What happens within the dog's brain with fear, anxiety and reactivity
*Reactivity is the word used simply because it is known and understood by dog owners (guardians) and encompasses the behaviour of reacting to triggers and stimuli.
Fear and anxiety are misunderstood when it comes to dogs as a species. It can look and sound like aggression and there is little information still today on the mechanics of the complex machine which is the dog's brain which attributes to the dogs behaviour.
When a dog reacts to a trigger such as another dog, traffic, people, elements that move the dog can be and is sometimes perceived as acting in a "disobedient" or "embarrassing" way. Negative experiences can also happen at home such as separation anxiety, a smoke alarm, the hoover, the microwave and of course fireworks and storms.
This is because the behaviour and the dog's emotions are simply misunderstood.
Dogs behave in a very similar way to humans without the social set ideologies of expected behaviour, they simply react in the rawest form, like a toddler. Which makes sense as they do have the brain capacity of a 2-5 year old child.
Dog's have big emotions and as a community "the dog community" has previously labelled these emotions as "reactive." This in itself is a huge umbrella term not just with reactivity being a form of perceived aggression but also hyper arousal because when dogs are in a state of arousal they have big emotions.
So let's try and break this down in a simple way and yes briefly, so all of the intricacies of the brain won't be described but important components that can help the understanding of the dog's brain will be used. References have been included for further and deeper reading and to evidence this blog.
The dog's brain is an entire system so although parts of the brain are described these are not the total parts of the brain as this will become a dissertation and not a brief blog.
The part of the dog's brain we will be looking at is the cerebral hemisphere and the limbic system.
The cerebrum and cerebral cortex are the main components of the brain we are looking at. The cerebral cortex is the problem solving and logical part of the brain which is responsible for learning and the cerebrum is the emotional centre of the brain.
The arousing experiences just spoken about become activated within the limbic system, this is when owners begin to see emotions such as barking and lunging or high arousal and hyperactivity and these are the behaviours sometimes seen as a bad behaviour from the dog.
The dog is unable to listen or follow cues because the limbic system (the big emotions) has now overridden the cortical system which we are referring to as the logical side of the brain.
This isn't because your dog doesn't want to listen to you and not because they don't want to follow cues and directions, just like when we humans are anxious, they simply cannot process what the owner is saying, their brain has entered an altered state.
This process begins with the amygdala (a very small part of the brain, next door to the hippocampus), when the amygdala perceives a threat (and as those of us with anxiety know, a threat doesn't have to make sense to anyone else) the amygdala sends signals via electrical pulses to the hypothalamus. The amygdala has now shut down and the rest of the brain is quickly processing the threat and trying to process how to respond physically controlling the body.
So not only is the brain buzzing with electrical impulses and the amygdala has now shut down but the adrenal glands are releasing a hormone which can cause rapid breathing, increased heart rate, blood pressure and blood flow.
But these are not the only hormones being released, there are also several other hormones being released: Cortisol made of glucose, fatty acids and amino acids causing a surge of energy.
Aldosterone which is responsible for regulating blood pressure and testosterone in both males and females (just like humans) and is preparing the dog for a need for aggression.
So here the brain and the body is going through a very high concentrated surge of energy and the body is under huge stress in retreating to the most primal instinct of being a predator with the ability to hunt or become prey like and escape. This is all very primal but also very real and something that both animals and humans have and have evolved with or conversely can be and has been described as "ultimate efficiency or eustress." Schloz & Von Reinhardt 2006
(Eustress is stress moderate or normal psychological stress not the same as distress which is extreme anxiety, sorrow or pain). Oxford Languages
So the brain and the body are in high energy and the brain is buzzing with information and emotions are regulating the brain and the dog's decisions now, not the logical side of the brain and the dog that you know that follows your cues and actively listens to you.
They aren't being bad or misbehaving, they are not in control of their brain, thought processes or next movements, emotions and we all know emotions are and have been the downfall of humans throughout history.
It can take around an hour for Cortisol to drop by half of the level it has been, but this is based on the dog not experiencing regular stress and anxiety.
