Most of us have had moments of anxiety in our lives, and while it’s not fun, most of us survive those moments and get over it. Similarly, most dogs also have those moments and can recover and carry on. It’s not so simple, however, with pathological anxiety.
Anxiety is a feeling of fear, dread, and uneasiness; having a sense of impending danger, panic, or doom. Anxiety gets categorized as pathological (extreme in a way that is not normal, but rather, characteristic of an illness or mental problem) when it continues or grows without environmental conditions justifying it. Pathological anxiety is uncontrollable by the dog.
Perhaps your dog is somewhat anxious about being walked near passing vehicles. You take care to walk her in low-traffic areas, but occasionally a car goes by. She spooks, jumps, looks worried for a moment or two, and then carries on with your walk. The pathologically anxious dog is a different story. She’s tense just going for a walk, in anticipation of the appearance of a dreaded vehicle. When one does appear, she may behave as if she thinks she is literally about to die. She panics, flails madly at the end of her leash (“freaks out” is how many owners describe this), and the walk is now spoiled for her. Trembling, she huddles in a pathetic puddle on the sidewalk. She can’t recover quickly; you may as well turn around and go home – if she can even walk. You may end up carrying her.
As frustrating and sometimes embarrassing as this may be for you, it’s much worse for her. It’s important to remember that your dog isn’t being “bad.” She is truly having a major panic attack and she cannot control her behavior. She needs empathy and the implementation of a behavior management and modification program to help her be able to better deal with her world.
COMMON MANIFESTATIONS OF ANXIETY IN DOGS
While any odd or random stimulus can be anxiety-producing for an individual dog, there are several circumstances that commonly trigger canine anxiety, which may range from a mild distress response in the presence of the stimulus to a full-blown panic attack. It is the panic-attack end of the range that is appropriately labeled “anxiety.” Here are some of the more common ones:
- Separation anxiety. This is probably the one we hear about most often – the dog who cannot tolerate being left alone. Extreme vocalization, house soiling, destructive behavior, and desperate attempts to escape are typical signs of separation anxiety.
- Noise anxiety. This is most noticeable in the dog who suffers greatly during thunderstorms and firework displays, but a sound-anxious dog can also panic at the sound of pans dropping on the floor, a far-off gunshot, a low-battery “chirp” from a smoke detector, or any other noise with which she has had a very negative experience (such as the warning beep of a shock collar). These dogs may panic and run away (hence the overcrowding in most shelter kennels on July 5th) or they may just shut down, panting and trembling violently.
- Car-ride anxiety. Often a result of the association with carsickness as well as the stress of the first ride and first separation from a pup’s family, car-ride anxiety often manifests as a dog’s increasing unwillingness to even approach the car, followed by constant panting and pacing once the ride starts.
- Specific-stimulus anxiety. Dogs can have a pathological anxiety response to any stimulus with which they have had a very significant negative past experience. Again, the dog’s behavior may range from a violent, panicked attempt to escape, to constant panting and pacing, or severe trembling and shutting down.
- Generalized anxiety. With generalized anxiety, the dog shows constant reactivity, restlessness, nervousness, trembling, and tension that interferes with a normal social interaction, often in the complete absence of any noticeable triggering stimulus. These dogs are in a constant state of anxiety, as opposed to specific-trigger anxiety.
LIVING WITH AND HELPING AN ANXIOUS DOG
The good news is that there are a number of things you can do to help reduce your dog’s anxiety and help her get through those difficult times:
1. Medication. First and foremost, a truly anxious dog needs pharmaceutical help – and, sooner rather than later. This is a quality-of-life issue, and the sooner you see your veterinarian about appropriate medication, the happier you and your dog will both be.
If your veterinarian is not behaviorally knowledgeable (it’s a complex field!), she can schedule a phone consult with a veterinary behaviorist for guidance on appropriate medications for your dog. If your vet does not already have a relationship with one, there is a complete list of veterinary behaviorists here: dacvb.org/about/member-directory
2. Comforting. There is absolutely nothing wrong with comforting your anxious or frightened dog. You are not at risk of “reinforcing the unwanted behavior” (as some people used to believe); you can’t reinforce emotion. Think how soothing it is for you to have someone comfort you when you are stressed. Then go and comfort your stressed dog!
3. Managing. We can’t say this frequently enough: The better you are at managing your dog’s environment to prevent her exposure to the conditions that cause her anxiety, the better life will be for her (and for you!). As you work to modify her anxiety, keeping her below her anxiety threshold as much as possible will help your modification efforts go more smoothly as well.
4. Products. There is an ever-growing list of products on the market designed to help your dog through episodes of anxiety. Many of them can be helpful, and it’s often a very individualized response – what helps one dog may be totally useless for the next. I put them in the “can’t hurt, might help” category and encourage my clients to try as many as possible to see what might work. (See “Products to Help Ease Your Dog’s Anxiety”)
5. Modification. All the above, by themselves, won’t “fix” your dog’s anxiety. You will also need to work to help her understand that she doesn’t need to panic about whatever it is that is triggering her extreme emotional response.
Carried out carefully, a program of habituation can help. This means just exposing your dog to the trigger stimulus at a very low intensity – a level at which she shows awareness but no distress whatsoever – and keeping it there until she doesn’t even notice it at all – then very gradually increasing the intensity, waiting for her to “not care” at each new level before increasing intensity again. (This can be impossibly hard to do with things like thunderstorms and fireworks!)
When you add treat-feeding to habituation you get counter-conditioning and desensitization – the mainstay of emotion-changing behavior modification.
Anxieties don’t get fixed quickly or easily, but with your loving attention to your dog’s emotional needs you can do a lot to help her have a better life.