are emotional reflexes! They are not consious choices.
Fear and Anxiety Disorders
Dogs who are genetically predisposed to anxiety live in a more pessimistic world compared to dogs whose brains are wired to see the situation for what it is. Anxious dogs perceive a threat that is not there or is not a true threat to their life. As a result, their responses are exaggerated and out of context.
A dog’s brain takes in information via six senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste and the pheromone sense through a special organ on the roof of their mouth. When these senses trigger fear or anxiety in the dog’s brain, the “Fight/Flight” pathway is activated.
Fear and anxiety are emotional reflexes!
Both are the fastest pathways in the brain that do not use conscious thinking processes. It uses the part of the brain called amygdala which is geared to activate a chain of chemical reactions in the body to prepare the dog for survival.
Fear and anxiety ultimately trigger the same chemical pathway in the body. The difference is that fear is an emotion where there is an immediate threat (real or perceived). Anxiety is an emotion where there is an anticipation of a fearful experience.
Both fear and anxiety are normal emotional responses in situations where there is a real threat (i.e. fear) or a potential for a real threat (i.e. anxiety). However, when the brain perceives a situation to be a threat that does not cause pain or harm to the animal, this is when we consider the exaggerated emotional reflex to be out of context.
The chemical cortisol triggered by the “fight-flight” response chemically blocks brain connections to the cortex i.e. the “thinking part” of the brain. As a result, the dog’s cortex is unable to play a part in communicating back to the “fight-flight” part of the brain that the threat isn’t real and that the dog can just relax.
The brain is just another muscle! The more we allow a dog’s “fight-flight” response to be activated, the larger the amygdala part of the brain muscle grows. We then see dogs with chronic activation of their anxiety response who develop a stronger and faster physiologic stress response.
Especially when the dog reaches social maturity, between 1.5 and three years of age, the defensive or offensive anxiety responses become more pronounced. This increase in behaviour challenges occurs due to the fear-learning process in the growing amygdala and explains why untreated anxiety disorders progress over time.
As an example, we should remember that just like us, dogs try to find their owner ways of coping with their anxiety. So they develop behavioural displays which are unproductive (e.g. constant barking or pacing) and sometimes dangerous (e.g. aggression) to help reduce their stress levels. Unfortunately, because the underlying anxiety disorder is often untreated, the dog continues experiencing chronic cumulative stress.
Cumulative stress is harmful to the body and mind. Many dogs with chronic anxiety suffer from skin and gastrointestinal disorders parallel to the anxiety. If the medical conditions are unmanaged, they can then cause pain and discomfort, driving the circle of the stress response.
Long lasting cortisol release, from chronic anxiety, actually kills off the brain cells in the “memory centre” of the brain: the hippocampus. Therefore, it is not surprising to find that dogs who are chronically stressed are unable to learn and remember appropriate and desirable coping strategies.
As veterinarians, we commonly notice dogs who might seem to “know” what they should do but just cannot do it in the moment of stress. A great example is a dog who can sit easily and reliably at home, but when at the vet, owners are often frustrated because their dog “won’t listen” or is being “stubborn” as they ask it to “sit” on the scales.
Remember: when a dog is stressed, they cannot think clearly or remember well. It is not that they refuse to listen, their brain just cannot do it! So try to see it from the dog’s perspective, be patient and calm, then use a high-value treat to guide them through the challenging task.