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Your Dog's Brain, Fear and Stress

When a dog is reacting from their Limbic System they are not thinking, this is not the time to ask your dog to ‘sit’, ‘lie down’ or ‘play nice’.

As Rudi walked from his owner's car to the training area, I could see his stress and the fear he was living with. Ears back, closed mouth and a low tail, his whole appearance told me that he wanted to run and find safety. During the session Rudi began to relax, but any movement that he caught from the corner of his eye, prompted him to bark. However, once Rudi had had chance to assess what was actually happening and that he was under no real threat he could go back to his training games. From my experience if Rudi had needed to watch, bark at and defend himself from a threat he would not have been able to make the decision to return to his games. As Rudi could switch from one emotional state to the other, we could talk about his experience of 'immediate fear', an in the moment fear that triggers instinctive behaviours. Fear and stress are adaptive emotional states that help dogs to survive and thrive. Some stress is necessary to keep dog’s functioning, sharp and alert and in moderation will help them learn how to cope with their living conditions. Fear is protective, it is designed to help keep a dog alive. Fear is hard-wired into your dog, causing your dog’s brain and body to react to situations that are experienced as dangerous or life-threatening. Problems arise when these natural emotional states become chronic, continue for a long time, and your dog begins reacting to situations that are unlikely to be life-threatening.

Like us dogs have a limbic system, and it is key to survival, allowing the brain to bypass the rational, thoughtful but slower areas. When your dog’s brain is screaming ‘Danger! Respond! the brain chooses a path that begins from catching a movement out of the corner of your eye taking them to barking, lunging, or running away. This path is a super-fast highway that allows for quick reaction, and most dogs have been bred to be superbly fast reactors.

The Limbic System controls things like a dog’s desire to mate, hunger, addictions, emotions, anger, happiness, motivation, and fear of danger. Dogs don’t need to learn the things the Limbic System controls. You didn’t need to teach your dog to be stressed by sensations of hunger or thirst, or to bolt for cover when they feel scared.

Your dog’s Limbic System evolved to keep them alive with instinctive reactions, it has a powerful influence over behaviour. The fear response is always alert, always ready to be triggered. Like us dogs are primed to go into fear.

We need to remember that almost everything that happens in this part of a dog’s brain, their behavioural reactions, responses and impulses is unconscious to them. A part of the brain that was formed before they were born. A survival system that is as old as the first canids. Unfortunately, many of these instincts are not suited to modern life, particularly modern life in a City. An inbuilt fear of a loud bang may have kept a dog alive in the countryside, when the source could have been a gunshot, but when a dog’s Limbic System reacts to car doors closing or wheelie bin lids dropping in the same way, everyday life can be difficult.


The dog’s Limbic System isn’t only about negative or dangerous things, it is also involved when our dogs feel happy. The Limbic System is activated when our dogs are doing things they enjoy, this is important because they make the dog want to repeat the activity. This is useful when the activity helped our ancestors to hunt, farm, and protect. The desire to carry out these breed typical behaviours still exist in the modern dog, and like the fear instincts they aren’t always suited to urban life. The Retrievers that needed to enjoy using their mouths for carrying game can be the problem ‘bitey’ puppy. The Border Collie that needed to control movement for managing stock can be the problem ‘traffic chaser’. We need to be careful what breed typical behaviours are being strengthened in young dogs and find safe alternatives that allow a dog to express their innate behaviours.

The limbic system comprises:

Thalamus – a sort of relay station, directing incoming information to the appropriate part of the brain for further processing.

Hypothalamus – together with the pituitary gland, constantly adjusts the body to keep it optimally adapted to the environment.

Hippocampus – essential for laying down of long-term memory.

Amygdala – in front of the hippocampus, is the place where fear is registered and generated.

The physiology of fear and stress

When a threat is perceived as an external stressor the hypothalamus responds by stimulating the body to produce hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.

Because we cannot have a conversation with dogs and rationally explain our world to them, it is important that we open our minds to what they may consider a stressor. We know that the man who visits our house regularly intends no harm, but to our rescued dog who has had limited exposure to men when young, he is a threat. Other threats reported are:

  • High visibility clothing

  • Car headlights at night

  • Heavy Goods Vehicles, motorbikes or buses

  • Brooms, umbrellas, stick

  • People wearing hats

  • Balloons

If your dog reacts to any sound, object, or person with anxiety, then it is important that you take it seriously, no matter how silly it may seem in your human experience or how embarrassed you feel by your dog’s behaviour.

Protect your dog from the situation by removing them to a safe space, this allows their ‘thinking brain’, pre frontal cortex to kick in.

When a dog is reacting from their Limbic System they are not thinking, this is not the time to ask your dog to ‘sit’, ‘lie down’ or ‘play nice’.

Before your dog can respond to your taught cues, they need to feel safe. Create safety for your dog as a priority.

Signs that may indicate your dog is chronically stressed or fearful:

  • The anxiety continues past the stressful event. After an evening of fireworks one would expect a dog to be behaving as usual by the end of the next day.

  • The anxiety gets in the way of normal activities, refusing to go out for walks, playing less often, eating less, stereotypical behaviours such as digging or foot chewing that prevent a dog from resting or causes damage to their bodies.

What can you do?

Foundations of emotional health are:

Diet and nutrition


Play and exercise

Diet – do your research, seek advice if you need to, and feed the highest quality food you can afford

Sleep – is your dog getting good quality sleep? Are you, your neighbours or other animals disturbing them?

Pain – many dogs live with undiagnosed pain, don’t wait for the limp! Talk to your vet and seek second opinions from physios and other specialists.

Contact your vet – there are many products and/or medications available that can help.

Create a safe space for your dog – for some dogs this will be anywhere within the house, or a particular room, crate, garden, or car.

Provide aerobic exercise – if your dog enjoys the company of other dogs then a play session may suit, or for those that need more space, rent a secure dog run. Unless you have a small dog or you jog with your dog, then an onlead walk is unlikely to raise your dog’s heartbeat enough to be aerobic.

Provide decompression walks – on lead walks are opportunities for your dog to decompress with assessment, scenting and being with you. Choose a quiet spot and allow your dog to sniff and scent.

Play with your dog – play is great exercise, provides learning and something positive for a dog to focus on.

Provide something to chew or lick – both chewing and licking are normal dog behaviours that help dogs settle and soothe themselves.

Take part in a positive training activity – I have found agility and hoopers training to be helpful for some of my fearful dogs, scent work has also been very effective.

Avoid comparison – comparing your dog to other dogs, or yourself to other dog owners is rarely helpful. Every dog, every owner and every living situation is different, and should be treated as such.

To sum up

Trust your dog – if your dog is showing signs of fear or distress, take them seriously, remove them to a place of safety and use some of the above techniques.

Be patient – it can take time and an integrated approach to help dogs that are chronically stressed. Use a diary, video or photographs, to track your progress.

Ask for help – get in touch via the contact forms on my website

This article can also be watched as a video

Coming soon! Sensitive Souls courses are returning. Group or private courses available. Drop me a line to reserve your space.

Can I help?

Think your dog might be struggling with fear or stress, a 1:1 session would give us time to talk about what is happening and put some tailored strategies into place. work-with-me

Not sure if a 1:1 is for you, get in touch to discuss further

For a supportive group of people and more hints and tips join our Facebook Group, The Dog Learning Space

If you are the owner of a rescue dog and want to learn how to build an amazing relationship with them, then my online course could be the perfect learning resource for you.

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