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Dog Anxiety Advice

Updated on June 7, 2013

Anxiety behaviors in dogs are surprisingly common and most dogs undergo some negative experiences during their lives which can induce chronic anxiety or fear. Contrary to popular belief, genetics and temperament of the dog has little to do with anxiety-based behaviors. Even the most confident or ‘sound’ dog can have a negative experience that impacts their confidence in some environments. The purpose of this article is to discuss some common anxiety behaviors, how to manage the behaviors and when the behavior is serious enough to warrant professional assistance..

First, let’s discuss some common anxiety behaviors that we sometimes see in pet dogs 1. Anxiety toward loud noises---this may be a sudden loud noise such as a car backfire, gunfire, balloons popping, etc. It may also be toward repetitive loud music such as during a movie or loud concert etc. 2. Anxiety in adverse weather conditions---thunder and thunderstorms is the most common anxiety behavior related to weather, though some dogs may develop anxiety when they feel a change in barometric pressure, even before the thunder starts. 3. Anxiety around traffic---Traffic that is heavy in volume and loud can create anxiety in some dogs, especially traffic approaching the dog from behind---cars they can’t see. 4. Anxiety toward objects. Odd or scary looking objects can create a sudden reaction in some dogs, especially if they come across the object unexpectedly and it is unique in their regular or ‘normal’ environment. 5. Anxiety toward dogs---This behavior is seen sometimes in dogs who have experienced a negative encounter with another dog. 6. Anxiety when traveling----Anxiety in cars and buses is occasionally seen in some dogs. This behavior sometimes develops after a traumatic experience while riding in a moving vehicle.

Next, let’s discuss the behaviors dogs may exhibit when they are showing anxiety: 1. An inability to stay in position or stay ‘settled’. The pet won’t lie down and seems anxious to get out of the particular situation. 2. Sudden bolting away from a particular situation and a marked reluctance to re-approach the area where the dog experienced the initial anxiety. 3. An increase in panting and shaking and escalated heart rate. 4. Generalized anxiety and inability to be comfortable, the dog may even seek comfort in odd locations.

Let me be clear about a few important matters regarding all of the above (In other words, let me help you ‘normalize’ these behaviors). First, all dogs may experience a negative reaction to something. This is very normal. We do the same as human beings. I always tell clients that I will jump when something startles me! Next, remember this important point: It’s not about HOW strongly the dog reacts to a negative situation, what is important is how they are able to RECOVER from it.

In general, it is important to understand that anxiety based behaviors are addressed in a similar manner, regardless of the situation that created the anxiety. Please note the following: 1. Anxiety means the dog is afraid, so they are reacting due to fear. Firm control or handling may escalate their anxiety. Forcing your dog to ‘stay’ or managing the behavior through assertive control is generally not productive. 2. Coddling or ‘babying’ your dog may also escalate anxiety. In your genuine attempts to support your dog through hugging, petting or ‘coddling’, you may be inadvertently VALIDATING their anxiety and making it worse. 3. Forcing a dog to re-approach an area, another dog, or whatever is triggering the anxiety, may also be very negative for an anxious dog and I advise you seek support of a professional dog behaviorist in these situations. 4. DISTRACTION is the key to managing anxiety. Unfortunately, we can’t tell our dogs that they have nothing to be afraid of, so we have to find other ways THEY WILL UNDERSTAND to help them relax when they show anxiety or fear.

Here are some techniques you may implement if your dog shows mild anxiety toward a situation: 1. stay calm and ‘matter of fact’ when managing your dog. Have the dog sit or remain close, and speak calmly. Offer food or a favorite toy to divert his attention from the source of his anxiety. Keep offering food or even ‘tease’ the dog with food in your hand to keep his interest as long as he’s experiencing anxiety. 2. If your dog understands the positive reinforcement clicker method, this is a very powerful tool that may lesson his anxiety. You may incorporate clicker/reward for easy behaviors such as the dog touching your hand or sitting and standing. The power of clicker may distract your dog from focusing on the source of his anxiety. 3. If your dog is not trained with the clicker, bring out something ‘very special’ such as a favorite or novel toy to help distract him. 4. If you are home and your dog prefers to find a secure place in another area of the house, let him do so and let him be. Forcing him to remain in a situation may also escalate his anxiety. 5. If your dog shows anxiety in a certain area, help him through the area in a calm, positive manner and then offer a big reward for his willingness to walk by and ‘be brave’.

A couple last important points: First, when a dog refuses to be tempted by a distracting toy or food, this may indicate a more serious anxiety behavior and you should promptly call a dog behaviorist expert for advice. Next, your dog takes his cues and his confidence from you. If you feel anxiety toward his anxiety, the issue WILL escalate. You will help your dog more when you are the calm, relaxed leader and help him understand that YOU are not afraid and therefore, he has no need to be either. Finally, every dog is an individual and each situation is unique. If you feel overwhelmed, seek professional advice and support.

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