Dog Anxiety and Fears
Treating simple anxiety isn’t hard. Find something that your dog really likes such as a doggie treat or a squeaky toy. Plan an activity that usually brings about anxious behavior. If your dog is anxious around strangers, have a friend come over who is a stranger to your dog. Ignore any trembling, whining, or hiding. Sit beside your friend (face to face signals confrontation to a dog). Chat, laugh, share food, watch TV, or listen to music. You can bounce a ball (which will interest your dog) and acknowledge your dog calmly each time he moves forward to play ball. What you are trying to do is act like everything is perfectly normal. Don’t ask the dog to approach you by calling him or offering food. Ignore all fearful behavior and respond to all good interactive behavior.
Your dog may whine when left alone, be terrified during storms, be afraid of strangers, or suffer from full scale panic attacks from separation anxiety. Your first instinct when your dog displays anxious behavior such as trembling or hiding is to comfort him by petting, soothe him with your voice, babying him, or pick him up. Reassurances will make him feel better, but comforting also rewards him for acting afraid and makes it more likely that he will use the same strategy next time he needs to feel better. It also reinforces in the dog’s head that there is a good reason for his anxiety.
If your dog is afraid of riding in the car, try to get him to jump in and out of the car. You will not be taking a trip. The next day, get him to jump in, start the car while rewarding him, but again do not take a trip. After he gets familiar with the car and realizes it’s a safe place then you can start by taking several very short trips. You’ll want to make this very brief before he becomes nervous and overwhelmed — around the block and back home again. Praise him for good behavior. Gradually move up to longer trips but keep these car rides pleasant and don’t end up at a scary place like the veterinarian. Over time, he’ll become accustomed to riding in the car and might even jump in and wait for you to take him on a trip! The focus is to make him feel comfortable and accustomed to the things he used to fear.
Many dogs become very distressed when they hear loud noises such as thunder, fireworks, or vacuum cleaners. A fearful dog’s reactions include hiding, shaking, and occasionally destructive behaviors like chewing through screen doors or digging underneath fences to escape to safe territory. Noise phobias can stop a dog from hearing you when things become out of control for the dog. Dogs react to a variety of things associated with storms. The loud noise of thunder is scary to some dogs, and the dog can hear it at a much greater distance than humans can. The dog has early audio warning of an approaching storm, and most storm-phobic dogs eventually start reacting long before the sounds are loud. An effective solution is the Thundershirt anti-anxiety wrap for loud noises. Electricity in the air may be a major factor in dog storm phobia. The smell of the air changes when a storm approaches and of course the keen nose of a dog detects this early. The air pressure changes too, and a dog’s ears are more sensitive to pressure changes than most people. In some cases, the ears might hurt. There are several things you can try to help calm your dog down depending on the severity of the problem. If you are anticipating a storm or fireworks an extra long walk can help by tiring out your dog so that fatigue wins out over fear. Playing the radio or TV at a high volume can also mask the noise and relieve the fear. Providing your dog with a safe space where the noise level is lower, can often lessen the anxiety.
Reducing fear and anxiety is accomplished by behavior modification. The 3 techniques are called: counterconditioning, desensitizing, and flooding. If medication is needed, your veterinarian will give you a prescription for your dog. Bach Rescue Remedy for pets is a natural product (over the counter with no prescription needed), that has calming effects. Put 3 – 4 drops under his tongue and it will help settle him down.
Counterconditioning and desensitization are usually used in combination and are powerful ways to change behavior. Counterconditioning is used to get the dog to perform the desired behavior. Desensitization provides a means of safely exposing the dog to the stimulus. Flooding techniques involve continuously exposing the dog to the stimulus until he calms down — if he has no adverse reaction. If a dog has epilepsy any stressful event or anxiety can trigger a seizure. When a dog is flooded with the thing they perceive as a threat, the overwhelming stress can cause them “shut down” from stress. This is called learned helplessness and is not a good thing!
Behavior modification exercises must be done consistently for weeks to months before you’ll see permanent results. Another component that may help your dog to be less anxious is increased exercise. Exercise has mental as well as physical benefits for dogs. If your dog has any health problems, be sure to check with your veterinarian before beginning an exercise program. In addition to exercise, mental stimulation (working on commands, playing fetch, practicing agility exercises at home or in a class) can be very enjoyable and help to relieve stress. Many types of dogs were originally bred to do a job, and they can become stressed without the mental activity they would normally use if they were “working.”
Counterconditioning, Desensitization, and Flooding
Counterconditioning is teaching a different behavior than what was previously occurring in a situation. Counterconditioning is used to change your dog’s feelings or response to something he fears. You are creating positive pleasant feelings and your dog begins to feel happy, excited, or calm about things that previously caused your dog to feel fear and anxiety. It takes time and repetition. Do this by associating the feared thing with something good like a dog treat to create a pleasant emotional reaction. After many repetitions, your dog learns that whenever that feared thing appears, good things happen! Over time, your dog’s reaction is calm at the sight of the previously feared or disliked person, event, place, or object.
