Understanding Dog Anxiety (The Definitive Guide)
Anxiety. The word alone has become a very common word in today’s society. Everyone, from the young to the old, has experienced anxiety to varying degrees at one point in their life or another and we’ve learned a lot about what anxiety is as well as how it affects us.
However, what many people don’t realize is that many other animals, including our dogs, experience anxiety. And there are many different types of anxiety that a dog can experience. In this article, we will explore what anxiety is, how it affects our canine friends and the types of anxiety our pups can experience.
Furthermore, we will explore ways to overcome our pup’s anxiety and ways to prevent it before it becomes too much for your little friend to experience. Regardless of whether your pup has experienced anxiety before or not, this article will help you navigate the chance that one day he may.
What is Anxiety?
Before we look at dog anxiety specifically, it is a good idea to simply look at what is anxiety? The simple answer is that anxiety is a natural part of our body that is used to help keep us safe. Anxiety is formed in the part of our brain known as the reptilian brain. This brain is believed to be the oldest part of the brain and it controls our automatic functions such as breathing and body temperature.
However, along with those functions, the reptilian brain controls our anxiety and our flight, fight or freeze response. This is the same in all animals, including mammals, which includes our pups.
While we often think of anxiety as an enemy, it is actually very important for all animals to have it. For your pup, anxiety serves as an alarm bell that tells us, and our pups, when we need to protect ourselves. When our reptilian brain sees a danger, it triggers an anxiety response, which then triggers the flight, fight or freeze response.
When anxiety is working properly, it is actually our pup’s friend. However, the anxiety that we are discussing in this article is when that helping friend becomes a nightmare companion and presents as a disorder in our dogs.
What is Dog Anxiety?
Which brings us to our next section, what is dog anxiety?
As you can determine, dog anxiety is not necessarily a bad thing. All dogs will go through anxiety at one point or another simply because it is a natural mechanism in their brain. Anxiety can be things as simple as being exposed to a new environment, such as the vet’s office, or going on vacation.
Dogs, in general, are very schedule oriented. While they don’t understand the concept of time as we do, they do feel the most comfortable when their day is the same, or as close to the same as possible. For that reason, when we focus on dog anxiety, we are not actually looking at normal anxiety.
Instead, we are looking at anxiety that lasts a significant amount of time. In addition, we are looking at anxiety that is prolonged for several months or even years. It is this type of anxiety that becomes debilitating for pups and owners alike and, hopefully, by knowing the causes, signs and ways to fight it, you will be able to overcome it in your pup.
Signs of Dog Anxiety
The signs of dog anxiety often vary from dog to dog so it is important to look at your dog on an individual basis and not expect him to show all the signs of anxiety. Again, we will touch on several signs and how they apply to individual anxiety disorders in dogs, but for now, we are looking at the general symptoms.
When we do look at symptoms, it is important to look at them in two phases: Mild, also known as subtle and extreme, also known as profound. Some dogs will have very minor symptoms but anxiety may be wreaking havoc on your pup so it is important to not ignore those mild symptoms until they become a serious problem.
Symptoms that dogs have when they are experiencing anxiety are:
- Withdrawal: Dogs who are suffering from anxiety often withdraw from busy areas. They are likely to hide or try to be alone. If they have a safe space in their home, they will withdraw to it, such as a crate. If they don’t, your pup will likely find a dark place to hide, such as under a bed.
- Excessive behaviors: These are behaviors that your dog does repeatedly over a short period of time. It is usually seen with excessive licking and chewing but could also include behaviours such as pacing and barking.
- Physical symptoms: In addition to excessive behaviors, you may notice some physical symptoms in your pup when he is exhibiting minor symptoms of anxiety. These can include shaking and panting.
- Attention seeking: While some pups will withdraw, other pups will seek more affection as they can. They will push against their owners or they may even jump on laps or against people they feel safe with.
- Extreme effort to escape: While they may withdraw, when a dog is dealing with extreme symptoms, you will notice that your pup is not only trying to withdraw but also trying to escape. He may run blindly, dig at an enclosure or start chewing and biting the enclosure. His entire focus is on escape and he can even injure himself in an effort to get away.
- Overactive: Although some dogs may experience this overactivity with trying to escape, some may just have this symptom without wanting to run away. Excessive activity or being overactive includes:
- Having excessive energy where he is running around or appearing very hyperactive.
- Howling and barking where he will not stop, even after there is no reason to bark.
- Whining, which is usually combined with howling, barking and hyperactive behaviors.
- Defecation: Dogs who are dealing with anxiety will often break house training and will defecate inside while they are experiencing the anxiety trigger.
