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Fear and anxiety are terms that are often used interchangeably, but they are actually words that have a different meaning when it comes to dogs and people is general.

 While both can generate similar physiological responses, a closer look reveals that the dynamics are a tad bit different and may occur in different contexts.

For example, Bella is a 5-year old Weimaraner that, the moment she notices her owner is putting on her shoes, she starts pacing and whining because she predicts her owner may be leaving soon. 

So is Bella, in the exact circumstance described above,  showing signs of fear or anxiety? Let's discover the answer, but learning more about these states of mind and them differentiating them. 

dog anxiety

Anxiety is about future events. 

What is Anxiety in Dogs?

Anxiety in dogs and people takes place in anticipation of a future event. 

Have you ever found yourself unable to sleep at the idea of a job interview or, if you dread flying, the thought of a future flight?

Well, dogs can feel this way too, only their anxiety may develop closer in time with the event, once they detect stimuli suggesting what's coming next.

Perhaps the most classical example of this is observed in dogs suffering from separation anxiety. 

These dogs are often hypervigilant and readily recognize subtle pre-departure cues before the owner even actually leaves the house.

Dogs suffering from separation anxiety will therefore start pacing, panting and whining at the mere sight of their owners putting on their makeup or changing their clothes.

 These cues therefore generate an increasing anxious state as these dogs anticipate their owner's departure.

In the same fashion, dogs who hate thunderstorms may start getting anxious as soon as they sense the first signs of an impending storm. 

These dogs may therefore start building up increasing levels of anxiety at the mere detection of increasing winds, darkening skies and even changes in barometric pressure. 

Owners of these anxious dogs often report that they no longer need to watch weather reports as their dogs have become quite reliable in detecting "rain-with-a-chance- of-thunderstorms" forecasts!

"Anxiety can be defined as the apprehensive anticipation of a threat."~Jon Bowen (BVetMed.), Sarah Heath

What's The Function of Anxiety?

Anxiety may seem like a useless state, especially when it's exhibited in anticipation of harmless events.

 Sure, for those anxious flyers out there, there are tiny chances that an airplane may plunge into the sea and crash, but statistics tell us that we're more likely to get injured or killed on our car ride to the airport, yet the curious fact is that we use our cars every day without giving it a second thought!

Whether it affects humans or dogs, anxiety though has a precise function: to prepare us in the eventuality of threats. 

The body will therefore produce a similar biological response as seen in actual fear. The heart rate and respiratory rate may increase and we may have trouble sleeping as our body becomes more alert as if to to fight or escape a threat.

Anxiety may seems like a waste of energy when it presents itself in anticipation of irrational fears, but under the right circumstances, anxiety may be helpful. 

Those folks who are anxious prior to an exam may find that their anxiety (when not too overwhelming!) makes them perform better. Back to dogs, anxiety may also turn out helpful (adaptive) some times.

Imagine a dog who wanders in the country and gets attacked by a black bear in front of a farm. The anxiety felt the next few days when walking nearby the farm may help him stay safe and avoid the area, or, should he still manage to make an unfortunate encounter, his alert state would hopefully help make a swift retreat. 

This state of anxiety despite the possible absence of a direct danger may therefore turn out helpful (adaptive) keeping him safe in the eventuality of another encounter.

"Anxiety is more of a future-focused emotion. Your body is putting you on alert for some possible future dangerous situation."~Alexander L. Chapman PhD, RPsych, Kim L. Gratz PhD, Matthew T. Tull, PhD

What is Fear in Dogs?

scared dog

Fear is "in the moment."

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

 Unlike anxiety, it's likely to take place the moment the fearful stimulus is presented or the moment the scary event unfolds.

Fear is therefore a more in-the-moment response you may experience when an off-leash dog starts barking at you and chasing you or when a stranger starts knocking at your door in the middle of the night.

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In dogs, fear may be felt when they hear a sudden startling noise or when a bigger dog approaches them and gives signs of wanting to fight.

When confronted with a fearful stimulus or event, the fearful reaction may vary between one animal and another based on individual factors and circumstances. Some dogs may decide to escape (flight), while other may choose to defend themselves (fight).

In addition, some others may just become paralyzed by fear and hope for the best (freeze) or engage in out-of-context behaviors (fiddle about) as a coping strategy.

