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How to Detect and Alleviate Anxiety Behaviour in Dogs

October 18, 2019 9 min read

How to Detect and Alleviate Anxiety Behaviour in Dogs

How to detect and alleviate anxiety behaviour in your dog

 Anxiety is fairly common in dogs and can cause some very troubling behavioural issues. Owners new to dogs or owners who have only had laid-back pooches in the past are often alarmed and mystified when they encounter anxiety/fear related issues in their pet.

Fears, phobias, and anxiety

Anxiety, fear, and phobias are all related and can all cause similar behaviour disturbances. They are, however, slightly different.

Fear

Fear is a normal reaction to something new and alarming that is potentially dangerous. For example, many dogs experience fear the first time they are taken to a veterinarian's office or when they hear fireworks for the first time. A normal fear reaction is triggered by something environmental; it exists briefly, and then subsides after the trigger is removed. Some dogs are more fearful and react to a greater range of stimuli than others, but all dogs can and do exhibit fear. Exhibiting fear in response to certain potentially dangerous situations is considered to be normal. However, if your dog is afraid of a lot of non-dangerous every day things, we strongly suggest consulting a behaviourist about how to help manage and relieve the dog's fears.

Phobias

Phobias in dogs are just like phobias in humans-an irrational, over-the-top fear response to something that isn't actually dangerous. The most common phobias in dogs are those directed towards fireworks/thunderstorms. Dogs with severe phobias about these loud noises may need medication and behavioural modification to help them cope with these unavoidable events.

Anxiety

Anxiety is a precursor emotion to fear. The dog is anxious that something fearful is about to happen. Many of the anxious dog's behaviours resemble fear, except that nothing overtly scary has happened yet; the dog is anticipating terror and thus it exhibits signs of fear and stress in response to what would normally be a non-fearful event. Dog anxiety symptoms are any of the following that occur in the absence of an overtly fearful event, but do occur in response to a trigger that suggests to the dog that an overtly fearful event may occur:

  • Panting and tail-tucking
  • Pacing, restlessness, and agitation
  • Urinating/pooping inappropriately
  • Destroying things
  • Barking, whining, and crying
  • Spontaneous massive fur shedding
  • Efforts to run away or hide
  • Stereotypical behaviours like tail-chasing and obsessive licking

 

French Bulldog walking confidently on the grass

 

What causes anxiety?

In some cases, anxiety about a particular situation is induced by a single traumatic event. For example, dog separation anxiety is very common in dogs that have been abruptly abandoned by their family, namely dumped off at a shelter. The dog learns that being left behind leads to a period of utter terror and confusion, and thus in the future being left behind triggers severe anxiety. Other traumas can do the same thing; for example, a dog that has been struck by a car may experience severe anxiety whenever the dog hears a car approaching. Similarly, most dogs experience unpleasant experiences at the veterinarian's office (being jabbed with needles, restraint, being handled by strangers) and thus they exhibit signs of anxiety while waiting for their turn at the vet's office.

Some dogs are naturally resistant to developing anxiety while others seem to be very prone to developing anxiety. Some of this is due to genetics, but a lot of it is due to early experiences in life prior to age 16 weeks.

What happens to a puppy between the time its eyes open and age 16 weeks has profound effects on its personality as an adult.

Breeders who care about their puppies start exposing young puppies to new experiences and new people and situations in a fun, happy way long before the puppies are weaned. After the puppies go to their new homes educated puppy-owners devote a lot of time to properly socialising their puppies. Socialising does not mean letting the puppy play with other dogs. It means to expose the puppy to as many places, situations, people, animals, and events as possible in a fun, upbeat way. When a young puppy is exposed to a lot of new and different things in an upbeat way, in the future when the now-adult dog encounters anything new and different it generally just calmly accepts it instead of being afraid. Of course, any fear experience can lead to troublesome anxiety.

What this means is, in order to avoid owning an anxiety-prone dog, it is very important to carefully select where you get your puppy from. Ideally, you will meet the puppy's parents and some of their relatives so you can observe their behaviour; if the adults show signs of anxiety or fearfulness, their puppies will probably also be anxious and fearful. Next, it is important to purchase the puppy from a good breeder who will start socialisation very early. Puppies raised in puppy mills or those isolated in a kennel setting while young have a much greater probability of turning out anxious and fearful. Of course, when adopting an older dog, all you can do is carefully observe the dog and ask the shelter staff or foster family questions about the dog's temperament.

 

Big Dog Laying Down. Looking directly to the camera.

Separation anxiety

Dog separation anxiety is probably one of the most common and most difficult to deal with anxiety disorders in dogs. Dog anxiety symptoms caused by being left alone include everything from minor signs of stress in dogs, such as panting and tail-tucking for a short period after the owner leaves, ranging up to extremely destructive, abnormal behaviour that may include:

  • A house-broken dog pottying in the house
  • A non-destructive dog destroying things in the house
  • Vocalising constantly while the owner is gone

Self-damaging behaviour, like breaking teeth and nails and bloodying feet in an effort to escape, or obsessively biting/licking at the dog's own body to the point of causing an injury

The key point is if the dog is engaging in abnormal behaviour only when the owner is gone, the dog has separation anxiety. Minor forms of separation anxiety can be treated by behavioural approaches, but severe forms usually require medication and the help of an expert dog behaviourist.

Home approaches to minor separation anxiety include trying to follow a very regular schedule so the dog can relax about when things will happen since it's totally predictable. It's also important to not make a big deal about leaving or coming back-don't sob and pet the dog and assure it you will come back (instead, just say cheerfully "I'll see you later" and leave) and don't throw a big party when you get home (instead, just say Hi and ignore the dog for a few minutes while you get settled at home and wait for the dog to calm down before paying any attention to it). In addition, randomly popping in and out for short periods of time without making a big deal about it can really help these dogs understand you do always come back.

