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Knowing how a dog acts when scared is important considering that the emotion of fear doesn't impact all dogs equally. 

Just because your dog isn't running away, doesn't mean that he's not fearful! There are dogs who manifest their fear in very subtle ways. 

Let's discover the different ways dogs manifest fear by taking a look at active fear and passive fear responses in dogs. 

What is Fear in Dogs?

Fear is a state of apprehension associated with a particular stimulus or event.

Fear is an in-the-moment response dogs may experience when they hear a sudden startling noise or when a bigger dog approaches them and gives signs of wanting to fight.

Fear may appear useless, but it is ultimately important for an animal's survival. Without it, entire species would be wiped-out from the face of earth. 

Imagine the catastrophic consequences if gazelle would have no fear of lions, cheetahs and crocodiles! Or if humans had no fear in crossing a busy highway with cars rushing at high speed!

Fear is therefore an adaptive response that's meant to aid an animal's safety and survival. The heightened state of awareness associated with fear and its amplified startle response can really make a difference between life and death.

How a dog reacts to fear may vary based on age, personality and the specific circumstance. 

How a dog reacts to fear may vary based on age, personality and the specific circumstance. 

Different Ways Dogs Act When Scared 

The ways dogs act when scared may vary from one dog to another. Such differences are due to factors such as individual personalities, age and past experiences. 

For instance, young dogs when exposed to something new and frightening may react with increased activity, when older dogs may respond in a more passive way. 

Dogs may also shift between different ways they react, going from one strategy and then to another. 

In general, the ways dogs act when scared can be categorized under two main categories: active fear and passive fear. 

Signs of Active Fear in Dogs 

Just like us, when dogs are scared, they release noradrenaline, adrenaline and cortisol.

These neurotransmitters and hormones cause a variety of physiological changes meant to provide a quick boost of energy in hopes of getting the dog quickly out of trouble and up his chances of survival.

Active fear in dogs encompasses a variety of reactions that share an increase in activity. As mentioned, these signs are often seen in young dogs, although dogs of any age can exhibit them. 

Following are some signs of active fear in dogs:

  • Startling 
  • Bolting
  • Pacing 
  • Running
  • Circling 
  • Digging to escape/ dig a burrow
  • Climbing over things
  • Barking
  • Acting aggressively (especially when cornered)
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Signs of Passive Fear in Dogs 

Sometimes, rather than increasing activity, dogs become passive. Even this response to fear is considered adaptive, considering that in the wild, upon spotting a threatening stimulus, remaining motionless allows the animal the opportunity to evaluate the situation and possibly, avoid detection from a predator considering that motion cues in a freezing animal are non-existent.

Passive fear in dogs encompasses a variety of reactions that therefore share a decrease in activity. As mentioned, these signs are often seen in older dogs, although dogs of any age can exhibit them if the situation warrants it.

Following are several signs of passive fear in dogs:

  • Freezing
  • Keeping the tail low or between the legs
  • Keeping the ears flat against the head
  • Cowering
  • Hiding 
  • Panting
  • Shaking 
  • Drooling
  • Yawning
  • Lip Licking 
Hiding is a passive way to confront fear 

Hiding is a passive way to confront fear 

The Fool Around Response

Sometimes, when dogs are scared, they may engage in behaviors that may seem out of context and can seem to make no sense. 

For example, at the vet's office a dog may start to act silly and in uncharacteristic ways in a desperate attempt to transfer the focus off of one situation and onto another. 

The fool around response may therefore include the following:

  • Jumping 
  • Performing play bows
  • Playing 
  • Acting over the top
  • Rolling on the ground 
  • Biting the leash in play

Difference Between Fear and Anxiety in Dogs

Did you know? Although the terms fear and anxiety are often used interchangeably they are quite different. 

Fear basically unfolds the moment the apprehension-eliciting stimulus or situation presents. It's an in-the-moment- emotion, meaning it takes place in the present-time. 

On the other hand, anxiety is a state of anticipatory apprehension and vigilance exhibited in the eventuality of a possible threatening event. Anticipatory apprehension can also be evoked as a memory of a past danger.

The threat is therefore not really present in the immediate present time, but anticipated. Fear is present tense, anxiety is future-based.

Often, dogs experience both anxiety and fear as it happens during thunderstorm. The changes in barometric pressure and darkening skies can trigger anxiety in the dog with signs of fear being in response to thunder sounds.

After the Fearful Event is Over 

The ultimate goal of the body to return to a state of normality, what is known as "homeostasis." After enduring an episode of acute stress, the dog's body will therefore work on reaching again a state of balance or equilibrium.

This is when we often see the dog "shakes off" the stress so to relax tight muscles as the breathing rate gradually goes back to normal and the heart rate finally slows down, resuming a state of normalcy.

However, what happens with dogs who are exposed to chronic stress? If the stress continues for some times, burnout may occur as the body starts getting exhausted and this can have negative effects on the body.

Intense and prolonged stress can affect the immune system and cause a host of problems such as skin disorders, digestive disorders and even shortened life spans, explains veterinary behaviorist Dr. Gary Landsberg. 

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