"While a certain amount of anxiety or fear may be adaptive in some situations, an animal that experiences fear or anxiety frequently, especially if unable to safely escape from fear-inducing stimuli, will begin to suffer from stress and its effects."~ Valarie V. Tynes, DVM, DACVB

What is the Function of Fear?

Fear is 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!

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 make a difference between life and death.

Adaptive fear can be exhibited through direct exposure with a stimulus that an animal has an natural fear of, as in the case of gazelle running away from a lion or crocodile or moving away from a rampant fire.

The fear is also adaptive when animals react fearfully to exposure to a stimulus that has been associated with another stimulus they have a natural fear of. 

For example, gazelle that run away from the the noise of roaring (denoting presence of lions) or water moving (denoting presence of crocodiles) or the sight and smell of smoke (denoting presence of fire) are escaping despite not directly encountering the fearful stimulus.

"Fear is an adaptive emotional response to a specific event or situation that threatens to produce injury. The elicitation of fear activates animals physiologically and behaviorally for immediate emergency action appropriate to a situation. "~Steven Lindsay

A Roller Coaster Ride of Emotions

rollar coaster

As seen, fear is depicted as the onset of an emotional response geared towards the presence of a specific threatening stimulus or event.

 It takes place the moment the apprehension-eliciting stimulus or situation presents.

On the other hand, anxiety is a state of anticipatory apprehension and vigilance exhibited in the eventuality of a possible threatening event (there is no certainty that the owner will leave the house when he changes clothes or that a thunderstorm will pop up when the sky darkens, but the dog develops anticipatory anxiety regardless).

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

*Note: A word of clarification is warranted though when looking at these definitions: things can get a bit fuzzy when we say that gazelle show fear when they are exposed to the smell of smoke as this doesn't fit the definition of fear being exhibited in the presence of a specific threatening stimulus, as the fire (the specific threat) is not directly seen by the gazelle.

The Bottom Line 

To sum things up, a good way to think about the difference between anxiety and fear is to imagine being on a roller coaster ride. 

If you're like me, all sort of scary, paralyzing anticipatory thoughts may cross your mind before before being strapped in such as: "What if I am not properly strapped in well and I fall out? Or, "What if I feel like throwing up?"

Then, I'll have the big fear as I am approaching the edge of the hill and then descending it, with the heart pumping over 120 beats a minute and its asssociated big adrenaline rush. 

Then, as I get off the ride, well, alive and with my lunch still in my stomach, I feel like kissing the ground and think to myself "Phew! So glad it's all over! 

The below quote from the book "The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook for Anxiety" therefore offers a great explanation that's surely worth of remembering when thinking about the difference between anxiety and fear in dogs.

"Anxiety is what you experience as you get strapped into your seat and make it towards the first gigantic hill. Your anxiety may increase, peaking as you reach the top of the hill and experience that slight pause right before you drop. Fear is what you experience as you rush down that hill."~Alexander L. Chapman PhD, RPsych, Kim L. Gratz PhD, Matthew T. Tull, PhD.

Food for thought: Curse of blessing? Anxiety depends on the ability to anticipate. While this ability is present to a certain extent in animals (mostly, as a response to anticipatory cues that are close to the actual fearful event) it's highly refined in humans who have demonstrated a great ability to dig into past events and project in the future like no other other creature can.

We can therefore put this ability to work in productive ways making our lives better, but we can as easily turn it into something negative, worrying ourselves excessively over things, explains Joseph Ledoux , Professor of Science and Neural Science.

Human Versus Animal Anxiety


  • Behaviour Problems in Small Animals: Practical Advice for the Veterinary Team, By Jon Bowen (BVetMed.), Sarah Heath, Saunders Ltd.; 1 edition (6 Sept. 2001)
  • The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook for Anxiety: Breaking Free ...By Alexander Chapman, Kim Gratz, Matthew Tull, New Harbinger Publications; Workbook edition (November 3, 2011)
  • Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Etiology and Assessment of By Steve Lindsay, Iowa State University Press; 1st edition (2001)
  • The New York Times, Searching the Brain for the Roots of Fear, retrieved from the web on June 21st, 2016
  • DVM360, The physiologic effects of fear, retrieved from the web on June 21st, 2016

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