UNDERSTANDING YOUR ANXIOUS DOG: STEP ONE
ARE FEAR AND ANXIETY THE SAME THING?
If an animal is afraid of something specific, does that qualify as anxiety? Is an anxious animal an animal that’s afraid of anything and everything?
Fear is an emotional response to an identifiable threat. It’s necessary for survival and helps us make safe decisions. Fear is normal, although it can sometimes be exaggerated.
An animal’s behavioural responses to anxiety look a lot like their responses to fear. But anxiety is a state, a feeling that persists over time. The trigger may be hard to identify, since anxiety is often about anticipated threats. Being in a near constant state of heightened alertness and tension can put your pet on edge, making daily life (not to mention training!) much more difficult.
WHAT COULD BE MAKING YOUR CANINE COMPANION SO ANXIOUS?
Anxiety in dogs can be caused by a variety of factors, including:
- Life experience
IS ANXIETY NORMAL?
If it’s relatively mild and you can identify the trigger, anxiety is completely normal. For instance, your dog may get anxious at times or in places that they associate with a bad experience, past discomfort, insecurity, or some other negative emotion. For example, your dog may show anxiety:
- In cars
- Around new people
- In new environments
- At the vet’s office
- In response to certain noises
In these situations, your dog’s anxiety, which looks a lot like fear, should dissipate once they’re away from the anxiety-inducing situation. But some dogs can develop persistent anxiety, or generalized anxiety disorder, which can significantly impact their quality of life.
WHEN TO WORRY…ABOUT YOUR DOG’S ANXIETY
Anxiety can become an issue if it continues even when there’s no obvious rationale behind it. Your dog may lose their ability to accurately gauge how dangerous a situation is and may anticipate threats where they don’t exist. That feeling of fear can become almost constant, leaving them emotionally distressed and always on their guard.
The persistent feeling of insecurity can make training more difficult, and the usual education and training techniques often won’t have the desired effect. Plus, even if your dog is naturally obedient, they may be unable to respond to basic commands in situations that seem completely mundane to you. Why? Because obedience doesn’t help them distinguish between perceived and real threats.
Depending on your dog’s personality, they may develop other problem behaviours as a result of their anxiety. Excessive barking and aggression are two of the big ones. Want to know more about these behaviours? Read our articles on:
- Aggression in dogs
HOW ANXIOUS DOGS BEHAVE
SIGNS OF ANXIETY
No two dogs are alike, so dogs that are fearful or anxious may act out in different ways. Here are the most common signs that your dog may be suffering from some sort of anxiety:
- Barking and whining
- Balking (e.g., refusing to move when out for a walk)
- Lack of interest in exploring
- Avoidance, escape, or hiding (e.g., they hide every time you have a visitor)
- Exaggerated motor activity
- Heightened attention or watchfulness (their ears are always pricked up or they react to every noise or movement)
- Inability to relax
- Scratching on the door or floor
- Stiffening of the body
- Tail lowered or tucked between the legs
- Ears pinned back or facial tension
- Furrowed brow
- Dilated pupils
- Whale eyes
- Lip licking
- Frequent yawning
- Panting or cheek puffing
- Raised hackles or piloerection
- Defecation and/or urination
- Attention seeking: Exaggerated efforts to interact with you
BEING OVERLY ALERT
An overly alert dog is constantly on their guard, sensitive to the slightest change or disturbance. You may not even notice it; your dog may just seem to be focused on something or in “observation” mode. There are a few signs that can tell you whether your dog feels calm or overly alert:
- Tense vs. relaxed posture
- Erect vs. relaxed ears (in a natural position)
- Eyes that are constantly moving vs. closed or half-closed eyes
HELPING RELIEVE YOUR DOG’S ANXIETY: OUR RECOMMENDATIONS
PROVIDE A SOOTHING ENVIRONMENT
Make your dog’s environment as calming as possible, with minimal potential sources of stress. This may include:
- Playing background music as white noise
- Avoiding crowded areas when you go for walks
- Closing off areas that make them wary
- Speaking softly to them
- Avoiding stressful situations
RESPECT YOUR DOG’S BOUNDARIES
Don’t force your dog to go somewhere or be around someone that makes them anxious. If they balk at approaching or interacting, respect their feelings.
CREATE POSITIVE ASSOCIATIONS
If your dog has to be in a situation that makes them anxious, give them something they love. If you have a visitor, for example, you could give your nervous pooch a Kong® toy filled with food. Or be ready with their favourite treats when they get their claws trimmed or there’s a thunderstorm. But if they’re not interested, don’t force it.
Positive reinforcement is a technique used to change your pet’s emotional response by modifying the association they have with something that initially triggered fear.
COULDN’T THIS JUST REINFORCE THEIR FEARS?
Nope! With this technique, there’s no risk of reinforcing your dog’s fears. The goal is to change their emotional response from something negative to something positive.
ESTABLISH A ROUTINE
Try to get your dog into a routine in terms of their environment, your schedule, and your interactions. Work on developing clear, ongoing communication to prevent confusion and distress.
DON’T PUNISH YOUR PET
Avoid any kind of physical or verbal punishment because it will only cause your dog more anxiety and could weaken your bond.
Even using the word “No,” which may seem trivial to you, is a no-no. Instead of using negative language, tell your pet what you would like them to do. Otherwise you’re not giving your dog all the information (telling them not to do something without telling them what you’d like them to do instead), which may heighten their anxiety.
Observe your dog’s body language to determine their comfort level. Learn to read their physical cues and respect their emotional state. Always give them an out so they can flee or withdraw if that’s what they want.
If your dog growls, heed the warning: put an end to the interaction right away and put some distance between them and the stressful situation.
HAVE THEM WEAR A YELLOW SCARF
A yellow scarf on a dog is a universal code that they need more space. Have your pet wear one on walks—people will be more cautious about approaching, which will make your pooch more comfortable.
TRY SOOTHING PRODUCTS
There are products that can alleviate your dog’s anxiety, including:
- Appeasing pheromone diffusers (e.g., Adaptil®)
- Natural calming products (e.g., Zylkène®)
- Soothing wraps (e.g., Thundershirt®)
Every animal is different, so there’s no way to be absolutely sure which product will work for your dog. But one thing’s for certain: trying them out can be very beneficial for your canine companion.
Talk to your veterinarian to find out more.
WEATHER THE STORM
Fear of thunderstorms is a common phobia in anxious dogs. If your dog gets nervous during a storm or similar scenario, read our blog post on the topic.
COME SEE US
If you’ve followed all our tips above and Rover still isn’t over it:
- Attend our Anxiety workshop to learn more about the topic and get all the advice you need
- Talk to your veterinary team to:
- Rule out any underlying medical issues
- See if soothing products would help
- Get suggestions for tools and activities to use
Depending on where you live, you can also meet with one of our behavioural consultants.