- Destructive Behavior: This can often be seen with overactivity or their effort to escape but it should be looked at separately. Pups who are experiencing anxiety can often be very destructive, especially if they are trying to escape from the trigger for their anxiety.
- Aggressive behavior: While aggression can occur on its own without any anxiety, it is also seen as a symptom or sign of anxiety. Many dogs will suddenly bite, growl or attack when they are dealing with an anxiety trigger. Always pay extra attention to the signs that your pup is giving you when he is under duress to prevent injury.
You can see these symptoms on their own or a number of them all at once and the severity will differ from experience to experience and dog to dog.
Many dogs that experience these symptoms can also experience a panic attack, which is often a large number of these symptoms happening all at once.
How to Spot a Panic Attack
While a panic attack is often a symptom of many types of anxiety, it is important to really look at them separately. Like people, dogs can experience a panic attack at any time, especially if he has generalized anxiety.
In addition, there may not be any noticeable reason for the panic attack to occur or any noticeable triggers that you can see. In these cases, it often seems as though the panic attack is coming out of the blue but often, there is an unseen reason for it.
When we look at panic attacks, it should be mentioned that there is a difference between your pup feeling anxious and your pup having a panic attack. First, you want to look at a few parameters.
- How long has it lasted? Anxiety tends to be short periods of time, usually around a trigger, that is ongoing for several months. So, your pup will feel anxious about a trigger until that trigger is removed and then will go back to normal until the trigger is seen/experienced again. With a panic attack, your dog will be in a heightened state of discomfort for several minutes to several hours and often have a clear start and stop to the symptoms.
- How many symptoms are affecting your dog? Panic attacks often have a large number of symptoms all at once and it is very clear that your pup is overwhelmed by all of them.
- How severe are the symptoms? With a panic attack, the symptoms are often sudden and extreme.
- Can I get through to my pup? The answer is often no. During a panic attack, your pup is focused on his distress and it can be difficult to comfort or pull him out of one. Instead, it is best to try to get him into a safe area where he won’t hurt himself or anyone else.
With panic attacks, you will see many of the symptoms listed above. However, you may also see other symptoms including:
Cowering: Your dog may cower: spine curved, ears back and tail tucked tightly under his body.
Licking Air: Another symptom you may see is your dog licking his teeth or the air.
Change in Pupils: During an anxiety attack, pupils are usually dilated.
Increased Heart Rate: This is another physical symptom that is commonly seen with both anxiety and panic attacks.
When your pup is having a panic attack, it is best to try to calm him down and keep him in a safe place. Some dogs will calm better with contact; however, others may bite without thinking. Be sure to understand your pup so you keep both of you safe.
Causes of Dog Anxiety
When it comes to dog anxiety, there are as many causes for it as their symptoms. Every dog is different and they may experience anxiety for a host of reasons including learned behavior to breed related anxieties. Some may have anxiety toward an experience, such as being crated, and others may have it toward a sound, such as fireworks.
Before you treat your pup for anxiety, it is important to understand your pup himself. By finding the reason behind the anxiety, you can often help him overcome it, which will we will cover later in this article.
However, when we look at general reasons for dog anxiety, there are a number of causes.
Number One: Breed Disposition
First, everyone who is interested in owning a dog should realize that dog breeds were developed for certain jobs, whether it is for work or companionship. This meant that dogs bred for high intelligence or high energy were often prone to having a higher risk of anxiety. In addition, breeds bred for companionship were more likely to suffer from separation anxiety.
Although we often think of purebred dogs for having the propensity for anxiety, any mixed breed can run the same risk. Always look at the parent breeds in your pup to determine if he will have a greater risk of anxiety.
Some breeds that have a predisposition for anxiety are:
- Australian Shepherd
- Bernese Mountain Dogs
- Basset Hounds
- Bichon Frise
- Border Collies
- Cavalier King Charles Spaniels
- Cocker Spaniels
- German Shepherds
- German Shorthaired Pointers
- Great Pyrenees
- Italian Greyhounds
- Jack Russell Terriers
- Labrador Retrievers
- Poodles: Specifically, the toy and standard poodle
Number Two: Negative or Lack of Socialization
Puppy socialization is a very important part of raising a healthy and happy dog and it starts at birth. Hopefully, your pup’s breeder has spent time socializing your puppy before he comes home as this will help lay the foundation of socialization.
Once he is in your home, however, socialization is a lifelong process and should be reaffirmed from the moment he arrives to the end of his life.
However, socialization is often the reason why a dog has anxiety problems. During several stages, dogs go through fear periods. If they are coddled or not trained to face their fear, the dog can develop lifelong fears to certain triggers. IN addition, being taken from their mother when they are younger than 8 weeks of age, as well as not being exposed to enough experiences while young, a puppy can develop social anxiety.
