The concept of fear is universal and is a strong adaptive trait that helps in the continuation of a species. Fear, as you may know, is not limited to the human experience.
February 20, 2013

New Research Explains Why Your Dog May Be Fearful Or Anxious

Alan McStravick for — Your Universe Online

The concept of fear is universal and is a strong adaptive trait that helps in the continuation of a species. Fear, as you may know, is not limited to the human experience. And a new study shines a light on the fear response of dogs when presented with auditory stimuli.

However, there are several forms of fear to address when observing a companion animal. Typically, fear is the result of an instinctual feeling of apprehension to a specific situation, person or object that presents an external threat. This threat can be either real or perceived. The autonomic nervous system takes over in this situation, preparing the individual for the freeze, fight or flight syndrome. Often times, if your dog experiences an abnormal fear reaction, that reaction has been learned. With a persistent gradual exposure to the instigating incident, the behavior can eventually be unlearned.

If the fear is both persistent and excessive, your dog may actually be suffering from a phobia. Phobias, once experienced, can be triggered by any event that might share even an ancillary association to the instigating incident, such as phobias of loud noises brought on by a fear response to a thunderstorm. The most common phobias in dogs, in fact, are typically associated with noise.

Another fear response, anxiety, is typified as the anticipation of future dangers originating from unknown and even imagined origins. Anxiety in a dog can result in physiologic reactions such as urination or bowel movements, property destruction and excessive barking. In companion dogs, the most common anxiety is resultant from separation from their owner. Dogs suffering separation anxiety will exhibit excessive distress behaviors.

The onset of a fear, phobia or anxiety will develop as the animal reaches social maturity. Social maturity in dogs occurs between twelve and 36 months of age. Among the myriad causes for the development of a fear, phobia or anxieties are:

  • Any illness or painful physical condition that can increase anxiety and can contribute to the development of fears, phobias, and anxieties
  • Aging changes associated with nervous system changes; infectious disease (primarily viral infections in the central nervous system), and toxic conditions, such as lead poisoning, may lead to behavioral problems, including fears, phobias, and anxieties
  • Fear from a terrible experience; the dog may have been forced into an unfamiliar and frightening experience
  • Dogs that are deprived of social and environmental exposure until 14 weeks of age may become habitually fearful
  • Phobias and panic may mean the dog has a history of inability to escape or get away from the stimulus causing the phobia and panic, such as being locked in crate
  • Separation anxiety: history of abandonment, multiple owners, rehoming, or prior neglect is common; exacerbating the condition may be that the dog has been often abandoned or rehomed because of separation anxiety

A new study, commissioned by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) and conducted by an academic research team from the School of Veterinary Sciences at the University of Bristol, claims to have gained insight into domestic dogs and their fear responses associated specifically to noises. For the dog owners out there, the behavioral response by your pet to noises can be rather extreme in nature. This heightened fear response is both distressing for the pet owner and is also an issue of welfare for the dog.

The team believes their study, published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science, could lead to an improvement in our overall understanding of behavioral signs of both fear and anxiety in our dogs.

The team employed two data collection models for their study. The first relied upon results of a postal survey of dog owners intended to investigate general demographic factors. From these results, the researchers employed a structured interview of a sub-set of dog owners. The interviews allowed the team to collect much more detailed information not garnered from the postal survey.

The interview presented the researchers with data showing almost half of the dog owners reported their dog showed at least one behavioral sign typical of fear when their dog was exposed to noises such as fireworks, thunder and gunshots. This differed from the postal survey where only one quarter of respondents had reported their dog as being fearful of auditory stimuli.

The researchers say this suggests the dog owner is aware of their pet´s behavioral response to loud noises, but that they are unable to recognize this response as being one associated with a fear, phobia or anxiety. The team states this finding is important not only for understanding the awareness of a pet´s compromised welfare, but also for improving the methodology for the surveying of these behaviors.

A dog suffering from what is termed as a mild fear might exhibit signs that include trembling, a tucked tail, withdrawal or hiding, reduced activity and the employing of passive escape behaviors. Panic in a dog may lead them to a more active escape behavior combined with an increased and out-of-context increase in motor activity that could be potentially injurious to the animal. And anxiety in your dog might lead to your companion animal engaging in an excessive amount of licking and biting at itself.

For this study, the most commonly recognized behavioral signs included barking, trembling and shaking, hiding, and seeking safe companionship. The researchers believe the reason for the prevalence in reporting on trembling and shaking in a companion animal is because this trait is recognized as having similarity to a human response to fear.

The research team also recognized some fear responses might not be easily recognized by a pet owner. Whether it is a decrease in overall activity or increased salivation, most owners don´t necessarily associate these as fear responses and therefore do not report them when surveyed. Also, some fear responses, like urination and property destruction, typically anger or disappoint a pet owner. The owners´ reaction may act as an influence on their interpretation barring them from recognizing them as having originated from a fear response.

