Identifying and treating anxiety in dogs

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Anxiety in dogs is very complex topic to both understand and address and is recognised as a cause of many behaviour and physical problems. It is a major mental health issue, just as it is for us humans and is not to be dismissed as something “they will just have to get over.”

From fear-based aggression to Separation Related Behaviours (also commonly known as Separation Anxiety), phobias and compulsive behaviour; anxiety can be presented in many ways.

It can also be missed or misunderstood by owners if it is being displayed in ways that an owner might not know indicate that a dog is suffering from anxiety. This can include reactivity or aggression to other dogs or people, destructive behaviour and chewing, barking or psychosomatic disorders including skin conditions, not eating or drinking, diarrhoea, vomiting, excessive licking and much more.

Why are dogs anxious?

There are three broad reasons why a dog may have an anxious nature. Some are genetically predisposed to anxiety; others may have had certain experiences in their life that have threatened or traumatised them; whilst the current environment of a dog can also cause anxiety if they can’t predict an event or have no control over the outcome, or if it is due to separation anxiety.

That’s why early socialisation for puppies in their first 8-16 weeks of their lives plays such an important role in helping reduce some key causes of anxiety in the first place.

The purpose of anxiety in dogs in normal circumstances is to protect the animal from harm by anticipating aversive/unpleasant circumstances before they happen and so that they can be vigilant and act effectively to protect itself should the event they are anticipating to happen, actually occur.

Sometimes however, anxiety in dogs can occur without any specific trigger or imminent event, leaving a dog in a constant state of alarm or vigilance, which can be highly stressful in itself for both the dog and owner. Therefore, punishing an anxious dog for their behaviour can make the problem even worse and increase their stress and anxiety levels further.

That’s why it is so important to have an experienced dog trainer work with you and your dog should you be having any ongoing dog behaviour issues, or suspect that your dog may be suffering anxiety, so that any signs and causes can be properly identified and diagnosed. In many instances a dog trainer or expert behaviourist will be able to provide some advice and environmental enrichment techniques to help, whilst for others veterinary intervention and medication may be required.

The importance of knowing if your dog is feeling anxious

It is particularly useful to know what signs to look out for in your own dog, as well as in other dogs you may be approaching when out and about, to help reduce aggressive reactions or to help remove them from a situation that may be making them feel stressed or anxious.  It also helps to keep an eye out for these signs when exposing them to new people or objects (think vacuum, wheelie bin lawnmower), other animals or children within the home environment.

In general, anxious animals appear tense and look apprehensive or vigilant/prepared for an event that is coming. Whether the threat is real or not does not matter to your dog.

For them the threat IS very real and we, as responsible and loving owners, should take action to help reduce any stress triggers or remove them from the situation, but in a way that doesn’t reinforce the anxiety further.

Common signs of anxiety in dogs

  • Some subtle signs that you may start to notice, often one or more occurring at the same time, includes them licking their lips or flicking their tongue rapidly when they encounter a ‘trigger’ or yawning.
  • They may draw back their lips, or they may even begin to curl their lip showing teeth. If they are being submissive, they may lick at the face of dominant dog, or the air or corner of its mouth. A dog that rolls onto its back exposing its stomach and throat, often turning its head away as well, is often also indicating their submissive state.
  • They will tend to avert their gaze or may even actively turn their head to avoid direct eye contact, whilst their ears go back or even fold back, with their body lowered and tail tucked.
  • Sometimes they might have a slight wag of the tail, which we think means they are being friendly, but it will only be a very small swing and can actually indicate that they are feeling tentative.
  • Other signs of anxiety that you may tend to notice more include your dog panting, pacing and trembling, or if your dog is constantly monitoring or following you or another animal around.
  • They may also lick themselves excessively that can result in removing the hair, skin and sometimes, if a dog is in a constant anxious state, they can even wear away the tissue right down the bone.
  • A dog may also vomit or have diarrhea or bloat if they are left in situations that cause them to become anxious, they may refuse to eat or drink and you may find they defecate and or urinate in unusual places and times, even if they are toilet trained.
  • When a dog is feeling stressed it may also display ‘displacement behaviours’. They are a symptom of conflict and occur out of context. This can be confusing to an owner as they appear totally inappropriate to the situation. For example, when a dog feels threatened when entering the dog park, it reacts by looking around as if no one is there, sniffing the ground or yawning. This occurs because the dog doesn’t know whether to fight or avoid the threatening stimulus (which might be the other dogs or people).
  • The different sounds they make can also indicate if your dog is anxious and stressed depending on the situation and context. For example, a whine, cry or whimper is often associated with distress, insecurity, fears and submission, but can also be attention seeking which is something an anxious dog may tend to do.
  • High-pitched rapid barking may also indicate stress in dogs left alone. It’s worth checking with your neighbours if you are out all day at work whether they hear your dog barking throughout the day. Separation anxiety usually occurs in the time just after you have left the house, whereas boredom and the associated signs of that tend to happen in the afternoon, or after you have been gone some time.
  • Howling can also be a symptom of separation anxiety, triggered by isolation from family and other dogs, whilst yelping is a response to distress, pain or fright, but it can also be a sign of surrender.
Treatment – General

Different treatments will work for different dogs and for different types and levels of anxiety, so there is no one solution that works for all, and it is really important to get the help of your Vet, a Vet Behaviourist or qualified trainer to assist and to discuss potential medication options.

For some dogs this is the first step you should take and plays a really important role in the treatment plan to help address any chemical imbalances that could be impairing your behaviour modification and training success.  There are many different types and it can be a bit of trial and error, but the right medication combined with the techniques above, really can help to improve the mental and physical health of your dog suffering from anxiety

There are also number of links in this article to other articles that provide some tips in specific situations, but below are a few things to try in combination to assist with mild anxiety:

  1. Avoid the anxiety-provoking circumstances whenever you can.
  2. When you are in or about to encounter a ‘trigger’ try distracting them before they have the chance to react with a treat, play, obedience exercises to help keep them occupied (and calm) when in the presence of the trigger. If you are dealing with fear-based aggression this needs to be handle correctly and with experience.  Watch how this is done in our TV segment with Tikka the reactive staffy here.
  3. Work on independence and obedience training.
  4. Teach the dog to control its anxiety by de-sensitising it to the anxiety provoking circumstances. Engage the help of a certified dog trainer for this.
  5. Provide them with human company, a dog walker, or doggy day care if you are out at work all day and they are suffering separation anxiety.
  6. Provide them with a safe zone, or room in the house where they remove themselves from the ‘threat’.
  7. Dogs with separation anxiety often react well to being able to be on your lounge or bed.
  8. If they are in or being left in the house/enclosed space you can use a DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) adaptor or collar to help keep them calm.
  9. Keep the dog busy mentally and physically with environmental enrichment. This plays a major role for many behavioural problems.
  10. Try a natural calming product that contains Tryptophan and Vitamin B complexes to help reduce their stress levels and build up of cortisone if it is just mild anxiety and your vet has suggested medication may not be necessary.

About the Author: Lara Shannon is a certified dog behaviourist and trainer, pet food nutrition specialist, Executive Producer and Host of Pooches at Play on Channel 10 and editor of Poochesatplay.com. Lara also runs her own dog training business in Melbourne’s Bayside area and is the Author of World of Dogs and Eat, Play, Love Your Dog

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