event—like trusting us—will work towards building confidence to overcome larger stress events later.

Second, we lay a training foundation to help your dog be less stressed in general and be clearer about its place in your environment. We teach a clear communication system based on markers to increase clarify and change the relationship your dog has with its leash and collar from a confrontational restraint experience to understanding it as an informational communication tool. We usually also teach the additional foundational skills of relaxing on command and learning to seek out a safe space related to you in stress situations. Learning these foundational skills reduces stress.

Third, we build a stronger bond between you and your dog, where your dog learns to trust you more and understands that you got its back and will advocate for it when necessary.

By now your dog will already be much calmer and is able to handle more stress than before. At this stage it is possible for the fear reaction to have completely diminished as your dog is now more confident and may no longer feel threatened by what scared it initially. However, if your dog still reacts to the triggers, the reaction will be much milder and more manageable than initially.

Any remaining fear trigger reactivity will be addressed through faith in handler drills, counter-conditioning, desensitization and possibly guided exposure—also referred to as flooding. The reason we don't start with this step is that initially your dog is too stressed to be able to be successful this way. Too many trainers, want to jump straight to these strategies, which will cause too much stress on your dog to be successful. A gradual approach is much more effective, as it allows your dog to gain confidence at its optimal pace without being overwhelmed. Every successful step forward in dealing with something mildly stressful builds confidence in your dog and helps taking on bigger and bigger challenges.

We can help your dog be happier and healthier! Contact us here for an in-person consultation to discuss how we can help you best.

Based out of Corona in Riverside County, we currently offer dog training and behavior modification in the following areas: Riverside County, Orange County, San Bernardino County, Los Angeles County and San Diego County.

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