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May 1, 2024

As much as I value, appreciate, and regularly use personal development and cognitive skills to work my way out of destructive feelings in daily life, I also understand that some of us -- including dogs -- end up hardwired to feel things like anxiety. A study published in March 2023 looked at the rs-fMRI (resting state functional MRI) differences between the brains of anxious dogs and other dogs. Maybe it'll help you feel better about some of your own worries too.

brains of anxious dogs main graphic

Anxious Dogs Study Participants

The anxious dogs were volunteered by their families, but the control or other dogs came from a population of beagles owned by Ghent University in Belgium.

  • 25 control dogs, ages 1-8
  • 6 neutered males, 19 spayed females

The 13 anxious dogs came from a population of veterinary patients "diagnosed with anxious behavior, with or without aggression, specifically towards familiar and unfamiliar people and animals." 

  • 6 adopted from the shelter 
  • 7 raised at home
  • 5 aggressive toward people and dogs
  • 9 afraid of people and dogs
  • 6 with noise phobias
  • 4 went for behavioral therapy but failed
  • 3 went for drug therapy but failed

In addition the study says that "Blood samples were taken for thyroid function tests and sent to a commercial lab to exclude thyroid dysfunction-led behavior problems." All of the patient's thyroid levels came back as normal.

Weirdly, the paper does not list demographic details of the anxious dogs.

Anxious Dogs Brain Study Results

Basically, the rs-fMRI revealed that anxious dogs feature stronger connections between parts of the brain already known to be part of the anxiety network (such as the amygdala and hippocampus). The results also show decreased connection strength in dogs with anxiety between the hippocampus and mesencephalon 

anxious dogs brains fMRI results graphic from March 2023 study

Fig 5. Connections of the anxiety circuit that differ significantly between the patient group and control group.

Connections that are significantly higher in the patient group are indicated in yellow, connections that are significantly lower are indicated in blue. Abbreviations:

  • AMG, amygdala 
  • FL, frontal lobe 
  • HC, hippocampus 
  • MES, mesencephalon
  • THL, thalamus

Possible Dopamine, Learning, Trainability Implications

The study explains "A particular highlight of our results is the connection between the hippocampus and mesencephalon. Here, a less (efficient) communication was found between hippocampus and mesencephalon in the anxiety group. Of note, current findings indicate that the hippocampus and the mesencephalon are seen as partners in “integrative encoding”, suggesting that the neurotransmitter dopamine may be involved ... Also in dogs, dopaminergic systems play an important role in determining affective reactions such as the exhibition of anxiety related behaviour problems. Lisman et al. developed the concept that hippocampus and midbrain dopaminergic neurons form a functional loop and proved that the enhanced connectivity between hippocampus and mesencephalon is associated with learning and information processing [58]. Thus, in our study, the lower connectivity between hippocampus and mesencephalon in the patient group may be the reason for the decreased trainability symptoms."


Researchers know that their results need to be confirmed in larger studies. They wonder about using rs-fMRI for diagnosing anxious dogs or even measuring the effectiveness of possible treatments. Ultimately, they hope studies of anxious dogs also helps the understanding and treatment of anxious people. 

Our original canine heroine, Lilly, was off-the-charts anxious and fearful of countless things, but especially other dogs. It's a difficult thing to understand and deal with in our complicated modern lives. I learned so much from her, and I miss her dearly ... even 10 years later. 

About the Author Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related.

I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.

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