Lack of socialization is very bad for a dog, as is negative socialization, where the dog is either hurt or severely scared by something. Both can be a cause for lifelong anxiety and it can be very difficult to overcome.
Number Three: Past Trauma
Often seen with dogs who have been rescued, past trauma can be devastating to a dog when it comes to anxiety. Trauma can be confinement, abuse, neglect or abandonment and it usually occurs when the dog is between the ages of 1 to 3 years of age. Anxiety can also be caused by trauma due to an accident, such as being hit by a car.
While there may always be trauma issues around a dog, you can work to build trust and alleviate a lot of the symptoms of anxiety if it is trauma related.
Number Four: Aging
Believe it or not, aging can affect whether or not your dog suffers from anxiety. As a dog ages, aches and pains can lead to your pup not feeling well. This feeling can cause your pup to have anxiety. Another age related link to anxiety is canine dementia. By 11 years of age, up to 28% of dogs suffer from canine dementia, which is also known as canine cognitive dysfunction. By age 15, that number goes up to 68%.
Specific to aging, many dogs who are experiencing some form of canine cognitive dysfunction will develop generalized anxiety in addition to other symptoms.
Number Five: Health Issues
Finally, health issues can often be a cause of anxiety and panic attacks in dogs. If your pup is having anxiety attacks, especially if the symptoms have started suddenly without any reason, you should contact your veterinarian. Often, anxiety can be a symptom for a deeper problem.
Some illnesses that may be the cause of canine anxiety are:
- Lead poisoning
- Diabetes and pre-diabetes
- Hearing loss
As you can see, there are several reasons for anxiety, however, it is always important to discuss your pup’s anxiety with your veterinarian to figure out why he has anxiety.
Types of Dog Anxiety
Although we often think of separation anxiety when we think of dog anxiety, there are several types of anxiety that dog owners should be aware of. Some anxiety is linked to specific times or events, such as anxiety during thunderstorms or when hearing fireworks. However, our focus is when the anxiety response creates pure misery for your dog.
These types of anxiety will affect your pup throughout his life and can become very difficult for everyone to deal with. Later in this article, we will discuss general ideas to help overcome dog anxiety, but we will also look at the individual anxiety types and ways to help overcome it.
The most commonly known anxiety, separation anxiety is when a dog experiences anxiety when he is left alone. Specifically, separation anxiety is a behavioral disorder where the dogs will experience a number of symptoms when they are not with their owners.
While we think of it as happening when their owners are out of the house, it can also occur when they are put in a place away from their owners such as in a crate. They can also experience it when they are left with other people, especially if they have a strong bond with one or all of his owners.
Another thing to be aware of is that separation anxiety can occur when a dog anticipates that he will be left alone. For instance, when your pup sees you getting ready to go out, he may begin to have a panic attack or several of the symptoms we’ve discussed. Some dogs may begin to feel anxious up to sixty minutes before an owner leaves and the symptoms will get progressively worse the closer to departure time you get.
With separation anxiety, dogs often experience these symptoms:
- Excessive barking, whining and even howling. It often starts as whining and then increases to louder, more obtrusive vocalization.
- Hyper-salivation where they are drooling excessively.
- Destructive behaviors. For dogs that are left out of a crate, they may destroy furniture, walls, clothing and other articles of the owner. Often, the best measure is to crate your pup to prevent him destroying anything.
- Dogs left alone and dealing with separation anxiety may ignore their house training and may relieve themselves inside or even in their crate.
Separation anxiety is believed to be caused by stress. It is often linked to a dog being strongly bonded with one or more family members and can be seen with how clingy a pup is to his owner. If he can’t spend time on his own while his owner is home, then there is a very high risk of him suffering from separation anxiety while his owner is away.
Other causes include boredom, loneliness, lack of socialization, too much energy, old age, trauma, especially if it happened while he was alone, and being taken from their mother before 8 weeks of age.
How to Combat Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety can be quite difficult to combat, especially if the dog has a well established pattern for the condition. Some tips that are recommended to help your pup with separation anxiety include:
- Training and Desensitization: Teach your dog that it is okay for him to be away from you. Start by short distances in the same room and then in different rooms. Reward when he is calm during the separation.
- Crate Training: This will help reduce destructive behavior and give him a safe space to be. Many dogs love their crates and will go to it when they are feeling anxious.
- Exercise: When separation anxiety is linked to excess energy, daily exercise is important. As is a play session or walk before you leave so your pup expels most of his energy.
- Calm Behavior: This is in relation to the yours, not your pup’s. Always leave and come home in a calm manner. This will help reduce his anxiety and will make sure that he isn’t overly excited when you leave.
