Methods for Differentiating Fear and Frustration in Animals

October 3, 2018

Daniel Mills, BVSc, PhD, FRCVS, DECAWBM, professor of veterinary behavioral medicine at the University of Lincoln, explains how to differentiate between fear and frustration—and instances where the 2 interact.

Daniel Mills, BVSc, PhD, FRCVS, DECAWBM, professor of veterinary behavioral medicine at the University of Lincoln, explains how to differentiate between fear and frustration—and instances where the 2 interact.

“There's a variety of methods that are used for making the distinction because over the last 20 years we've been developing a system. One of the dangers is that as clinicians we get into the habit of thinking about a diagnosis and actually confirming that diagnosis, whereas a more scientific approach is to think about your differentials and make sure that you've fully excluded the competing. Now the fear and frustration can interact, so it's not a question of one or the other, but there are 4 lines of evidence that we suggest that you need to use. The first one relates to the context of the situation. Is the stimulus that's triggering the response compatible with that emotion? So in the case of fear, it has to be something that could be potentially perceived as threatening to the dog. In the case of frustration it has to be a reduction in the animal's autonomy or control, which could mean anything from restraint, barriers to rewards, getting less than you expect. And actually the way the brain works, crossing territorial boundaries, crossing personal boundaries, or actually touching the animal all trigger the same emotional response. So that's the first level that you look at.

The second is we look at the arousal level and in both fear and frustration they involve an increase in arousal typically but in the case of frustration it should be very closely linked to the actual barrier to what the animal wants. And then the third line that we look for is the behavioral changes in general what is the animal's full repertoire behavior telling us. So rather than just looking at a specific behavior, we have to think about all the behaviors the animal is showing in that situation and think what is the goal? Because the emotions basically set the strategies of what you want to achieve. So in the case of frustration, actually what you see is a narrowing of focus and a greater concentration on the resource, if it's over a resource that the animals trying to get. And whereas in fear what you see is the animal focused on escape and self-preservation. So the behavior should all fit within that.

Now, to give you an example of when the 2 can interact, if an animal is trying to escape to safety but there is no safety then it's going to show fear and then it's going to show frustration. Now from a clinical point of view, you then have to think about well what do I do by treatment? Do I want to treat the animals fear or don't want to provide it with a safe place? And sometimes it might be a lot easier just to provide the animal with something like a safe haven that it can go to or perhaps look at the relationship between the owner and the dog and improve that so that the dog goes to the owner. So it's OK for the animal to be scared, but it knows that it's in control of the situation because it's got somewhere safe to go, in which case as I said, what you're doing is you're treating the frustration rather than the fear. Because some of the treatment programs for treating fears actually go very difficult for owners to implement. So you have to evaluate every case. What's in the best interest of the owner, the pet, and obviously in a risk assessment.

And then the final area that we look at for differentiating fear and frustration are the communicative signals. And we've been doing a lot of work actually starting to tease out using an adaptation of a human system called the facial action coding system, where rather than describing facial postures, what you do is you consider all the underlying musculature and which muscles are actually contracting at any given time. And using that approach we're starting to be able to differentiate these emotional expressions. So for example, a dog that is frustrated one of the common characteristics that you see is actually a parting of the ears—they sort of start to get broader across the head and that's something you see much more of when the dog is frustrated. With fear, actually what you see is more panting and measures like that. Things like the years going back, which a lot of people think are sort of very common signs of fear, actually they're not unique to fear. We're starting on a long journey here of really being able to tease out the body language of dogs. I've also got another PhD student who's looking beyond the face at the wider body language, but is too early to report on or anything there. But we've now got the tools to be able to really decode the dog.”