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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Preventing Resource Guarding

No one ever wants to think their sweet puppy may someday growl or snarl when you try to take away his bone or walk past his food bowl, but this is actually a pretty common occurrence.

Does your puppy…

  • Eat REALLY fast!brown-labrador-12
  • Become very still when you approach his food or bone
  • Play keep away with his possessions

Did you know that these can all be subtle signs of resource guarding? Guarding dogs tend to eat quickly to prevent the need to guard. They also appear to freeze when approached, maybe even look at you out of the corner of their eye in this position and sometimes they just quickly run away when you approach. These can all be warning signs that more severe guarding may begin over the next few months with your puppy. It’s important to take action now to prevent this from getting any worse. Here are a few steps you can take to be sure your puppy is happy to have you around his prize possessions.

Practice Trading Your Puppy

Always practice trades for valuable objects. If you are just constantly taking things away, your pup won’t think you are very much fun to play with. Play fetch with two balls, as your puppy drops the first you can throw the second. When your puppy has a bone, you may need to provide a highly tempting treat such as hot dog or cheese to convince him to give up the bone. After bone time is over, consider doing something else with your dog so the fun doesn’t just suddenly come to an end.

Create a Positive Association

Walk by your dog while they are eating or chewing a bone and simply toss them a few treats while they are eating. You may also drop a spoonful of wet food into their bowl. This will make them see your approach as a very positive thing.

Ask for Help

If you see any type of behavioral issue developing in your puppy, don’t wait months or years to address it! Behaviors can be changed much more easily when your dog hasn’t practiced them for a long period of time and gotten good at them. If your dog is already freezing, growling or snarling, it may be time to consult a trainer for help. You should also look for help if your dog is guarding from other dogs as this is a more complex behavior. Contact us and we can help you solve these issues and keep your family safe.

Understanding Leash Reactivity

It’s not uncommon for dogs to bark, snarl & lunge at other dogs or people while on-leash. We call this leash reactivity. Generally this problem develops over time either due to fear or discomfort around other dogs or people, a bad experience, because they weren’t socialized as a puppy, or simply because they are frustrated with not being able to greet the dog or person. Some leash reactive dogs are perfectly friendly off leash, while others may have social issues and struggle to get along in general.

Dealing with a leash reactive dog can be very frustrating and down right embarrassing. You may find yourself walking your dog less or at odd hours to avoid dog traffic. Unfortunately, isolating your dog will often make the behavior worse as your dog will be lacking in exercise and social experiences. Creating alternate forms of exercise and doing controlled set up training scenarios with a qualified trainer is the best way to address this issue.

The On-Leash Greeting
I recommend that even non-reactive dogs avoid on-leash dog greetings all together for the simple fact that dogs can often not display proper body language while being restricted on leash, which can cause some miscommunication. Not only that, but you never know if the dog is indeed friendly on leash, even if the owner claims it is! Unrestrained social dogs typically approach one another in an arc, coming together gradually and from an angle, then proceed to circle & sniff and decide whether they want to play or move along. This type of greeting ritual is very difficult to do successfully on leash. Typically as the dogs are approaching they are head on (such as on a walking path) and likely making direct eye contact (which isthreatening in dog language). The dogs are likely pulling toward each other with tight leashes and the strangling sensation of the tightening collars adds to the frustration and tension. If the people walking the dogs become apprehensive of the greeting, they may jerk the leash, again adding to tension and frustration. They are accidentally sending the dog a signal that this situation may indeed be something threatening.

Can this be fixed?
This question is generally answered on a case by case basis. In most situations, yes this behavior can be greatly decreased or go away completely. There may however be some cases where the reactivity is caused by genetics or the dogs physical health. In those cases, the physical health needs to be addressed first, and we need to understand what limits we may face due to genetics. Success with this type of training is highly variable depending on several factors:

  • Genetics – Genetics play a large role in behavior and could potentially limit the amount of progress we can make. A reactive puppy from a long line of reactive dogs is likely to be more challenging to work with than a reactive puppy from solid parents.
  • Level of Fear – If fear is involved, we will need to proceed slowly and at the dogs pace. Rushing things will not help anyone. If you have a fearful dog, it is especially important to our progress that you never push your dog over threshold. Pushing too far could result in significant setbacks in our training plan.
  • How long the behavior has been practiced and reinforced? – Every time your dog barks, lunges, or growls at another dog and they get what they want out of the situation, (typically more space) they are being environmentally reinforced, even if you are not praising, treating or even if you are punishing. The longer the dog has been practicing the behavior, the better he/she is going to be at it.
  • The amount of work you put into training as well as the use of techniques is very important. This means you must main consistency with the techniques used and work at your dogs level to be sure to not push them over threshold and into a reaction.

