Understanding Your Anxious Dog

Anxiety in dogs seems to be more and more common these days. That likely has something to do with the increased pace of our lives (meaning less exercise/interaction for your canine) and the increase in rules & confinement (often creating more mental frustration & a lack of social interaction). The world is also busier than ever meaning that dogs need to learn to acclimate to A LOT! Some dogs can do this easily, while others struggle greatly.

Luckily, there are some things you can do to help your anxious dog, and the first of those things is truly understanding them. Anxiety creates many behavior problems, so understanding where the behaviors are coming from and how to alleviate that anxiety will help your canine not only feel better but behave better too!

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Lucky Paws Board & Train dog Finnegan. Finn struggled with anxiety related behavior problems, but she is now in a much better place due to behavior modification, training, management and the help of behavioral medicine.

What is anxiety?

If you were to pull out a dictionary, it would read something like…

Anxiety: distress or uneasiness of mind caused by fear of danger or misfortune OR a nervous disorder characterized by a state of excessive uneasiness and apprehension, often with compulsive behavior or panic attacks.

This means that an anxious dog suffers from an uneasy mind. They are often excessively worried about what might happen and often have reactions to things that frighten them that are not proportionate to the stimuli (similar to a panic attack). Most anxious dogs have increased sensitivity to environmental stimuli, an exaggerated startle response, hyper-vigilance, and long recovery after arousing events.

The difference between a “normal” dog and an anxious dog:

When a “normal” dog is confronted by something it doesn’t understand (hasn’t seen before, considers it may be threatening), you may see a small amount of wariness in the body language (moving slowly, lowering head, moving away slowly), but after a few moments of evaluating the situation, curiosity typically kicks in and the dog begins using his senses to investigate (assuming the thing it didn’t understand was not actually something threatening).

When an anxious dog is confronted with the same situation, there is an exaggerated startle response. The dog may physically jump back or run away, bark at the trigger and generally exaggerate the level of threat. Many anxious dogs will either take much longer to get to the point of evaluating the situation, or skip it entirely and just run away to avoid the situation. Anxious dogs generally take quite some time to fully recover from a stressful event, sometimes taking several hours (and even occasionally days) after a stressful event.

Similarly, anxious dogs are often on edge. They are hyper-vigilant, constantly scanning their environment on the lookout for something scary. The world is a continuous stream of unknowns, so when outside of their safe zone (their crate, your home etc), they are constantly scanning the horizon for the next scary thing. This makes things like walks, and field trips to the park scary events. Some dogs may decide they no longer enjoy walks or trips to the park, but many are conflicted because they enjoy being at the park or they enjoy sniffing things on the walk, so they get excited to go on the walk, even though it tends to be a fairly stressful experience for them.

Anxious dogs tend to learn at a normal level in quiet environments but really struggle to learn and comply with commands they know in busier environments, or environments with a lot of stimuli.

To an anxious dog, the world is often at least a little overwhelming (sometimes incredibly overwhelming). To an anxious dog, a quiet yard can resemble a busy amusement park but instead of everything looking fun and exciting, it’s quite overwhelming and often scary. Remember that dogs have much better hearing and smelling abilities than people, so where we may see or hear nothing, they see and hear a lot!

Helping Your Anxious Dog

Once you understand your anxious
dog and how they see the world, helping them becomes easier. We can control how we expose them to the frightening stimuli so that they can learn not only to feel more at ease in their world, but also to trust our judgement which makes them feel safer.

Use Counter Conditioning

Counter conditioning involves pairing the scary stimuli with something the dog loves (play, affection, high value food rewards etc). When you come across something that frightens your dog, begin praising your dog and even stop to feed him a few treats or play. We want him to think that great things happen when the scary thing happens. Over time, he will begin to like the scary thing because it brings great things! That means, it will no longer be a scary thing!

What to do when your dog has a strong reaction to a trigger (barking, running away etc.)

First you need to stop the reaction as quickly as possible to avoid a huge spike in stress hormones which makes it more difficult to come back down from the fear. Immediately moving the dog away from the trigger to a place where he can actually think and evaluate the situation is helpful. Once you find the location where the dog can function, try to regain the dog’s attention and use food, praise and play (counter conditioning) to get the dog in a better state of mind. Getting your dog into a better state of mind is important. We need to give your dog’s brain the ability to slow down enough to evaluate the situation instead of just immediately reacting to something he doesn’t understand.

Here are a few Dos & Don’ts for helping your anxious dog.

Refrain from harsh discipline: This doesn’t mean you never correct your dog, it only means that you control the level of the correction, especially in the presence of scary stimuli. Any time your dog is around something that makes him uncomfortable, you want to be positive. Fear and anxiety are emotions your dog doesn’t have much control over. Harsh punishment can actually increase anxiety and damage your relationship with your dog.

