Fearful Fido? Know the Signs of Dog Fear, Anxiety, and Stress (FAS)

June is Pet Anxiety Awareness Month. Do you have a fearful Fido? Do you need help with the fireworks and loud thunderstorms happening this time of year that makes dogs scared? It seems silly, but some dogs feel stress when their human wears a hat! I wanted to share some resources for recognizing and understanding signs of canine fear, anxiety, and stress.

While it’s normal for dogs to be cautious and not run head on into traffic, too much stress and anxiety isn’t healthy. Fear, anxiety, and stress (FAS) also affect the immune system, impacting both physical and emotional health.

dog fearCauses of Fear, Anxiety, and Stress in Dogs

Up to 20 percent of dogs will be born prone to introversion and fear. 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 scary event like thunder or fireworks. When a panic attack happens, the dog stops thinking, and simply reacts. One study showed that 87 percent of thunderstorm-fearful dogs also suffered from separation anxiety, and some behaviorists estimate up to 20 percent of separating anxiety dogs also suffer from noise phobias.

If your pet has fear, anxiety, or stress issues while visiting the veterinarian, here are some tips to help.

fireworks fears, scared dog

Recognizing Signs of FAS in Dogs

It’s important to recognize signs of 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 are a gradient, with some dogs exhibiting only one or two behaviors while others display a whole spectrum of signs. These include:

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

scared dog

Signs of Separation Behaviors in Dogs

About 14 percent of pet dogs seen in veterinary hospitals in the U.S. suffer from separation anxiety or separation distress behaviors. Mixed breeds and dogs adopted from shelters or the streets are most commonly affected. Also, aging dogs (10 years and older), or puppies adopted prior to eight weeks of age are more prone.

Some dogs show no signs until after you’re gone. Others act distressed when putting on your coat or picking up car keys cues your departure. These dogs follow you about the house, whine, pant or become immobile (freeze) and become increasingly distraught as you prepare to leave. More common behaviors include:

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

Cats also suffer from separation distress behaviors. Learn about feline “stranger danger” and what to do about it in this post.

Learn more about separation anxiety and behaviors from a veterinary specialist on the topic at this excellent expert resource.

Signs of Canine Fear, and Fear Aggression in Dogs

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 generally tolerate others approaching as close as 1-1/2 dog length (their own length) before feeling anxious. But a fearful dog’s sensitive distance is much greater, and these dogs may attack if a perceived threat enroaches that space. Scared dogs try to make themselves look small. Here are common signs of canine fear. Refer to this post on the tragedy of dogfighting for more information. 

  • 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.

Seeking Professional Help

You may need professional help to learn how to diffuse your dog’s fearful behavior. In some instances, veterinary drug therapy helps dogs take a “vacation” from fear so they are better able to learn how to deal with anxiety. Be sure to ask your veterinarian for the best options for your pet’s situation. Read this post to figure how how to find a credentialed pet behavior professional.

This week I appeared with respected authorities on a panel discussing FAS, ways to recognize it, and help for dogs (refer to this post to help cats) suffering from these issues. Hey, pet parents also suffer when our beloved animal companions hurt–so there are tips for the humans, too. Here’s the replay:

The text portions of this post originally appeared in another form on the FearFreeHappyHomes.com site.

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