We can often hear a dogs described as “very fearful”. But before we start working, it’s crucial to clarify what is actually the problem and in what contexts is it present. The label of “fearfulness” actually covers 3 different problems, requiring different types of treatment protocols:
- fear/fear reactions
- generalized anxiety disorder
- phobia/panic disorder
Fear is a normal (adaptive) emotional response to a stimulus that the animal considers dangerous. A fear response starts the moment the animal notices the stimulus and it resolves once the stimulus is gone. Fear is a very important mechanism for all living beings because it helps us avoid dangers and aids our survival. For that reason, the so-called fear conditioning is especially strong and convincing the brain that something is not actually scary takes a lot of work.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
Animals suffering from GAD show signs of fear and anxiety all the time or nearly on the time – independent of the context and of the stimuli present. We can often see that the animal is constantly scanning the environment for triggers and vocalizing, the body language shows a lot of fear/tension (alert ears, tense body language, tail tucked in). These behaviors can become more intense in specific situations, but they tend to be present all the time.
A phobia is an exaggerated, abnormal (maladaptive) fear response, which is not proportional to the actual danger. Phobias cause extreme stress and they disrupt normal functioning of the organism (for example participation in social and exploratory behaviors). A a while signs of phobia can persist even after the trigger was removed. Especially in case of traumatic events, other stimuli associated with the trigger can also cause an onset of phobia.
One of the most important components of diagnosis is the dog’s behavior in the problem situation. Watch the video to see the difference between these three conditions!
Debra Horowitz and Daniel S. Mills (ed.), BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioural Medicine
Gary Landsberg (ed.), Behavior Problems of the Dog and Cat