We all have moments of anxiety at times in our lives. While it is not pleasant, most people can get past it and move on. Dogs can also experience anxiety, but they are able to recover and continue on. Pathological anxiety is a different story.
Anxiety can be described as a feeling of fear or dread; a sense that there is imminent danger, panic, or doom. Pathological anxiety is when an excessive level of anxiety occurs that is not normal and is characteristic of a mental illness or other mental condition. The dog cannot control pathological anxiety.
Your dog might be anxious to be walked next to passing cars. While you take great care to keep her safe in low-traffic areas of the park, it is possible for a car to pass by. You may see her jump, spook, or scream, but she will continue on your walk. It’s a different story for the dog who is anxious and has a severe anxiety disorder. The anxious dog is tense even when she’s out for a walk. She anticipates the arrival of the dreaded vehicle. She may act as if she is about to die when one appears. She panics and flails madly at her leash (“freaks-out” is how many of her owners describe it), and her walk is now spoilt for her. She huddles on the sidewalk, trembling. You can’t expect her to recover quickly. You might end up carrying her.
It’s not only frustrating and embarrassing for you, but it’s also very distressing for your dog. Your dog is not being “bad”; she is having a panic attack. She cannot control her behavior. To help her cope with the world better, she needs empathy and a behavior modification and management program.
COMMON MANIFESTATIONS ANXIETY IN DOGS
Any stimulus, even a random one, can cause anxiety in a dog. However, there are many situations that can trigger anxiety in dogs. These can range from mild distress to panic attacks, or even a complete panic attack. The panic-attack side of this spectrum is what is “anxiety.”
Separation anxiety. This is the most common type of separation anxiety. It’s the dog that can’t be left alone. Separation anxiety is characterized by extreme vocalizations, destructive behavior, house soiling, and desperate attempts at escape. Noise anxiety. This is most evident in dogs who are sensitive to thunder and fireworks. However, dogs with sound anxiety can panic at the sound pans dropping on the ground, distant gunshots, the low-battery “chirps” of smoke detectors, or any other noise she has had a negative experience (e.g. the alarm beep from a shock collar). These dogs can panic and run (hence the overcrowding at shelter kennels on July 5, 2009), or they might just stop breathing and start shaking violently.
For sensitive pups, the first time they ride in a car can cause trauma. Most dogs associate the car with having fun (going to Grandma or the park), but some dogs experience anxiety when the car is a trigger that can cause panic attacks. Car-ride anxiety is often a result of dogsickness and stress from the first ride. It can also be accompanied by constant panting and pacing after the ride begins. Specific-stimulus anxiety. Any stimulus that has had a negative experience in the past can cause dogs to have an anxiety reaction. The dog may exhibit a range of behaviors, including a panicked, violent attempt to flee, constant panting, pacing, and severe trembling. Generalized anxiety. Generalized anxiety is characterized by a dog’s constant reactivity, restlessness and nervousness. This can be accompanied by trembling or nervousness that disrupt normal social interactions. This anxiety is not specific-trigger, but it is constant.
A COMFORTABLE DOG – LIVING WITH AND HELPING THEM
This little dog has chronic anxiety. This little dog exhibits anxiety in all situations, including on walks in the countryside or on streets without cars. She is always tense and forward-leaning and her posture is almost always low and tense. Her ears are pulled back and her tongue flickers constantly. Imagine feeling so scared all the time. She would be well served by medication
There are many things you can do that will help your dog get through difficult times.
1. Medication. A truly anxious dog will need medication. This is something that should be done immediately. It is a matter of quality-of-life and you should see your veterinarian immediately to discuss the appropriate medication. Your dog and you will be happier.
Your veterinarian may not be able to handle behavioral issues because it is a complicated field. For guidance on the best medications for your dog, she can arrange a telephone consult with a veterinarian behaviorist. If your vet does not already have a relationship with one, there is a complete list of veterinary behaviorists here: dacvb.org/about/member-directory
2. Comforting. Comforting anxious or scared dogs is perfectly acceptable. There is no danger of your dog “reinforcing undesirable behavior” as some people used to believe. You can’t reinforce emotions. It is so soothing to be able to get someone to comfort you when you’re stressed. Go comfort your dog when you are stressed.
3. Managing. This is something we can’t emphasize enough: Your dog’s life will be easier if you manage her environment to avoid her being exposed to anxiety-causing conditions. Your efforts to reduce her anxiety will be easier if she is kept below her threshold.
4. Products. Products. There are many products that can help with anxiety. While many of these products can be beneficial, it is often very individual. What helps one dog might not work for another. They are in the “can’t hurt but might help” category. I encourage my clients to use as many products as they can to see if it works for them. (See “Products that Help Reduce Dog Anxiety”
5. Modification. These things won’t solve your dog’s anxiety by themselves. It will be necessary to teach your dog that anxiety is not a normal response.
A program of habituation is possible if it’s done carefully. It is as simple as exposing your dog at low levels to trigger stimuli. This will allow her to show awareness and no distress. Then slowly increase the intensity until she stops noticing it. After that, you can wait for her to stop “not caring” at each level before increasing it again. This can be difficult with fireworks and thunderstorms.
Add treat-feeding to habituation and you get counter-conditioning, desensitization. This is the foundation of behavior-changing behavior modification.
Although anxiety isn’t something that can be fixed immediately or easily, you can help your dog have a happier life by paying attention to her emotional needs.
Products that can help ease your dog’s anxiety
ThunderShirt is the original garment to reduce anxiety
You can supplement your management with products that have been proven to reduce stress in dogs. These are some examples:
Calming Shirts. Calming coats or snug t-shirts apply gentle, constant pressure to the dog’s torso. They act much like a blanket on a baby. There are many brands and models available depending on your dog’s size. ThunderShirt anxiety jacket was the first product to address this issue. Today, the company offers a variety of designs (visit thundershirt.com). There are many imitations. There are many options for dog anxiety apparel. You can search the internet to find them.
Supplements. Supplements have been shown to reduce anxiety in dogs. They will usually contain melatonin and thiamin as well as chamomile, Ltryptophan, L-theanine and/or chamomile. Some may also contain ginger which can be helpful for sensitive stomachs. Take care to ensure that you don’t use xylitol in any over-the-counter products. Ask your veterinarian what products she recommends and if they are okay with you giving them to your dog.
Adaptil. This synthetic substance is intended to imitate the pheromones that mother dogs emit when nursing their puppies. The natural pheromone helps calm puppies. Adaptil claims to be the same for adult dogs. The diffuser is easy to use. Simply plug it in the outlet of the room your dog spends most time in. The diffuser emits “dog-appeasing” aromas that are odorless and specific to dogs. It also comes in a spray you can use to make a scarf for your dog when they go on walks. Adaptil can be purchased from your veterinarian or in most pet supply shops.
ZenCrate. ZenCrate is a safe and secure escape for canine companions with anxiety issues. The ZenCrate is similar to a regular crate, but provides vibration isolation, noise cancelling (through sound insulation), reduced lighting, comfort, and security. The motion-activated sensor activates a fan that turns on when your dog enters. This helps to block out noise and provide fresh air. The crate can be pre-programmed with music. The crate has a removable door that allows your dog to enter and exit at will. For more information, visit zendogcrate.com
Calming Sounds. Calming sounds can help calm anxious dogs. Originally known as “Through a Dog’s Ear,” this music is “psychoacoustically designed” to trigger relaxation (for more information about how this is accomplished, see icalmpet.com/about/music/). These products can be downloaded as sound files, on CDs or microSD card or streamed via major streaming services. You can view the entire company’s offerings at icalmpet.com.
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