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Can Dogs Feel Fear?
Have you ever come across your dog barking randomly at nothing? Shaking and cowering in the corner at a thunderstorm? Hiding under your bed or in the bathtub after hearing a loud noise? While many dog owners have experienced what they think is fear in their dog, some of us have also wondered whether or not dogs are actually capable of feeling an emotion like fear.
As much as we love our furry friends, they're still not human, so how much of our characteristics, including the ability to feel fear, anxiety, alarm, or terror, do our dogs actually have? If our dogs feel fear, is there anything we can do to help alleviate or prevent it?
Unfortunately, to the first, dogs actually can feel fear. But there's a plus side to that - it means that our dogs can feel other emotions, like love, as well! And further still, there's luckily a lot we can do to help our dog when they're freaked out, as well as preventative measures we can take to keep our dog happy, healthy, and unafraid!
Signs Your Dog Is Feeling Fear
Many things can set your pup off and make them afraid. Unfortunately for us, our dogs have not yet learned how to communicate with us through speech. While many of us may hope that is soon on the way (picture Doug, from Up!), there is a way we can converse with our dog while we're waiting for that technology - and that is through their body language and behaviors. We notice this kind of stuff every day without even realizing it - a happy dog wags its tail and jumps up on us; a sad pup may put their tail between their legs and cower.
An afraid dog, on the other hand, has different behavior characteristics. Science has actually shown that a dog can feel two emotions relating to fear - fear leading to aggression, or fear which leads to distress. Sometimes a dog that's afraid or uncomfortable may lash out at you or the object causing them fear. It's important to note the following characteristics before your dog hurts themselves or anyone else.
These include, but aren't limited to: a lowered body with raised hackles (or hairs), tail tucked with little to no movement, ears flat against their head with their lips pulled back to show their teeth, a wrinkled nose, and curled lips. According to vets and dog behavior specialists, "this dog is frightened but is not submissive and may attack if pressed. A dog will generally give these signals when he is directly facing the individual who is threatening him or her."
A dog feeling fear which leads to distress exhibits different signs. Similar to an aggressively afraid dog, their tails will be down, their ears will be back, and their bodies lowered. Also look for dilated pupils and rapid breathing, as well as sweating through their paws. "These signals, however, are a general broadcast of his or her state of mind, and are not being specifically addressed to any other individual."
Other behaviors to look out for are a smooth forehead, very little eye contact, raised paws, and actually licking at the air! If your dog is truly terrified, they may even roll onto their back or avoid eye contact altogether.
How your dog shows and responds to fear depends on the breed, and there are many signs signaling their emotions. Basically, you just need to look out for a lowered body (or maybe even a dog on its back!), a tucked tail, and flat ears.
The Science Behind Your Dog's Fear
Depending on the breed and what is causing your pup's fear, your dog will react differently. The fact of the matter is that dogs feel a wide range of emotions, including love, shyness, joy, anger, disgust, excitement, distress, and fear.
Picture your dog as an average 2-year-old. Any emotion a toddler can feel, your dog can probably feel as well. According to studies, fear in pups is usually brought about by a scary sound or a stressful situation, such as a new environment, meeting too many dogs (that may be aggressive), and more. "The amount of fear a dog experiences depends on how it was raised and individual personality."
Studies have shown that there are a number of things that commonly cause fear in many dogs. One that many of us may have experienced is thunder. Many dogs during a thunderstorm will go to a place they feel safest because that noise is loud and they don't know where it's coming from! Similarly, for the exact same reasons, many dogs are afraid of fireworks and the noise and light that they bring.
Training Your Dog to Cope With Fear
Unfortunately, there's nothing we can do to train our dogs not to feel fear. That's like saying you can train a human not to feel fear! If something freaks out your dog, they're simply going to act afraid. Luckily though, there's a lot of things we can do as owners to help our dogs cope with fear - so they can return as quickly as possible to their happy, lovable, and unafraid selves!
For one thing, it's important that you act calmly when your dog seems freaked out. Dogs look to us not only for love and entertainment but also for our reactions as well! If they see that you aren't afraid of whatever seems to be scaring them, it may be enough to calm your pup down. So, make sure that if your dog is acting skittish or nervous, you remain calm to show them that there's really nothing to be afraid of!
How you can help your pup during times of fear also depends on what exactly they're afraid of. For example, if it's something you can't change, like a new home, new partner, or new friend, it's going to take some patience. You obviously aren't going to get rid of your new house or friend because they scare your dog, but you also have to understand that your dog may not understand these new things! So show some patience when it comes to things like this, and make sure to encourage positive behavior with treats and pets!
For things like thunderstorms, we're lucky in that we know that the storm and loud noises end soon, but your dog may not! Show your dog some love during these times - you can sit with them in places that make them feel comfortable, petting them and talking them through whatever loud noises are scaring them. While they may not be able to understand what you're saying, they will know you're there for them! You can also invest in something called a thundershirt, which you can put on your pup during storms. The pressure on their bodies from the tight material can sometimes make them feel more safe!
By Katherine McCormick
Published: 03/15/2018, edited: 04/06/2020
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