Dogs exhibiting a fear response to fireworks were most commonly reported to the researchers. However, fear responses to any loud noise, like fireworks, gunshots or thunder commonly co-occur. This suggests there may be a generalization on the part of the dog between salient stimuli.

An important distinction was made by the research team for the owner-reported fear of noises. They looked specifically at breed and found there were 12 breeds which were far less likely to exhibit a fear response to noise. Among these breeds were the popular gundog breeds like the Labrador, Cocker Spaniel and Springer Spaniel.

The team also looked at how the age of the animal affected their results. It has been noted as your pet ages and their thought processes, along with their mobility, are decreased, the onset of fear and anxiety can take hold.

Another area of study for the team involved the animal´s origin. They wanted to know if the dog had lived with the owner who bred them or if they had been purchased from a breeder by a second owner. Their findings support the notion that an early environment that mirrors the adulthood environment is far more advantageous to the animal.

As many of the fears experienced by dogs are learned at an early age, the findings suggest a dog´s early life experience is a very important factor in the development of fear responses to loud noises. Experts believe prevention of later onset fear responses are possible with dogs. Starting with a young dog, it is important to expose them to a variety of social situations and environments within the first 14 weeks of life. The same experts agree that a dog deprived of this exposure in the critical first 14 weeks may be more prone to developing a habitual fear response.

Speaking on behalf of the research team, Dr. Rachel Casey, European Specialist in Veterinary Behavioral Medicine and Senior Lecturer in Companion Animal Behavior and Welfare at Bristol University, said, “Our results suggest that the characteristics of dogs, in their early environment, and exposure to specific loud noises are involved in the development of fear responses to noises. Interestingly, less than a third of owners sought professional advice about treatment for their pet´s responses to noises.”

That pet owner´s seem ignorant to available assistance for Fido´s phobias, the researchers recommend a need for veterinary surgeons to actively increase awareness of treatment options among their patients´ owners. Not only are these treatments available, they are very effective in dealing with a dog´s fear of loud noises.

If you believe your dog is suffering from an unnecessary fear of auditory stimuli, it is suggested you visit your veterinarian who will want first to rule out other conditions that might be causing the behavior, such as brain or thyroid disease. Exposure to toxic substances might also play a role in your dogs fear response. A simple blood test will rule out or confirm such a possibility.

If the veterinarian arrives at a diagnosis of a simple fear, anxiety or phobia, your pet may only need a prescribed medication to alleviate their fear response. Your veterinarian, however, will most likely make a recommendation that takes into account your individual dog, the trigger associated with the fear response, and the types of behavioral techniques that might be employed in the alleviation of your dog´s fear and anxiety.

Some experts suggest, if the fear response is disruptive enough to the general health and well-being of your pet, that in the few days to weeks it may require for the medications to become effective, you might consider hospitalizing your pet. If you opt to care for your dog at home, it will be necessary to provide protection to them from self-inflicted physical injury until the dog begins to experience a more calm state. Home care during this process may require the arrangement of care for your dog while you are away from home, such as doggy day care or a dog-sitter.

Another important tool in helping your pet overcome their fears and phobias is the implementation of a behavior modification regime. This would require you to work with your dog to help it to learn to relax in a variety of environmental settings. It is important, say experts, to avoid reassuring gestures or communication while the animal is in the midst of a fear or panic attack. This is because the dog may interpret your well-meaning concern as a reward for the behavior they are experiencing and exhibiting. Instead, encourage calmness while consciously working to not reinforce the fear reaction. The most important point, according to animal experts, is to avoid punishment for your pet´s behavior related to fear, phobia or anxiety.

Employing desensitization and counter-conditioning has been found to be one of the most effective methods for treating fear. However, this method must be used very early on, when the fear response is relatively new. Desensitization involves exposing your animal, in repeated and controlled environments, to the stimulus that brings about the fear response. After several exposures, the goal is to minimize and eradicate the dog´s undesirable response to the stimulus.

The use of counter-conditioning is equally effective. Counter-conditioning involves training your dog to perform a positive behavior in place of the negative behavior. As an example, if you teach your dog to sit and stay, make certain to reward the behavior. This makes it easier, when your dog experiences a negative situation that might elicit an undesirable response, to have them sit and stay. The dog then recognizes the reward for their good behavior and begins to utilize the healthy response in place of the negative one.

There is no silver bullet when it comes to eradicating fear in your dog. If your veterinarian suggests medication, follow-up visits will be required so your vet can conduct occasional blood testing to ensure your pet´s blood levels remain in balance. Whichever form of treatment you opt for, it is important to understand the treatment for this condition is meant to be employed over the long term, possibly even years. One thing is certain, however. Our companion animals are very often seen as members of our family. With the new research on how to identify fear responses in your dog, the treatment of, and mindfulness for their well-being should be every pet owner´s top priority.