Change the way you console your dog: Instead of trying to soothe your dog’s anxiety by picking them up, petting them and saying “Your ok…” in a quiet manner, try to change his state of mind by making things fun. Condition him to feel happy in the presence of things that produce anxiety by pairing scary stimuli with fun. This of course needs to happen at a distance that is not too overwhelming for your dog.

Avoid the fearful stimulus when you aren’t able to work on counter conditioning: This doesn’t mean avoid it entirely. If you do, your dog will never learn to feel more comfortable when confronted by things he is fearful of. Only avoid when you are unable to work on counter conditioning. We don’t want to ingrain the fear any more than it already is.

Take the time to learn your dog’s body language: Being able to read your dog and recognize anxiety quickly is a very important part of the rehabilitation process.

Be a good leader your dog can trust: Take the time to counter condition your dog. Teach him that he can trust you to evaluate the situation and get him to a place where he can feel comfortable every time. When he learns to trust you, he will have more confidence to try
situations he may have otherwise not been comfortable with because he trusts you are there to help him through it.

Check your behavior and emotions: Dogs are very good at picking up on human emotions and can sense any stress or anxiety you may be feeling. Not surprisingly, many anxious dogs have anxious owners. Tackling your own stress and anxiety and being confident for your dog makes a world of difference. Anxious dogs are more likely to be able to feel comfortable in their world if they are confident that if anything does come up that is scary, you will handle it. You need to teach your dog they can trust you by immediately taking action when something frightens them, first getting them feeling safe, then following that by helping them adapt and learn about the thing that made them fearful. Soon they will begin to want to investigate things they don’t understand instead of feeling fear and anxiety.

Provide your dog with a routine life: Anxious dogs function best with a routine. They like to know as much as possible what is going to happen next.

Provide lots of physical and mental exercise: Physical and mental exercise boost serotonin levels naturally. Serotonin is a feel good chemical that is depleted when stressful events happen. The less serotonin there is in your dog’s system, the weaker his ability to cope with stress.

Teach your dog that paying attention to you is great: If you have your dog’s attention, they are more likely to be able to listen to commands in stressful environments. Keeping their attention is the key to success. This means that anxious dogs often rely on rewards in stimuli rich environments for much longer than your average dog.

Additional Helpful Tools:

Natural Calming Remedies: Pet stores sell many herbal supplements for anxiety. This is a great place to start before resorting to prescription medication (which can be a great option for some dogs). Be sure to consult your vet before choosing a remedy, especially if your dog is on any medication.

Comfort Zone Plug-In: This releases something that mimics a mother’s natural pheromones which helps to relax your dog. This can be great in conjunction with other calming remedies.

Pheromone Collar: Similar to the plug-in, this is a collar that helps relax your dog. This is great for dogs who are anxious outside of the house.

Thundershirt: Anxiety wraps use pressure to calm your dog.


Need Training Help?

Need some help with teaching your dog to cope better with their anxiety? We can help! Give us a call (612-388-9656) or send us an email (heather@luckypawsmn.com) anytime!

www.LuckyPawsMN.com


 

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Polite Greetings

It is not uncommon to have a dog who jumps up on either its owners or on guests. This behavior is generally a behavior that is learned as a very young puppy, and as the dog grows, we no longer think its cute to jump and crawl all over us and lick our faces.cropped-100_6494.jpg

So what do we do?

First things first. We need to help our dogs understand that four paws on the floor or sitting is what earns attention. This means that you need to go out of your way to pay attention to your dog when s/he is behaving properly. Remember, it is easy to ignore a well behaved dog, much harder to ignore one jumping up on you. Don’t ignore your dog when they are polite! Go our of your way to reward them. If your dogs paws come off the floor, immediately turn and walk away from your dog (in some cases you may need to even walk into a different room and close the dog out of the room). We need to communicate effectively that jumping up will earn the exact opposite of what they want (they are looking for attention, we are taking our attention away). Help your dog by asking s/he for a sit before offering affection/attention.

 
Dogs do what works!

The idea is to send a very clear message to our dogs, that jumping up earns a loss of attention, while sitting politely earns tons of attention! Consistency is the key here. If you give your dog attention just once while his paws are off the floor, he will continue to try the behavior. Keep in mind that for dogs that have been jumping for a while, this behavior will generally get worse before it gets better. This is called an extinction burst. The dog previously was rewarded with attention for jumping, now all of a sudden it isn’t working any more, so the dog tries harder and harder, until he realizes it is no longer working.
Once your dog seems to understand that sitting or keeping four paws on the floor is most likely to earn attention, we can move on to working with our dogs around guests who come into our homes or people we meet while out walking.

