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How to Manage and Treat Fear and Anxiety in Dogs

Anxiety in dogs isn't uncommon. Many dogs become anxious due to medical conditions, such as illness, injury, or the aging process; or because of past experiences (or lack of experiences) that can cause them to fearfully anticipate a future danger. As you can imagine, living with anxiety isn't pleasant. It makes the dog's life more difficult and certainly not as fun as it could be, and anxiety makes their humans' lives harder too! Here are some tips on how to understand and manage anxiety in dogs.

Symptoms of Anxiety in Dogs

The symptoms of anxiety in dogs can be obvious, or they can be subtle depending on the level of anxiety. Some of the more common signs include:

  • Tail tucked inward or underneath the body;
  • Withdrawal or attempts to hide, including trying to make themselves small or "tucking" themselves into a smaller ball;
  • Excessive panting;
  • Drooling;
  • Excessive vocalization, such as whining or barking;
  • Pacing, restlessness, or panicky behaviour;
  • Out-of-character aggression;
  • Destructiveness;
  • Trying to escape;
  • Urinating or defecating (including diarrhea);
  • Compulsive behaviour, such as licking or biting themselves.

Causes of Anxiety

Anxiety and fear in dogs most often result from illness or injury (especially those that cause pain); lack of socialization or exposure to new things during the first 14 weeks of life; and previous negative experiences. Previous negative experiences can be a big trigger for anxiety, especially if the dog was unable to "escape" the experience. For example, a tethered dog who is unable to get away from loose dogs harassing or bullying him may develop anxiety around other dogs.

Older dogs in particular may feel anxious for medical reasons. Arthritis pain, for example, can cause dogs to become less tolerant of others animals in their space. So too can failing vision; many dogs who don't see well may become stressed when they sense others dogs rushing towards them. Senior dogs may also show signs of canine cognitive dysfunction, or senility.

Your veterinarian can rule out any underlying medical reasons that can be causing anxiety in your dog.

Treating and Managing Anxiety in Dogs

Dogs are individuals, just as humans are. You will likely need to try more than one management method to find the ones that work best for your dog. Sometimes multiple methods are needed over the long-term. Some dogs will become less anxious with time and you may find you no longer need to work so hard at managing their anxiety.

Desensitization

Desensitization is when you repeatedly expose your dog to whatever causes his anxiety in increasing intensity. At first, you keep the exposure low, ideally at an intensity where your dog doesn't have a negative reaction. You gradually increase the intensity as your dog gets accustomed to the stimulus, each time making sure that your that your dog isn't getting overly-anxious. The idea is to get him so used to the stimulus that he no longer reacts to it. Desensitization works very well when combined with counter-conditioning (see below).

One of my dogs was terrified of thunder. A few days after we adopted him, we had a thunderstorm - and we were surprised to see him trembling, drooling, and panicking. Our previous dogs would barely flick an ear even when massive booms of thunder would make our home shake! But this dog, he was so afraid it seemed that he couldn't even hear us. He loved to eat and yet during thunderstorms, he didn't even seem to notice the food we were offering to try to distract him.

We started desensitizing him slowly by playing audio recordings of thunderstorms, very quietly. We also watched the weather forecast. When a thunderstorm was coming, we would put him in a room on one of the lower levels of our home, without windows and where we knew the sounds of the storm would be minimal. We didn't make it a big deal - just sat and played games with him, or brushed him. Over time, whenever there was another thunderstorm, we gradually moved him into rooms that were more exposed to the sounds until eventually, he was able to stay with us in the living room. It took us about a year (we don't have that many thunderstorms!) but he was eventually able to blissfully sleep through storms.

Counter-Conditioning

Counter-conditioning is changing how your dog views and responds to the thing that's causing him anxiety. Instead of focusing on the source of his anxiety, your dog learns to focus on something else. An example is teaching a dog who's reactive to other dogs to "watch me" (watch the owner) instead of hyper-focusing on the other dog. Counter-conditioning and desensitization naturally work well hand-in-hand.

My thunder-fearing dog was counter-conditioned with things he loved: primarily food - extra-yummy treats that he wouldn't normally get - and food games. So long as the sound of the thunder was at a level that didn't trigger substantial anxiety, food never failed to pique his interest. He was much more interested in doing things to get to these treats, rather than focusing on the thunder.

