It is staggering how much we don’t understand about the most common household pet. We call dogs our ‘best friends.’ Yet, we continue to make incorrect assumptions about their behavior. For instance, human beings still don’t have a proper grasp of the fear mechanism in canines. We see a dog that barks and bares its teeth and assume it must be dangerous. In some cases, this is true. However, dogs are much like us. They don’t get angry for no reason. Often, responses that look and sound like aggression are actually rooted in fear. Most behavioral experts agree that canines are naturally social animals. No matter their breed, they enjoy communication, touch, play, and contact.
The only reason a dog adopts aggressive or violent tendencies is it’s been trained or directed to do so. This is clearly evident in police and military canines. They can be ferocious and chase down a criminal, but they only follow such orders to win praise and love from their owners. They have no interest in causing hurt or damage. This is all to say that, despite our great love for dogs, we still struggle to deal with anything but the friendliest, cheeriest animals. It’s why so many pups end up in shelters or get put down. In many parts of the US, the number of dogs in shelters has spiraled. It’s a big problem and, to solve it, we need to revise some of the things we think we know about man’s best friend.
Why Some Dogs Are More Anxious Than Others
Once again, dogs are not dissimilar to people. They all have different personalities. Sometimes, a pet just has a naturally anxious or timid disposition. It’s important to understand there’s a difference between environmental stressors and individual characteristics. There are many ways to help an anxious dog, but you can’t force a complete personality change. It’s all about getting to know a pet as well as possible. The closer you are, the more you’ll learn about their unique character and what kind of support they might need. Try to learn the difference between assistance and acknowledgment. Some dogs are born shy. They need owners who are loving, patient, and happy to let them move at their own pace.
Of course, another reason for chronic anxiety is past trauma. Many dogs get rescued from abusive homes. Some are extremely fearful of people, as a result. They may cower away from the feel, sight, and sound of human beings. Crucially, aggression is one of the most common fear responses. If a dog is trying to scare you, the likelihood is that they’re already terrified.You must not adopt a rescue dog, particularly one with a traumatic past unless you’re prepared to work through these issues. It is widely believed that all canines, even ones that present as extremely aggressive, can be taught to trust again. Always remember that the angriest dogs are usually the most fearful.
How to Spots Signs of Anxiety in Your Dog
The most obvious sign of anxiety and fear is aggression. Though, it’s less common than you might think. Often, timid dogs have the opposite reaction. They withdraw and retreat, in order to put distance between themselves and the trigger. So, you may adopt a rescue dog and have a hard time getting it to approach or be near to you. It might defecate or urinate on the floor, despite being house trained. This is why you should always be patient, particularly with new animals. Though their behavior can frustrate, yelling only causes more fear. Try to make your dog feel at home by creating a ‘safe room’ for him, with a soft bed, a dark space to hide in, and a low level of noise. Keep an eye out for fearful stances.
When a dog is scared, it flattens its ears and tucks its tail between its legs. It may raise its hackles and begin to breathe very fast. If you notice these behaviors, it’s best to stay at a reasonable distance. Talk to your pet in a soothing tone, but don’t try to touch him until he’s calmed down. Let him decide when it’s time for contact. Over time, even anxious dogs can start to relax around their favorite owner. In fact, you’ll become their protector. They’ll look to you for comfort. However, outsiders may still elicit a fear response. Socialization is possible, but it takes time, and some animals just aren’t made to be friends with everybody they meet. Let people know that your dog needs space.
Here are some of the best ways to support and calm your canine:
In most cases, it will be obvious whether or not the anxiety is a behavioral problem. For instance, if your dog is usually very social and interactive, a sudden change may not be a psychological issue at all. Sickness and injury are commonly manifested as timidity, fear, shyness, and stress. If this sounds like your dog, check him for signs of illness. If it’s a new pet you’re dealing with, the shelter, rescue, or breeder should have disclosed any information relating to ill health. So, in the absence of a physiological or neurological cause, chronic anxiety could be the answer. You’ll probably want to take your new friend for an introductory session at the vet anyway. While there, get them to assess his health.
Identify the Root Cause
The best place to start is with the ‘why?’ If you don’t know why your dog is afraid, it’s going to be hard to help him. Identifying the root cause of anxiety isn’t always easy. Sometimes, it’s as simple as a fear of loud noises. You may have to take extra precautions on certain days of the year like Bonfire Night and NYE. Often, the problem is a little more complex. Try to see life through the eyes of your pet. If he’s new to the home, think about how overwhelming the change must be. Make him feel safe by giving him places to hide when he feels scared. Though it’s tempting to try and force contact, be respectful and don’t invade his space if he doesn’t want to play.