Desensitization is used in combination with counterconditioning. It will change your dogs attitude and response. Desensitization involves controlled gradual exposure to situations that cause your dog fear and anxiety, but at a level so low that there is no negative response. As your dog experiences the situation, but does not respond in the undesirable way, the animal becomes “less sensitive” to the situation, and the undesirable response is decreased. The key to effective desensitization is to design a situation from low to high, so your dog can gradually be exposed to progressively more intense levels of the situation without the undesirable behavior.
If your dog is afraid when you run the vacuum cleaner you start slow and first desensitize your dog to the vacuum cleaner. Put it in the center of the room, and don’t plug it in. Do this for a few days. Then put it into the center of the room and plug it in, but don’t turn it on. What you are doing is exposing your dog to the trigger. The next few days move the vacuum around the room without turning it on. Then after a few days, turn on the vacuum and use it to clean the floors. Act like nothing is unusual. You can combine counterconditioning and desensitizing together. Use a food treat as an incentive for your dog to behave calm. It may take days or weeks for your dog’s behavior to change. When you are satisfied with the results and his behavior is not fearful, phase out food rewards.
In order for desensitization and counterconditioning programs to be successful, it is necessary to have good control of the dog, a strongly motivating reward, good control of the stimulus, and a well-constructed desensitization gradient. Each session should be carefully planned. Dogs that are punished for inappropriate behavior (fear, aggressive displays) during the retraining program will become more anxious in association with the stimulus. Owners that try to reassure their dogs or calm them with food or toys while they are acting fearful will reinforce the behavior.
Flooding and exposure techniques involve continuously exposing the dog to the stimulus until he settles down. This technique is very traumatic and potentially harmful, because your dog is faced with the fear-inducing stimulus at its most extreme, and he is not allowed to escape, and this situation continues until the dog gives up. Why put your dog through such a horrible experience?
Separation anxiety is a common complaint of dog owners. They often come home to destroyed objects and neighbors complaining about the howling and barking. Separation anxiety correction consists of environmental control, behavior modification, and if needed — drug therapy.
Dogs are pack animals, and don’t like to be left alone. Some dogs will simply sigh and wait patiently for you to come back, and others will go into panic mode, crying and barking, trying to get you to come back. Some destroy things, such as plants, books, pillows, anything that was “yours”, even to the extent of urinating and defecating on the floor. Severely dependant dogs, and dogs that have been passed around, or abandoned are more likely to have separation anxiety than others. The thought of being abandoned again is terrifying. Most owners unknowingly reinforce this anxiety by making a production out of leaving, and trying to reassure the dog which has the opposite effect. Nothing enforces a dog’s belief that he has something to worry about more than somebody trying to keep him calm. Like all fears, desensitizing your dog to your comings and goings will help him get over his fear of abandonment. It is best to stretch this process out over several weeks, but if you need to you can try to compress it into a couple of days.
Prepare yourself to walk out the door and practice ignoring your dog completely. Do not say good-bye, do not cuddle him, and do not let on that you are leaving at all. This is a very common mistake people make. By reassuring your dog that you will return in only a little while, showing him affection, hoping he calms down, you are only reinforcing the fears that your dog had to begin with. Just ignore him completely and prepare yourself to do this from now on. If he sits nicely and watches you calmly, this is the time to reward him lavishly. This is the behavior you want to reinforce. Do not punish your dog if he gets nervous as this will only increase anxiety. Avoid playing with the dog prior to departure. Although a long walk or run with your dog prior to leaving will tire him out and a tired dog is a good dog! Practice graduated departures. Go through some of the steps associated with departure several times per day, but do not leave.
Practice departure exercises 1 – 2 times per day for 10 – 15 minutes each time. Teach your dog to “Sit”, using small food rewards, then teach to “Stay” on command, when you walk to the door, step outside and remain away for a short period of time. Progress slowly by increasing the time away. It should be gradual enough so that the dog does not get up or get excited. The goal is to teach the dog that he can be obedient and relaxed in the absence of the owner. Also practice independence training. During day-to-day routines, such as watching television, tell your dog to stay some distance away instead of allowing the dog to sit in your lap or be touched by you.
If your dog is an “only” dog it is possible that this exacerbates his separation anxiety. Although not recommended as a cure-all, you may want to consider getting another dog for companionship, or find a playmate for your dog. Dogs benefit greatly from canine companionship. Schedule a playtime for your dog with another dog that he likes once or twice a week. Some dogs that do not have canine companionship become overly dependent on their humans and experience a great amount of stress whenever they are not accompanied by a human.
For dogs with separation anxiety, the most effective approach is generally a combination of environmental control, behavior modification exercises (therapy), and anti-anxiety medication. The medication is used to help your dog relax so that he can concentrate on performing the behavior modification exercises. Any anti-anxiety drug prescribed by your veterinarian needs to be given exactly as directed. Dogs with separation anxiety have a higher overall anxiety level, and drugs used as part of a treatment plan for separation anxiety need to be given regularly, not just when the dog seems anxious. Patience is important as it can take weeks to months for certain drugs to become effective. It is often necessary to try several drugs or combinations of drugs to determine what will work best for an individual dog.
