Canine Anxiety is something we are seeing more often in our pet dogs. Let’s discuss why, and by understanding this then we can help our dogs to live a better life. When a dog is showing signs of anxiety, there are many things happening in their brain and body. Their brain is working to process threats and perceived danger, based on a combination of previous experiences and what their senses are telling them in that moment. Smells, sounds and visuals all are being processed through the brain and can start to trigger the dog’s fight or flight response. This can affect the dog’s physical and mental health in many ways, including gastrointestinal upsets, diarrhea, weight loss, lack of appetite, and lack of sleep, lack of confidence and reactivity or aggression. Reactivity can include jumping/lunging/barking at triggers such as other dogs, humans, bikes, cars…whatever that dog’s triggers are. We want our dogs to enjoy their time with their guardians, both inside and outside our homes. We want them to enjoy going for walks and to not view the world as a really scary place. Understanding how anxiety affects our dogs will help us to make better informed decisions about how best to help them.
There are two experiences of anxiety in dogs. The first is anxiety triggered from the environment; this can be a visual, sound or even smell. You will see the dog’s reaction immediately with anxiety and arousal. This can include heavy panting, vocalizing, eyes wide, ears pinned and body hunched. This anxiety can be a learned behavior from a previous scary experience, OR lack of early positive associations to “scary” things. The second experience is called Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD for short. This anxiety is coming from within the dog, and they are most always in a state of hyper arousal, always waiting for something to happen in their environment.
There are sub categories of anxiety:
Comorbidity – additional medical conditions may be present at the same time.
Sound Sensitivity – external sounds that trigger a fear response, examples would be fireworks and thunderstorms, vehicles backfiring, any sound can be a trigger. An example with my own dogs, we purchased a new air fryer that made beeping sounds. Suddenly two of my dogs raced outside through the dog door when they heard this sound for the first time. Every time we brought the air fryer out, the dogs would run outside anticipating the “scary” sound. If the dog perceives it as scary, it is.
Separation Anxiety – when a dog is left alone and they panic, it can be mild to extreme with destruction, howling, vomiting, diarrhea, and hyper-salivation.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – caused by severe trauma. An example of this, a client dog was 12 wks old and standing on the client’s deck when the lower tenant set off firecrackers right underneath the deck. The puppy completely panicked, ran and hid. It was 4 hrs before they could coax her out of the closet. The client’s best friend just happened to be standing beside the puppy when this happened. Fast forward to the dog at a year of age, whenever the dog hears the friend’s voice or smells him she immediately urinates in fear and runs to hide in the bedroom closet.
Cognitive Dysfunction – similar to dementia in humans, it’s associated with aging in dogs. It can also increase anxiety if the aging dog is also losing hearing or sight.
Canine anxiety can affect any dog; it can be caused by internal problems or external triggers. It can be caused or worsened by genetics, early experiences and lack of early positive associations. Aversive and punishment based training also affects our dog’s emotional state. It’s very important that we remember that our dog is being affected by his emotions; this has nothing to do with him being stubborn or disobedient. It’s our job as our dog’s caretaker to understand what is happening and help him to be successful.
Anxiety and fear behaviors in dogs can present as aggression. Barking, lunging and jumping makes things go away. This can look scary, but in fact this is a fear response and it’s important to understand that our dogs are feeling very uncomfortable. When dogs are communicating that they need space and the humans aren’t seeing these signals, this can cause our dogs to escalate their behavior as their anxiety increases. The Canine Ladder of Aggression shows how this works, with subtle stress signals such as yawning and lip licking, at the base of the ladder, and as the dog feels more anxiety his stress signals start increasing in intensity. Some dogs move through this process quickly especially if early signals are ignored by pet guardians. This ladder extends all the way up to a bite.
When working with aggression it’s extremely important to be well versed in stress signals and to watch the dog for any of these signs. Impulse control aggression is a bit different, it is still a fear based behavior, but with this behavior the dog seems more confrontational. He is really just freaking out inside and unable to cope with the anxiety he is feeling. This dog may jump quickly up the ladder, skipping early signals and going straight to a bite. We never want to use any type of punishment, aversive tools or methods when working with aggressive, anxious or fearful dogs. Not only does this damage the relationship with the pet guardian, it also can cause even more serious fallout behaviors. Suppressing behavior is not changing behavior. We need to help our dogs to gain confidence, reduce anxiety and build trust. We should always be setting our dogs up to be successful. With any sudden behavior changes the dog should see their veterinarian for a full checkup to rule out pain or any underlying medical conditions. Pain can drive behavior; it can be anything from GI upsets, infections, inflammation, or more serious diseases that can cause our dog’s anxiety, and therefore pain.