 
In-Home: IMAG0681

The most effective strategy for curbing jumping on guests is the concept of using short time-outs as a consequence for jumping behavior (note: this concept can be used for other rude greeting behaviors as well, but it is suggested that you tackle one rude behavior at a time). I call these time-outs social isolation. The idea is that any time the dogs paws come off the floor to jump, we immediately say “Ah,Ah” (or some other no reward marker) and quickly bring them to a nearby time-out space such as a crate or bathroom, and leave them there for 15 seconds. The amount of time is just long enough for the dog to realize it’s a bit of a bummer, while not long enough to really stress them out. Placing the dog in the time out area is effectively taking away the reward (the guest) without having to tell your guest to walk away. It is easiest to have the dog on the leash for this exercise. If you are concerned about the dog not liking his crate after this exercise, use a different time out space. You may also provide your dog with time-outs for jumping on you as well, it doesn’t have to be for just guests. This also works quite well for the time when you first come home and the dog is very excited to see you. Remove the dog from the crate, if he s/she jumps, place back in the crate for 15 seconds, repeat.

 
Behind the Gate Technique:

Place your dog behind a baby gate (be sure s/he won’t jump it) and have your guest approach the dog when s/he has four paws on the floor. If the dog jumps, the person moves away, if the dog is polite, it receives attention.

 
PLEASE NOTE: If your dog is fearful of or reactive toward people, it is best to address the fear or reactivity before addressing any jumping behavior. These techniques will not work well for dogs who are fearful or aggressive toward people and may actually make matters worse. If you are dealing with a fearful or reactive dog, we can help. Give us a call at 612-388-9656 or email us at Heather@luckypawsmn.com

Holiday Safety & Training Tips

Food and family are the best things about the upcoming holidays. Since our dogs are members of our family too, many will likely be included in these festivities, but the truth is an ill or ill-mannered dog can quickly turn a wonderful holiday into a stressful situation. If you don’t want your dog jumping all over your guests, or getting sick from consuming things they shouldn’t eat around the holidays, read on!

Good Eats!IMAG1938

It can be tempting to want to treat the furry, tail-wagging members of your family to some of your delicious concoctions. Before giving them goodies, it’s important that you know about some very toxic foods that could cause immense pain, neurological issues, and even death if enough of these foods are consumed by your dog.

Many people know that chocolate, raisins and alcohol are dangerous for dogs. But don’t forget about the onions and garlic that you may use to season your meal. Other potentially dangerous spices and foods include, sage, nutmeg, cinnamon, macadamia nuts and walnuts. Over consumption of sugar from cakes, puddings, pies, and even cranberry sauce can cause pancreatitis. Even the turkey skin can be dangerous due to the high fat content (which can also cause pancreatitis). Also, cooked bones are much more likely to splinter than uncooked bones, and can not only cause stomach upset, but can also get stuck in your dog’s throat or digestive tract which can be very dangerous.

While all this may make us sound like party-poopers, there are some healthy snacks that you can give your dog as a special Thanksgiving treat. Raw or cooked carrots and green beans are healthy and low calorie treats.  Also, fresh or canned pumpkin is proven to help dog’s digestion. You can even treat your dog to a small amount turkey if it is skin-less and not heavily seasoned. Keep in mind that some dogs’ digestive systems are more sensitive than others, so even healthy treats can sometimes cause stomach upset.

Holiday Training Tips

Food isn’t the only thing to think about if you are hosting or attending a big family get together over the holidays with your dog. Common behavior problems that might put a damper on your dinner are jumping on or mouthing guests, counter surfing, and begging at the table.

Jumping and mouthing are attention seeking behaviors. This means that the best way to train your dog to not jump and mouth is to completely remove any possibility of attention by walking away and completely ignoring your dog.  Your dog behavior may get worse before it gets better (this is called an extinction burst), but dogs only do what works, and so over time, your dog will figure out that jumping and barking no longer work as a means of getting attention. Once your dog has learned to not jump on you, invite guests over to help with a training session so your dog can learn that the no-jumping rule applies to everyone, not just you. If your guests are unwilling or unable to ignore your dog’s attention seeking behaviors, it is important that you immediately remove your dog from the greeting to reinforce that jumping and mouthing never gets them attention. It also helps to reward calm behavior by giving treats and attention anytime you see your dog greeting with four paws on the floor, politely asking for attention by sitting and waiting in front of you, or laying down in the presence of guests.

Keeping food out on the counter or table can often prove to be too tempting for your otherwise polite pooch. To prevent counter surfing and begging, you can teach your dog to stay out of your kitchen and dining area, or even a “Place” or “Go Lay Down” command. It is equally as important to avoid feeding your dog from the counter or table, and instead feed any goodies in their dog bowl. If you catch your dog counter surfing or begging, immediately remove them from the area and encourage them to instead go to their “Place” or “Go Lay Down.”

Just imagine your dog showing your family what a polite and calm dog they can be. You CAN enjoy the holidays with your dog if you take the time to teach them the important skills needed to be that polite pooch!

Happy Holidays from all of us at Lucky Paws! 

Written By: Jessi Weaver