Intelligent Diversions and Creative Play
When your dog picks up something he shouldn’t, trade it for something he should play with. Rotate his toys and chews to keep them interesting. When you see him choose the right thing notice it! Praise him and have a quick game. Toys are either interactive or pacifier. Interactive toys are toys which are the most fun played with you. Pacifier toys are toys designed to keep the bored dog occupied.
Safe Pacifiers for Alone Times
Kongs are rubber toys that bounce around. Add a bit of peanut butter, a square of cheese, or treats. Fill several and hide them in the house or yard and they will keep your dog busy for hours.
Nylabones come in a variety of shapes and sizes and hardness, from the edible varieties which are intended to be eaten, or dental bones designed to massage gums and clean teeth. If your dog isn’t interested, roughen the edges so it looks like another dog enjoyed it first, and then rub peanut butter or squeeze cheese into the crevasses.
Chew toys such as hooves, rawhide, pig ears, and knuckle bones chosen carefully (the right size and hardness for your dog’s particular chewing style) can provide hours of chewing satisfaction. If your dog bites off chunks or consumes them quickly they could cause digestive upset or intestinal blockage. Real bones can be safe for some dogs and not for others, depending on how powerfully they chew — heavy chewers can suffer from tooth fractures. There is much debate over raw vs. cooked bones for chewing.
Knotted ropes can massage gums and keep your dog’s teeth clean, plus the added play value of shaking, tossing, and pouncing. Some come with rubber toys or tennis balls added for even more fun. You can hide biscuits in the knots to encourage your dog and add interest.
Brain Toys and Games
Tricks and more tricks. You are only limited by your imagination! Sit up, shake hands, roll over, chase your tail, take a bow, and balance a treat on his nose.
Hide his meals and make him use his nose by putting down a widely spaced trail of kibble to the hidden bowl. Gradually day by day decrease the number of “clues” until your dog is finding his bowl without kibble trails.
Teach your dog to play hide and seek, by having a family member hide, have them call “come!” and send the dog to find them — start out easy and make it more and more difficult each day. Play this game in the dark to encourage your dog to use his sense of smell.
Buster Cubes are plastic cubes that give dogs mental stimulation, exercise, relief from boredom and are designed to be filled with bite sized dry dog food or treats. The food is released as the dog rolls the cube with his nose or paws.
If your dog loves to dig, make him an appropriate place to do it in a sandbox. Bury his favorite toys, bones, and some treats before your dog goes out to play in the sandbox.
Take him out of the room and hide his favorite toy and send him in to find it. Put out a pile of his favorite toys in the center of the room, and have him retrieve them by name.
Teach your dog to deliver notes or other items to other family members. “Take this to mommy” will give your dog a job he can be proud of!
Make obstacle courses similar to agility courses. Play games such as over, under, around, and through. Large cardboard boxes can become tunnels. A wide board and a couple of cinder blocks can become a bridge.
Active Games and Other Activities
Play fetch. Throw tennis balls and have your dog retrieve it back to you, or throw a Frisbee high in the air for your dog catch.
Running and jogging will tire out a dog. Start slow and build distance gradually with soft surfaces and short distances for young dogs, check pads before and after every run, and avoid the heat of the day. During cold weather make sure the dog pads aren’t injured. Cart or sled pulling is enjoyed by Newfoundlands, Bernese Mt. Dogs, Pyrenees, Siberian Huskies, Alaskan Malamutes, and larger breeds.
A child’s wading pool is great fun for water loving breeds who love spending hot summer days splashing in water. Swimming is good exercise and a great way to cool off. Not all dogs naturally know how to swim! Doggy life jackets are a good idea when boating.
Keep Your Dog Happy
Provide exercise for your dog several times a day. Don’t take the same route everyday when you take your dog for a walk. Provide stimulus and play with your dog when you are home.
Dogs feel “rewarded” for fearful behavior if you pet and praise when the dog is behaving fearful. Rewarding a behavior increases the likelihood of that behavior occurring more often. Give rewards when the dog is behaving confidently, calmly, and happy. Work with your dog to develop ways to elicit good behavior.
When you experience bad behavior, don’t shout or yell and never hit because that will only increase anxiety. Punishing or crating an anxious dog is a bad thing to do since they cannot control the anxiety and may try to destroy the crate or injure themselves.
You can help your dog overcome fear and prevent anxiety by ignoring anxious behavior and rewarding good behavior.
Anything that is new or unfamiliar to your dog could pose a threat to his life so it’s normal for a dog to fear the unusual. But some dogs fear common events or things that can’t be prevented such as: car rides, the groomer, the veterinarian, thunderstorms, family members, water, hats, crowded buildings, other dogs, sirens, children screaming, rollerblades, skateboards, gunshots, bicycles, cars, and trucks. If your dog is genuinely frightened of a specific person, object or event that can be avoided, it’s appropriate to simply avoid it if at all possible. Many forms of problem behaviors are a result of a dog’s fears. In the home or anywhere your dog has you to protect him, this anxiety is unnecessary.