Non-Medical Intervention

Sometimes a little extra something can help to better (or faster) alleviate a dog's anxiety. The Thundershirt is a popular way to help calm a dog's anxiety; it works by applying gentle, constant pressure around the dog's body, "much like swaddling an infant". One of my dogs had dementia and he tended to "sundown - becoming much more restless and anxious in the evening. Once wrapped in his Thundershirt, he'd calm down within the house and was able to sleep through most of the night.

There are also calming scents, like the Dog Appeasing Pheromone Collar (DAP Collar) or spray. The idea is that DAP is supposed to mimick the pheromones emitted by mother dogs when they nurse their puppies, soothing and calming any anxieties.

Bach Rescue Remedy is another popular choice for pets with anxiety. A few drops of this liquid can be added to the dog's food or water, or rubbed onto a nose, ear or paw. It's a good idea to ask your vet about using this for your dog to make sure that it's safe for your particular pet.

While these things don't help all dogs with their anxiety, they help a lot of them. These options are relatively inexpensive, easy-to-use, and drug-free.

Medical Help

Some dogs have extreme anxiety. Non-medical methods for managing their anxiety may not work well (or at all), or may take much more time before they start to help. In these cases, your veterinarian may recommend medications to help lessen your dog's anxiety more quickly. Many people are reluctant to "drug up" their dogs, due to concerns about side effects and risks. However, living with stress is no fun for anymore - including your dog. You will need to decide whether the benefits of medication outweigh the risks for your dog. Your vet can advise you on your options.

CBD oil is known to help some dogs with anxiety as well. CBD stands for "cannabidiols", a substance found in cannabis plants. That doesn't mean your dog will get "high" - CBD on its own is non-psychoactive (THC is the substance that causes the "high"). Pet owners are beginning to increasingly use CBD oil with high concentrations of CBD, and with no THC (or tiny trace amounts). The availability of CBD will depend on where you live as it's not legal everywhere. Not much is currently known about how CBD can benefit pets; talk to your veterinarian for guidance.

Never give human medications to pets. When adding any type of medication or supplement (whether or not those supplements are "natural"), always consult your vet first. Make him or her aware of everything your pets take to ensure they're safe to use together.

Avoiding Triggers

Sometimes, other methods don't work or aren't practical. You may need to avoid the things or situations that cause anxiety in your dog is another option. For example, if your dog is afraid of loud noises like thunder or fireworks, then make sure he is safely kept inside, ideally in a room where the sounds would be muted - and perhaps with the radio or TV on to help minimize the sounds. Likewise, if other dogs are a trigger, then avoid dog parks and go for walks at times or in areas where you're less likely to meet other dogs.

Of course, there are times when situations can't be avoided. One example of this is when dogs are anxious about going to the vet. Our pets need medical care, so we can hardly avoid the vet... but we can learn to interact calmly at the vet's (which helps to keep our dogs calm), make sure our dogs are well-trained (helping them to focus on us), and use tools to keep everyone safe (like a basket muzzle).

Things You Can Do At Home to Lessen Anxiety

  • Train your dog. Short, fun training sessions can help you to develop a stronger bond with your dog and strengthen the trust between you. It is much easier to gain the attention of a trained dog and keep him focused on you, rather than obsessing about the source of his anxiety.

  • Learn to understand dog body language. Know when your dog is starting to get uncomfortable and distance or remove him from the situation. You can also use the opportunity to try to counter-condition, and offer super-yummy treats.

  • Provide adequate exercise, both physical and mental. Ever hear the phrase, "A tired dog is a happy dog"? Dogs who get lots of exercise - whether that's through walks or runs, playing games, including mental games like nosework - tend to be calmer and less likely to get into mischief or develop anxious behaviours. That's because exercise produces a natural "feel-good" chemical called serotonin. Exercise also helps to tire out our dogs, allowing them to relax more easily. Even older dogs need exercise!

  • Keep your dog as healthy as possible. Feed them nutritious food, take care of any underlying medical issues, and especially do your best to make sure that pain - whether from injury, illness, arthritis, etc - doesn't factor into your pet's life.

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Topic: How to Manage Anxiety in Dogs
 
 
Sandra Walsh says...

T Touch can be very helpful in cases of dogs afraid of thunderstorms. A 10 minute session several hours before an expected storm can do wonders! Anyone can learn how to perform simple TTouch methods.

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