Managing the dog’s environment is a vital part of helping your dog with their anxiety and will help to set him up to be successful. For many dogs this means having a space for them where they can feel comfortable and safe. Having a room with their own area that includes a dog bed, open crate or closet for those dogs that want a smaller space to be in can help them. Playing soft music, white noise or having a fan on can block outside noises. I always recommend adding in mental enrichment using food puzzles, licki mats, and stuffed Kongs or Toppls. We can use these items to create more positive associations and also help to lower arousal levels. Licking can be a self soothing behavior for many dogs, so stuffing and freezing these items can help your dog to feel more comfortable as they work through it. Managing the environment outside the home may mean covering windows or covering fences to block visual triggers. We really want to make sure our veterinarian is a part of any behavior modification plan. They can advise you on any supplements that may be helpful, and also specific anxiety mediations if needed. Here in Canada we have Veterinary Behaviorists who focus on behavior issues and have up to date knowledge on the right medications needed for your dog’s specific needs. They will also help you set up a coaching/training plan for your dog when they are ready for that step.
I have worked with many dogs presenting with fear, anxiety and stress behaviors. From under socialized puppies, rescues from the north (I am located in Canada) or other countries, and dogs rehomed from abusive situations, unfortunately there are so many traumatized dogs! The first step with all of these dogs is to council the dog’s guardian so they understand what is happening with their dog. Often they think the dog is being “bad” or “stubborn”. I help them to understand their dog is struggling with anxiety or fear and is unable to make choices and sometimes they just can’t do what the guardian is asking. We need to make sure we are setting the dog up to be successful and that means being very proactive about changing the dog’s environment, giving the dog more choices and recognizing stress signals the dog is showing us. I have some great graphic handouts that I give to the dog guardian that explain trigger stacking and what stress signals look like. I start introducing mental enrichment via food puzzles and games to help lower anxiety and build confidence. This also helps the dog guardian to see their dog thinking and problem solving, and having fun. We want to create as many positive associations as we can for the dog. Depending on how comfortable the dog is I start to teach some basics like hand targeting, showing the dog guardian how to start by holding their hand to the side of the dog’s head, as the dog touches their nose to the palm of their hand we name it “touch” and reward it. For dogs with stranger danger to humans I may start with the Treat and Retreat game (from Suzanne Clothier) to reduce any social pressure. I have dogs come to my training hall for their first visit/consultation, and I make sure to sit low on stools and not make eye contact with the dog when they first arrive. As they become more comfortable I may start the Treat and Retreat game. I also have an Adaptil diffuser plugged in. I always have soothing dog music on, and often close the blinds to my front windows for dogs that are triggered by movement outside (humans or cars). After identifying triggers we can start to work on Desensitization and Counter Conditioning. This may happen at the dog guardian’s home, or on a walk, in a park, or even outside at my training hall at a distance where the dog can be under threshold. I tell the dog guardian we need to find out what the dog’s bubble is, and that’s where we start. What I say to every dog guardian, “if your dog is jumping, lunging, barking you are too close, and too late”. We always start where the dog is comfortable, and can still think, and take food. I will use high value food rewards with 99% of the dogs I work with, there are a few that value play or a tug but we need to be careful we aren’t getting the dog over aroused with play when we are working on building calm behavior. Scary things appear, food appears. The goal is creating more positive associations to the triggers. Changing how our dogs think about a trigger, so they can start to make better choices because they are feeling more confident.
Separation anxiety is approached in a similar way, adding in mental enrichment, working on positive associations while building confidence with small increments of time where the dog can feel safe, then building on that time slowly. With every anxiety case I have the dog guardian talk to their vet about behavior meds to make sure we are meeting all of the dogs needs. As we move through our sessions I add in obstacles and agility equipment with every case to help build confidence and help the dog/dog guardian with some relationship building. It’s magical to see how quickly the dogs and their guardians bond and have fun while learning!
Cindy VanFrankfoort, CPDT-KA, CTDI