Biology of Fear: What It Does To A Dog | Language of Dog Fear Part 2
In this three part series, I am discussing something that every dog owner struggles to understand: The Language of Dog Fear. Dogs can't decide what they're afraid of, fear is an inherent response, and sometimes things that we're totally cool with surprises us with how afraid it can make our beloved furry family members. You can read part 1 here. What's more is that fear can have detrimental effects on our dogs' health if left unmanaged long-term.
The Purpose Of Fear
Fear is designed to keep us safe. It's built into our nervous system, and sends stress signals to our brain that says "Danger present! Do something to make it go away!" And you know what it is that we usually do? One of three things: fight, flight, or freeze and how we respond is determined physiologically, or by how close the danger is to us. For example:
- An animal sees danger far off and may freeze until danger has passed, because the probability of escape is high.
- As danger gets closer, though, a flight response is triggered. (Fear is increased, SCREAMING at the animal to do something to make the danger go away.)
- And in some animals, when escape is no longer an option, the fight response is triggered.
Fear Is Stress
The fight & flight responses are hypertension and a freeze response is hypotension, all with a neuroendocrine response.
Um...what does that mean? You just got science-y on us, Tasha.
Let me make it a bit clearer, because I get it. I Google definitions lots when I am learning things. Haha!
Hypertension = high blood pressure
Hypotension = low blood pressure
Neuroendocrine response = the interaction between your nervous system and your hormones
When the fight or flight response takes over, a whole bunch of stuff happens in the body. Your body is programmed to not eat, drink, be social, not even fight disease when fear is this strong; it's all about survival. Adrenaline & cortisol is being pumped throughout your body, and remember cortisol is the stress hormone that has been shown to have several negative health effects.
- Long term exposure to fear can make dogs sick because everything else is shutdown.
- Dogs will have lowered immunity and poor digestion, among other things.
- It takes 2 days or more to recover from cortisol being spread throughout your system.
Why Positivity Is So Important
Unfortunately, cortisol and adrenaline aren't the only things that are happening inside the body that make our job as Pawsitive Pals difficult. There's this other hormone that really knows how to mess with our poor pets heads, called epinephrine.
In nature, this hormone makes sense to an animal's survival, and is incredibly important, actually. But for our pets, what happens is when they're afraid the epinephrine hormone is released and it's job is to help encode strong associative memories. These memories can be good or traumatic, and be directed at anything present during the fear experience.
Yup, that means that your dog or cat can be triggered to feel the same kind of fear as that initial experience. It's encoded, to help ensure their survival, thanks to fear. However, that's also why we can change fear when introducing positive things to turn a fearful situation into a good situation. That's what we'll be covering in part 3.
Cheers + Wags!