So how do we fix it?

I wish this was an easy answer as many dog owners deal with this sort of behavior. The truth is, it will take a serious commitment from you to learn how to rehabilitateBelle your reactive dog. You will need to learn a few things yourself such as reading you dogs body language, what are your dogs strongest triggers, at what distance can your dog handle the trigger? You will also need to manage your dogs reactive behavior by preventing it and only work on it in controlled training scenarios.

What do we do in the controlled training scenarios?

The techniques we use for training involve desensitization and counterconditioning. We will not be using punishment. We use desensitization by exposing your dog to their trigger at a distance they can handle without reacting. We use counter conditioning to teach your dog that another dogs presence (or a strangers) makes great things happen! We will be working to change the dogs emotional response from one of anxiety, fear or frustration to one of happiness. This process involves a lot of repetition in order to re-condition the feelings they already have about another dogs presence. We will also work on focus related behaviors, polite leash walking and more.

A note about punishment:

Punishing reactive behavior is often ineffective and doing more harm than good. Your dog is trying to communicate their discomfort with the situation by growling, barking and lunging. If you punish those communications, you are left with a highly unpredictable dog that instead of giving warnings, he tolerates as much as he can, then goes straight to the bite, skipping all warning signs. This makes for a dangerous dog. We are not looking to suppress the behavior, we are looking to change the dogs emotional response to people.

Below are a few additional resources to continue learning. If you are ready to get help with your dogs reactivity, contact us to schedule some Private Training.

  • Help For Your Fearful Dog – Nicole Wilde
  • Scaredy Dog! – Ali Brown
  • Feisty Fido – Patricia McConnell and Karen London

 

www.luckypawsmn.com

Grooming Challenges

It’s not unusual for dogs to find a bath, nail trim, or hair cut a bit unpleasant. The problem is when your dog takes things a little too far and behaves aggressively in those situations. My dog Ryder loves swimming and dock diving, but when it comes to getting a bath, he’d rather pass. As a puppy Ryder would be in the tub at Pampered Pooch Playground, just howling and screaming away as if I was torchering him immensely. Now I was lucky that he just made a little (a lot actually!) noise and didn’t choose to use aggression as his way of telling me he didn’t like what was going on. Others are not as lucky.

When a dog behaves aggressively towards someone grooming him, it is his way of saying that he is uncomfortable with what is going on. I know, it seems like it shouldn’t be that big of a deal, but really that’s not up to us to decide. 🙂 Your dog quickly learns that putting on that aggressive display will often stop you from grooming him, because well, you don’t want to be bitten. Does this make your dog mean? Certainly not, he is simply learning that aggression gets him what he wants and that is definately not what we want to teach him!

An alternative approach is to pair whatever type of grooming your dog is uncomfortable with, with something pleasant. I love using peanut butter for bathing and nail trims. Stick a little on the roof of the dogs mouth and voila! your dog is so busy working on the peanut butter he forgets about you, atleast for a little while. He also learns to associate those grooming times with good things (tasty things!). If your dog isn’t a fan of peanut butter you can certainly use other treat or toy rewards, but may need someone to assist you with treats while you groom. If your dog loves toys, why not make bath time into playtime? It wasn’t until I started doing this with Ryder that the crying ceased completely. Now he hops right in the tub and waits for playtime (and bath time) to begin.

Most importantly, take your time and work at your dogs pace trying to keep him comfortable and happy. This may mean not actually doing any grooming initially, just associating treats with the presence of the brush or nail clipper, or touching feet or your dogs face as if you were going to trim nails or hair. If your dog seems uncomfortable, slow down and work with what they are comfortable with, slowly increasing the type of grooming your dog doesn’t like until you can actually brush, bathe, trim nails, dry, and cut them.

Note: If you have a groomer do all of these things, ask if you could help them by giving treats etc during their grooming session. You can also prep your dog for their grooming session by mimicking the things the groomer would do such as using a metal spoon to mimick the feeling of the clipper on his nails, or running an electric tooth brush or shaver near your dog to get them accustomed to the noise.

If your dog is displaying an amount of aggression that you are uncomfortable dealing with, contact a dog trainer to help you!