Anxiety at the veterinarian's office

In general, new dog owners should just expect their dog will become anxious about veterinarian care and take a pro-active approach to prevent it from ever occurring. New dog owners should ask their dog trainer about "cooperative care" training. This is a series of training and gradual desensitisation approaches that are used to prepare a dog to not be afraid during procedures like nail trimmings, grooming, and veterinarian exams. This training also encourages the dog to actively cooperate in the event that medical care needs to be applied at home, such as applying eye drops, performing ear cleanings, and so forth. Cooperative care is taught in a fun, enjoyable positive way.

In addition, new dog owners should consider dropping in regularly to their veterinarian's office to allow the dog to just say hi to the staff, sniff around, and perhaps get weighed and offered treats. Most veterinarians are more than willing to cooperate with "just say hi" visits that teach the dog the vet's office is fun, or at least not a place to dread.

General approaches to dealing with anxiety

There are three primary approaches to relieve stress in dogs and to help them overcome their anxiety:

  • Classic conditioning
  • Counter-conditioning
  • Medication

Classic conditioning

Classic conditioning bypasses the dog's conscious brain and changes its emotional state in response to a stimuli or situation; it is sometimes called desensitisation. The basic way to do this in dogs is to expose the dog to the stimuli at sub-threshold, namely the stimuli isn't strong enough to trigger overt fear or anxiety but the dog is aware of it, and then make the dog feel happy by feeding it treats, playing with a toy, or giving it a nice belly rub. Then, over time, you gradually decrease the distance to the stimuli/increase the intensity of the stimuli until the dog completely stops reacting to the stimuli or actually seems to enjoy the stimuli. Classic conditioning is easy in principle, but in actual practice it can be very hard to stay below the dog's threshold at all times, and if you accidentally push the dog over its threshold, you may have to start all over again.

Counter-conditioning

In counter-conditioning, the dog is taught to perform a specific behaviour in response to an anxiety-provoking stimuli. This allows the dog to use the behaviour as a stress-relieving and proactive way to change its own internal emotional state and gives it something active to do instead of melting down. Humans do this all the time-someone who is anxious about social settings may learn to stroke a good luck token in their pocket to soothe their anxiety, or they may learn to smile and trot out a joke they have memorised to achieve the same effect. The chosen behaviour needs to be incompatible with the dog's stressed behaviours and should be a fun, active behaviour.

For example, some dogs become anxious when they see another dog approaching them and they react by barking and lunging towards the approaching dog; this behaviour is often called "leash reactivity" and many dog owners think it means the dog is aggressive, but no, it is caused by anxiety. One counter-conditioning approach that has proven very successful in rectifying this problem is teaching the dog to deliberately look at the approaching dog and then to whip around and stare at their owner. This allows the dog to carefully study the cause of the anxiety, and then turn away from the cause to relax and get a treat or praise from their owner. And the dog can repeat the behaviour over and over again until the other dog leaves. The dog cannot bark and lunge if it is looking and turning away. Similarly, if the dog is anxious at the vet's office, teaching it to perform a cute, simple trick that it enjoys doing and that gets lots of treats, praise, and happy attention from bystanders can successful cause the dog to stop feeling anxious.

Medication is not something that should only be reserved for severe cases. Often, a small dose of an anti-anxiety medication can make the difference between success and total failure during behavioural approaches to relieve anxiety. There is no shame in using anti-anxiety medication during the initial phases of behavioural modification, followed by slowly weaning the dog off the medication. For more severe anxiety cases, medication is absolutely essential. Some severe cases may be able to wean off the medication, but others may need it lifelong during certain particular situations.

 

Dog laying on the ground, resting it's head

The overly fearful dog

If for whatever reason you end up owning a dog that seems plagued by constant anxiety and is fearful of everything, do not despair. Such dogs can be challenging to own, but with a combination of management, medication, behavioural modification, and the help of an expert dog behaviourist, they can turn into really nice pets.

The first step in managing such a dog is to consult your veterinarian and a behaviourist to ensure the dog has been diagnosed properly. Some medical conditions, like thyroid issues, brain tumours, and chronic pain from arthritis or other causes can induce fearful, anxiety-like behaviours. It also possible the dog isn't actually just generally anxious and is instead phobic about one particular thing that commonly occurs in its environment.

The next step is to manage the dog's environment. Try to make the home environment as calm, quiet, and predictable as possible. Perhaps provide the dog a place of its own to retreat to when it feels overwhelmed. Exercise is important and has a natural anxiety-relieving effect so it is essential to find somewhere quiet and relaxing to walk/run the dog where none of its triggers lurk; if that is not possible, a dog treadmill can be helpful.

The behaviourist will work with you on appropriate use of medication, when to use classic conditioning, when to use counter-conditioning, and when to simply avoid the situation entirely. With some work, these dogs can come around and enjoy life and be happy, pleasant companions. However, it should be noted that dogs plagued by general anxiety and fearfulness are never going to be happy show dogs, the star of the dog park, a dog that enjoys social events, or a dog you can take to the farmer's market. They can shine, but only in certain situations.

In summary

Dog anxiety is not an uncommon problem. In many cases, anxiety can be avoided by careful breeding, socialisation, and engaging in pre-emptive training like "cooperative care", but sometimes it just happens in response to a single traumatic event or when you adopt an older dog with an uncertain history. Anxiety can be diagnosed and treated, or at least managed, through classic conditioning, counter-conditioning, and medication. When in doubt, do not hesitate to consult a dog behaviourist for advice.


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