A dog regularly experiencing stress and anxiety is going to take much longer, which brings us to trigger stacking and emotional buckets.
Again the dog community refers to levels of stress as trigger stacking or trigger stacked. This is a wonderful trigger stacking image from Grisha Stewart and Lili Chin which shows body language to look out for (attached below after the slideshow).
As mentioned above when there is trigger after trigger causing stress and fear to our dogs the risk of a bite to escape the situation is higher as is flooding (when a dog freezes and shuts down or appears compliant to escape a terrifying situation).
In repeated trigger situations it can take up to 72 hours for Cortisol to leave the system. M. Stuart Bass, 2020.
This is why we recommend 3-4 days of decompression to bring the Cortisol down as much as possible before exposing dogs to another stressful situation causing psychological and physiological distress.
As mentioned in the slideshow dogs can become susceptible to disease, physiological conditions if constantly exposed to stress, develop anxiety and or depression such as heart conditions, skin conditions, respiratory conditions, high blood pressure, kidney disease, stomach ulcers, gastric problems and more. This is not an exhaustive list and by no means is meant to be scary but to be informative to get your dog the help that they need medically.
Sleep is essential for dogs when they have had a negative experience, dogs require a lot of sleep for healthy brain functioning under normal circumstances. But with all of the energy that has been used and released within the body this can be exhausting for a dog.
The brain needs time to heal, not just the hippocampus but all of the parts of a dogs brain as we know that each part of the dog's brain no matter how small is super important.
Unlike humans, dogs will fall asleep straight away after a negative experience but their sleep patterns and quality of sleep is hindered by the negative experience. A. Kis et Al, 2017.
We know due to cortisol and the higher rates of release it can take several days for the cortisol levels to drop. Weitzman, Fukushima, Nogeire et al 1970.
We can begin to "Empty the emotional bucket" Tom Rath and Don Clinton, 2005.
Once your dog appears to be more alert, wanting to engage and seeming more like themselves, using enrichment is a great way to help them to stimulate the brain in a healthy way and enrichment mats such as Lickimats are soothing for anxious dogs.
Scentwork and sniffing can also be fantastic ways to help dog's to decompress such as Lickimats, snuffle mats, chews, destruction boxes, puzzle games, scatter feeding in the garden etc
As the days progress so days 2/3/4 you may find your dog maybe able to engage in play such as tug games and even some training games before going for a walk again.
Walks following a negative experience should be focused on decompression, going at their pace, letting them sniff and enjoying the benefits of a low pressure walk with lots of sniffing and relaxing to continue to heal the brain.
Remember your dog isn't giving you a hard time, they are having a hard time and this is a very delicate balance and process, so for their emotional wellbeing and the whole dog ensure that your dog is fully supported in being able to rest and heal after a negative experience.
R. Falconer-Taylor 2017, Durham, 2004 https://emotions-r-us.com/behaviour/pets-fear-and-fireworks-the-fallout-and-terrible-consequences-of-fear-and-anxiety-for-our-pets-part-2-beyond-fear-anxiety-disorders/#:~:text=Damage%20to%20the%20hippocampus%20by,and%20the%20amygdala%20for%20storage
Kersti Seksel, BVSc (Hons), MRCVS, MA (Hons), FACVSc, DACVB, DECAWBM, 2014 https://www.vin.com/apputil/content/defaultadv1.aspx?id=7054740&pid=12886
The behaviour hub 2020 https://www.thebehaviorhub.com/blog/2020/9/28/emotional-brain-limbic-system-barking-dog
Tom Rath Don Clinton, How full is your bucket, 2005.
M. Stuart Bass, 2020 https://www.tail-talk.co.uk/stress-in-dogs
Anna Kis, 2017 Sleep macrostructure is modulated by positive and negative social experience in adult pet dogs https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2017.1883
Weitzman, Fukushima, Nogeire et al ‘Twenty-four hour pattern of the episodic secretion of cortisol in normal subjects’. J Clin Endocrinol Metab, chapter:33, pages:14–22., 1970