Take a Close Look at Diet
We underestimate the impact of diet on canine behavior, though we know how much it affects our own behavior. For dogs that have recently developed anxious tendencies, there may be a nutritional cause. Certain ingredients may be triggering spikes in blood pressure. This can manifest itself in stress-related behaviors like circling and social withdrawal. So, it’s worth taking a look at exactly what is in your dog food. If the anxious behaviors are occurring after a change in diet, go back to the original food and see if they dissipate. Also, try to avoid products with too many chemicals and additives. They have a similar effect on dogs as they do young children. They can become hyperactive and hard to control.
Try Pheromone Therapy
For a quick fix, you can try one of the many pheromone sprays on the market. While they don’t solve the problem, they can bring temporary relief. They work by exposing the dog to a chemical called adaptil. It is a synthetic version of the pheromone released by mothers when their puppies need comforting. So, you can see why it induces a calm state. Pheromone sprays come in many varieties. Most are very easy to use. You just spray them on the place where your dog sleeps or directly on their collar. They’re particularly handy during stressful times of the year like Bonfire Night and Halloween. Just be careful not to develop a heavy dependence on chemical soothers.
It may seem counterintuitive to expose a dog to its fear trigger. However, in a controlled environment, low-level exposure can be used to reduce anxiety. This works in exactly the same way as it does for humans. If you’re scared of spiders, for example, you may choose to desensitize yourself to the fear by sitting in the same room as one. The important thing is the level of stimulus. You must start very small and increase exposure in incremental amounts. One great example is for dogs who fear crates and carriers. Just leave the crate open and accessible in your home. Don’t force the dog to go near it. Just let him get comfortable with the object and learn that it is a passive, unthreatening presence.
Once you know what is triggering the anxiety, you can decide how to introduce it back into your lives. Control is crucial for this. Yes, exposure therapy and desensitization can be effective. However, it must be carefully controlled. There’s no point working for weeks on a fear of loud noises if you forget and terrify your pet with a loud stereo. Combine exposure therapy with a trigger reduction routine. This means committing to a safe, controlled environment. If your dog is scared of the stereo, they can’t be in the room (possibly the house) while it is active. You may have to make sacrifices, but it’s worth it to know your pet trusts you and feels safe in your home.
Find a Solution for Separation
Separation anxiety is the number one cause of stress related behaviors in canines. This is awfully sweet and sad all at the same time, because it shows how much dogs value our company. When you’re not around, your pet misses you terribly. Of course, it’s not possible to be home twenty four hours a day. So, what is the best solution? Well, some degree of separation anxiety is inevitable if you must go out to work each day like most people. However, you should only really consider a pet dog if you have plenty of time outside of work to play with him. Individuals with very busy work and social lives may not be suitable owners. Try to remember this if you are considering getting a dog. Again, it may sound counter intuitive, but it’s important not to overindulge your pet, in the same way you shouldn’t deny him contact. The happiest, most social canines are those that are happy to split their attention between multiple people, depending on who is around at the time. Spend plenty of time with your dog, but also try to teach him that it’s okay to be alone and independent.
Research Pharmaceutical Options
There is more intensive help available if your dog is really struggling to cope. Most vets recommend trying less invasive options first because it’s better to avoid a dependency on medication. However, if you feel like drugs are the best route, you can consult with an expert and, hopefully, come up with a treatment plan. For instance, benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed for sufferers of chronic anxiety. They are fast acting and have a direct impact on uncontrolled fear responses. In other words, dogs that exhibit fear aggression become calm, relaxed, and less likely to nip or bite. There are also azapirones, tricyclic antidepressants, and serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSIs).
Invest in Natural Remedies
If you’d rather not go the pharmaceutical route, there are a number of natural remedies that are proven to help canines with anxiety. The synthetic pheromone adaptil is available in spray and tablet form. It induces feelings of safety and comfort by triggering memories of infancy. Kalm Aid is a popular choice. It is widely sold and contains the ‘happy hormone’ L-tryptophan. It shares similarities with the neurotransmitter dopamine, a chemical responsible for feelings of confidence and satisfaction. Then, there are unobtrusive methods like the infamous Thunder Shirt. It is a snug jacket that applies gentle pressure to the torso. According to many users, this has a soothing effect and is great for keeping a dog calm.
