Does your dog appear fearful or stressed? Does your dog bark when left
alone at home? If so, your pet may be suffering from anxiety. We tend to notice it more in
our canine companions when they bark or destroy things. In either case, an anxious dog is experiencing a heightened internal
Fear is an instinctual reaction which protects animals from threatening
situations. Some level of fear is beneficial to survival. Yet fear can also
become harmful when it manifests inappropriately. A persistent or
excessive fear of a specific thing or stimulus is called a
phobia. Fear or dread in anticipation of a future event is what we
refer to as
Fear triggers a variety of physical reactions in the body. The most
immediate change is the release of adrenaline. This heightens awareness in the
animal, and makes it prepared to fight or flee from a threatening situation.
When an animal is experiencing anxiety, their body undergoes the same physical
reactions. The heightened state of alert associated with fear can be
detrimental to long-term health.
Some common signs are compulsive or destructive behaviors. Excessive vocalization or pacing behaviors may also indicate
stress. Noticing the signs of distress early on is important! Anxious reactions
tend to escalate over time. A common example is the timid dog who shies from
strangers, whose reactions amplify over time. Without intervention, this dog
could develop a dangerous fear-aggressive response toward unfamiliar people.
Learning the signs of anxiety in your pet can help you understand
whether an animal is undergoing stress. The common fear reaction signs for dogs
are: Avoiding eye contact or visible
whites of eyes, cowering body posture, tail tucked between legs, whining,
panting when not hot or thirsty, excessive yawning, tightened facial muscles,
ears dropped to side.
The first thing to do if you suspect your pet has an issue with anxiety,
is to get your furry friend to a vet for an examination. Dogs can respond to
pain or illness in ways that we interpret as being afraid or stressed. Improper
elimination could be the result of an issue with diet or digestion. Compulsive
behaviors could indicate a neurological condition. Environmental toxins, such
as lead, may also cause an animal to appear fearful or aggressive.
Consider also possible environmental triggers for your pet. If your dog
has a fearful reaction to being confined, this may have resulted from a
previous negative experience. Perhaps in the past they were locked in a crate
for long periods of time or otherwise neglected. Separation anxiety is the
most common kind of anxiety found in pets. The exact cause of separation
anxiety is unknown. It is likely exacerbated if the animal was previously
abandoned or has had many owners.
Age and socialization can also be a factor in dog anxiety. Young dogs who are not properly socialized within the first 12-14 weeks of life may
become habitually fearful around people. In extreme situations, we refer to
these animals as being feral or semi-feral. Older animals may also be more
prone to anxiety, due to changes in the nervous system with aging.
Some pets experience anxiety for no apparent reason. This so-called
idiopathic anxiety can be especially difficult to treat. Just as with people,
an animal's behavior develops through a complex interaction factors. Some may
be genetic or environmental. We may never be able to say for certain why some
animals seem more anxious than others.
Some dog breeds may be prone to higher levels of anxiety. These include
Siberian huskies, greyhounds, Bernese mountain dogs, border collies, and
poodles, among others.
So what will your vet likely recommend if they determine your animal has
an issue with anxiety? There is a possibility they may prescribe anti-anxiety
or behavior-modification drugs. These are normally reserved as a last resort as
they can have side effects. Drugs are not for all dogs, and they can take
some time to become effective. If your vet prescribes medication for your dog, be sure to follow up with them regularly. It is important to check your
pet's condition and progress while on medication.
There are many ways owners can help support their pet's treatment.
Changes to routine or environment may help. Behavior modification through
training is also a frequent component.
In dogs, clicker-training with positive reinforcement with treats is a
common method. In the scenario of a dog who behaves anxiously around other
dogs, you may first teach them to sit and stay while at home in a neutral
setting. When she follows your command, she is given a treat as a reward, which
is reinforced by the sound of the clicker. Over time, and perhaps under the
guidance of a trainer or behaviorist, she learns to repeat this behavior when
another dog is present. With consistency, she begins to replace her fear of the
situation with anticipation for something good: the treat.
In cases of separation anxiety, changes to routine can help to reduce
this. Say your dog has begun to associate certain actions like putting on a
coat or reaching for car keys as cues that you are about to leave. You may try
changing these, or the order you do them in, so they cannot predict that you
are leaving. Try not to make your departure a big deal. Although it may seem
counter-intuitive, try ignoring your dog for several minutes before
leaving. Behaviorists suggest this may actually reduce anxiety as you are not
rewarding them with affection and then leaving. This is potentially confusing
to your furry friend!
Make sure your animal has a safe place they feel comfortable in that
they can remain in while you are gone, with plenty of stimulating toys.
Consider playing soothing music or leaving the TV on while you are out, to give
them something to listen to while you are away.
Regardless of the treatment, be patient with your dog! Your companion's
anxious reactions are not done out of spite, and any punishing or scolding may
cause them to distrust or fear you. Your dog looks to you not just for
its physical needs, but also for comfort and protection. In working with your
pet slowly yet consistently, you may be surprised by the results!