Fear and Anxiety

Fear and anxiety are both emotional responses to aversive stimuli. Fear may be defined in terms of behavioural responses shown to actual danger, whilst anxiety is a state elicited in potentially threatening situations, which can range from simple novelty to situations where some elements of the environment predict a negative outcome. These are, critically, distinct emotions whose interaction and development require more detailed description than is possible here. Whilst fear and anxiety are adaptive, enabling avoidance of an immediate or anticipated threatening stimulus, they are negative emotional states and if experienced frequently in situations which the dog can neither predict nor control, will induce associated stress responses, with serious implications for welfare.

An experienced observer of dog behaviour only needs to take a walk through a park to notice many dogs displaying frequent signs of fear and anxiety. Social fears, both of humans and other dogs, are commonly presented at behavioural clinics, and a recent study confirmed that behavioural signs of fear on exposure to noises are a common, underreported, and significant welfare concern for pet dogs. Almost half of owners interviewed reported that their dog showed at least one behavioural sign typical of fear when exposed to noises, even though only a quarter had reported their dog was ‘fearful’ in a more general survey. This discrepancy indicates that even when owners recognise behavioural responses, they may not interpret these as associated with an altered subjective state, and hence a welfare concern in their dog. Not only is psychological well-being affected by perpetual fear and/or anxiety, but so is the dog’s behaviour. For example, working dogs’ ability to carry out their trained task can be detrimentally affected by fear, and this is also a common reason for guide dog failure. Fearful dogs have an impaired ability to learn during an operant task, and those described to have anxiety related disorders take longer to solve a problem solving task: both may be contributing factors to reduced performance in working dogs.

High levels of fear and anxiety can also be an issue even when considering a health-centred approach, since they can lead to immune-suppression, which in other species has been linked to increased disease risk. Notably, a recent retrospective study of 721 dogs found that how ‘‘well-behaved’’ an owner perceived their dog to be was significantly predictive of greater than average lifespan. This link was not due to owners euthanizing disobedient dogs, nor was it linked to specific diseases. When major factors such as weight and neuter status were controlled for, stranger-directed fear independently and significantly predicted decreased lifespan. Dogs showing extreme nonsocial fear also tended to have more skin problems and to exhibit higher levels of ‘‘separation anxiety’’. The author suggested that a lifetime of stress may take its toll on a dog’s body at a molecular level, causing accelerated aging of cells and earlier death from a number of causes. Although this is single study and the mechanisms behind these effects are unproven, it shows that living with fear and/ or anxiety can negatively affect health and lifespan, highlighting the interplay between physical and psychological well-being. Importantly, it also highlights how issues previously ignored due to their irrelevance to one approach to welfare (e.g. health) can gain new importance in the light of new research.

One may wonder why so many dogs are fearful. A dog’s ability to cope with environmental stressors is affected by a combination of their individual personality, early rearing environment, and later experiences. Fearfulness is one dimension of personality repeatedly seen to be heritable. Hence, by actively selecting predominantly for appearance, selection pressure may have neglected to select against fearfulness, or even inadvertently selected fearful lines. Among environmental factors, gradual, calm, and rewarding introduction to potential fear-inducing stimuli during sensitive periods of learning is well known to reduce the risk of fears and anxiety developing. Thus another important contributing factor to common fear is the number of dogs that are incompletely or inappropriately ‘‘socialised’’ (introduced to a range of stimuli, environments, people, and other animals) during puppyhood. This is exemplified by a study of ex-puppy-farm breeding stock, with limited environmental exposure, which showed significantly higher levels of social and non social fear when compared to a matched sample of companion dogs. Furthermore, offspring from such establishments sold in pet shops showed less desirable behaviour than dogs procured from ‘‘non-commercial breeders’’. A third reason is the wide ranging and generally poor ability of humans to interpret canine signs, even amongst those living and working with dogs. Hence, although people may be able to interpret dogs’ facial expressions many owners mislabel, misinterpret, and fail to notice other visual signals and stress-induced behaviours shown by their own dog. Thus even though many dogs that have developed fears can be helped using techniques such as densitization and counter-conditioning, a lack of recognition of the signs of fear means that dogs which are referred to qualified clinicians remain a small proportion of those which suffer.