Plan Ahead for Stressful Times
We’ve already mentioned Bonfire Night and NYE as times when your pet might feel especially frightened. Occasions like these can be just as stressful for owners because you’re likely to feel out of control. You may not be able to comfort your dog in an effective manner, and this can be upsetting. Ultimately though, it’s just about doing what you can. You have no control over other people, but there are ways to reduce the anxiety caused by fireworks, trick or treaters, and loud music. If at all possible, try not to leave your dog alone. If it’s the only option, build him a safe den in the quietest room of the house. Leave plenty of treats, toys, and soft blankets around. Make sure the curtains are closed.
Don’t Reward Bad Behavior
Caring for a dog with chronic anxiety is tough. There are risks associated with both ignoring the problem and giving it too much attention. It’s important not to reward or indulge bad behavior, even if it’s rooted in a fear response. Avoid yelling and scaring your pet, but don’t validate aggressive or destructive tendencies. Simply ignoring a needy animal is much more effective than shouting. Dogs crave our attention. Denying them, it is itself, a major punishment. So, give plenty of comfort and contact, unless he is exhibiting a behavior you don’t like. The message should be clear when you speak in your alpha voice and turn away from him completely.
Avoid All Forms of Tethering
Tethering, even for brief periods, can be very stressful for a dog. In fact, even canines without anxiety may find the experience overwhelming. So, avoid tying your pet up outside shops, cafes, and restaurants for any length of time. You can research dog-friendly establishments or just do your shopping another time. Think about how many stimuli and triggers are present around a shop. It’s common for people passing to touch and stroke tethered dogs. However, if your pet is fearful, there’s no telling how they’ll react. They could even try to bite out of self-defense. You’re essentially chaining your animal to an environment they don’t trust. They are out of control, and they may panic.
Take Socialization Slowly
Socialization is essential for all dogs because it teaches them how to interact safely with others. We can’t assume canines are born with this skill. They need to be taught through contact with many different types of people. This includes young children, dogs, and other animals. However, the process can be overwhelming for a dog prone to anxiety. It should be taken very slowly. In fact, do not expose your dog to anybody outside of the immediate household until they’ve built up trust with you first. Then, you can start to introduce people, one by one. Tell them about the character of your pet. Ask them to refrain from stroking the dog unless it approaches them voluntarily. Avoid raised voices and give him plenty of space to run and hide.
Start Obedience Training
Anxious dogs can be surprisingly adept at obedience training. This is because structured commands provide a sense of order. They are logical. The more skilled your pet becomes at following instructions, the safer they’ll feel, as the routines are familiar. Predictable events are key to treating anxiety and fostering a sense of calm in your home. When training, keep things simple. Start with basic commands like sit, stay, come, and lie down. Always keep your tone friendly and light. If the dog loses interest or starts to behave badly, just put the treats and toys away and move to another part of the house. It should be clear that you don’t appreciate destructive disobedience.
Be Powerful When Walking
Walking is a huge problem for dog owners of all kinds. Everybody has their own ideas about what constitutes good ownership. While many agree that all dogs should be on leads in populated areas, there will always be others who want to let their pets run free and interact with fellow animals. This can be a worry, as it’s hard to stop other dogs from approaching. Until the anxiety is under control, you may need to avoid populated areas entirely. Don’t take your pet to a dog park or a popular walking spot. Find your own space and keep a sizable distance between yourself and other walkers, if you do spot them. This should make it clear that you don’t want to stop, talk, and let your animal interact with another.
Recognizing the Most Common Causes of Anxiety
Sometimes, it won’t be clear why your dog is so afraid. They live in a safe, calm home, with lots of people who love them. It’s hard to understand where the fear comes from in this scenario. What you must remember is, even if it seems silly to you, it’s real to your pet. They need your support, so try to think of things from their perspective. Some of the most common causes of chronic anxiety are sickness and injury. As discussed, you’re likely to notice if this is the case. Your dog may have changed his habits, lost his cheery demeanor, and taken to hiding from guests. If you suspect a physical problem, consult with your vet to find a solution. Some illnesses lead to behavioral dysfunction.
The most common factor, after physiological explanations, is past trauma. It can be hard to heal, but the solution is plenty of love and patience. Your dog may have been abused, forced to fight with other animals, or kept isolated during their formative years. There is evidence to suggest dogs become habitually fearful if denied healthy social and environmental stimuli in infancy.
Finally, a constantly changing home is a major stress too. Dogs with chronic anxiety are significantly more likely to be rehomed two or more times. Therefore, you must fully commit to a pet with these issues. If you adopt a fearful dog and get bored of trying to train him, you’ll only contribute to his trauma. Don’t give up on him. The end result is worth all the hard work.