The Feeling of Fear

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I heard a trainer once say that when it comes to what dogs experience ‘we have all the theories, they have all the facts’. That may be true in regard to many things, but when it comes to experiencing fear, we have plenty of facts.


worried boxer dogWhat we do know about a dog’s brain is that it has much in common with our own brain, and the brains of other mammals, especially when it comes to fear. Few of us need to see the research documenting which parts of a dog’s brain are active when they are afraid, or that specific hormones are found in their bodies that occur when they (or we) are stressed, to agree that dogs feel fear. All we need to do is look at the dog.

Despite the fact that our own brains which allow us to take imagination and compassion to levels we believe other animals incapable of, we can be astoundingly callous when it comes to the emotional state of our pets. I am not sure why this is, I suspect that it has to do with the fact that as varied and sophisticated any animal’s ability to convey their fear is, from cowering to screaming, it can never match our own. That and a generous dose of self-centeredness likely contributes as well.

This was drummed home for me recently when I tried to explain to someone wanting to adopt a dog how terrified the dog would be if he were to be handed over to strangers and subjected to a long transport. The response to my concern was basically, ‘he’s going to be scared one way or another so just do it, he’ll get over it’. Had there been no alternative I might have understood this response (thought still would have found it insensitive), but I had offered an alternative which would not only spare the dog some of the stress, it would ultimately contribute to his success in his new home. My suggestion was declined because the person interested in the dog wanted him ‘right away’. I don’t think that this person was ‘bad’ or would not be a good pet owner, I understood that they did not comprehend the effects of fear and stress on dogs. And so what if he would get over it? Easy for us to say, we’re not the one living the nightmare.

It would go without saying that someone was being cruel and inhumane were they to subject a dog to physical suffering. You don’t have to look far to find rallying cries, and petitions, against people who starve or beat dogs. We seem to fail to connect the dots and see that emotional suffering IS physical suffering. Following are some of the signs of stress in humans. Some are directly applicable to dogs and obvious to us, others we can extrapolate and make the assumption that a dog could be experiencing similar responses.

Physical Signs of Stress

Fatigue
Nausea
Muscle tremors
Chest pain
Difficulty breathing
Elevated BP
Rapid heart rate
Thirst
Headaches
Visual difficulties
Vomiting
Weakness
Dizziness
Profuse sweating
Chills
Symptoms of shock

Cognitive Signs of Stress

Confusion
Poor attention
Poor decisions
Heightened or lowered awareness
Poor concentration
Memory problems
Hypervigilance
Difficulty identifying familiar objects or people
Increased or decreased awareness
Poor problem solving
Poor abstract thinking
Loss of time, place or personal orientation
Disturbed thinking
Nightmares

Emotional Signs of Stress

Anxiety
Grief
Severe panic
Emotional shock
Fear
Uncertainty
Loss of emotional control
Depression
Inappropriate emotional responses
Apprehension
Feeling overwhelmed
Intense anger
Irritability
Agitation

Behavioral Signs of Stress

Change in activity
Withdrawal
Emotional outbursts
Suspiciousness
Change in usual communication
Loss or increase in appetite
Inability to rest
Anti-social acts
Nonspecific bodily complaints
Hyper-alert to environment
Intensified startle reflex
Pacing
Erratic movement

Think about these signs the next time you find yourself interacting with a fearful dog. There’s only so much they can communicate to us by their behavior. But there’s always more we can understand by using our heads.
[dcs_head top=”0″ color=”#666666″] [/dcs_head] For more information about the most effective and humane ways to work with fearful dogs please visit the Fearfuldogs.com website.

3 thoughts on “The Feeling of Fear”

  1. while i agree that too many people don’t understand that emotional suffering is physical suffering, i also think far too many people misinterpret many of the signs of stress. most people i know attribute many of these symptoms to ‘high energy’, ‘untrained’, ‘disobedient’ , ‘dominant’ or even ‘spoiled’ dogs.
    and i think that this lack of understanding is what leads to what may look like callous uncaring on our parts.
    i do believe that education leads to compassion, so thank you for this post and for enumerating common signs of stress.

    Reply

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