- Toys: Toys that comfort your pup and help with his boredom will also help prevent separation anxiety. Just be careful that there are no choking hazards with the toy.
- Music or Sound: Some dogs do very well if there is background noise on in the house. Turn on a radio or put on a dog friendly television show. This will help with boredom but will also help with the anxiety itself.
- Medication: There are several medications that work to alleviate separation anxiety, however, they are only recommended for severe cases where other methods of calming do not work.
While separation anxiety can be difficult to overcome, it is possible with patience and follow through.
Often, separation anxiety and abandonment anxiety are viewed as the same thing, however, it is important to look at them as two separate types of anxiety. The reason for this is that abandonment anxiety is also known as rescue anxiety or shelter anxiety. It is seen in dogs that have been rehomed, usually through a shelter or rescue agency.
However, it also presents in the same way as separation anxiety. Dogs will experience destructive behavior, defecation and all of the physical symptoms we discussed in general and specific to separation anxiety.
In addition to those symptoms, abandonment anxiety can lead to fear, aggression and even resource guarding, which can be another type of anxiety. A dog that has been abandoned will not feel confident in a new home until he learns that he will not lose them again.
Obviously, the main reason behind abandonment anxiety is abandonment, many dogs who suffer from this type of anxiety have also faced trauma, neglect and abuse before they end up in a shelter.
How to Combat Abandonment Anxiety
With abandonment anxiety, you will do many of the same things that you would do with separation anxiety: training, desensitization, exercise and so on. In addition to those tips, you should do the following:
- Make sure he has a predictable life from when he goes for a walk to when he eats. The more predictability in your rescue pup’s life, the easier he will overcome his abandonment anxiety.
- Bonding periods. Take time to really bond with your rescue dog and make sure that it is on his terms. Don’t push too hard or it could lead to fear aggression. Instead, allow him to set how much contact he wants. Trust me, as he learns to trust you, your pup will look for more affection and bonding periods.
- Get to know your pup. The best way to help him with his anxiety is to get to know him and the triggers that cause his anxiety to heighten. It is often recommended that you hire a dog trainer and behaviorist to help with this.
In the end, overcoming abandonment anxiety is really about giving your rescue pup time to adjust and learn to trust you. It can be daunting at first but with proper care, there is nothing more rewarding than gaining the trust of a dog whose been abandoned.
Many people overlook generalized anxiety in dogs because they are focused more on separation anxiety and other, more well known, forms of anxiety. However, many dogs suffer from generalized anxiety and it should be discussed separately.
With generalized anxiety, a dog will show anxiety on an almost constant basis. This reactivity, as it is called, interferes with social interaction. In addition, it can occur where there is nothing triggering the anxiety and can even be caused when the dog is bored.
Generalized anxiety can be very inhibiting condition that affects dogs for years. Dogs who have generalized anxiety may have symptoms similar to all other types of anxiety, however, they are often seen without any trigger. Dogs who have generalized anxiety will also have the following symptoms.
- Apprehension: This is seen as a dog that appears to be apprehensive to any scenario. They will be restless and will have a difficult time relaxing in their environment. You may see symptoms such as the dog getting up frequently, not sleeping, checking out windows or in different rooms. When there is something that may stimulate him, the dog may avoid or withdraw from the situation.
- Motor Tension: Dogs with generalized anxiety often present with motor tension. This is where the dog will appear tense and any type of stimuli will cause him to startle. Motor tension can also be seen through trembling, hyperactivity and fatigue in the dog.
- Alertness and Scrutiny: This is seen in a lot of dogs but a dog with generalized anxiety will appear to always be on the alert. He will be constantly alert and will avoid sleeping so he can stay alert to his surroundings. When he does sleep, he tends to startle awake at the slightest sound or even movement.
How to Combat Generalized Anxiety
With generalized anxiety, the best way to combat it is through training and socialization. While it may be hard to pinpoint what the trigger is, training helps dogs identify who is in charge of the home. Once a dog owner takes charge, it does help the dog relax a bit from being so alert, which, in turn, helps reduce level of anxiety the dog is feeling at any one time.
Socialization is another important step in combating generalized anxiety. Generalized anxiety does have stimuli that triggers an episode and exposure to those triggers will help reduce the amount of anxiety a dog will feel.
Although it seems like a severe diagnosis, it is possible to help your dog through his anxiety. In addition, like other forms of anxiety, some medications work very well at alleviating the symptoms.
While compulsive anxiety is not exactly an anxiety, it is a condition that is triggered by anxiety and by continued stress. The reason why we consider it an anxiety is because it moves into a behavior that is triggered by a stimulus and goes on for a longer period of time.
Compulsive anxiety includes any behavior that becomes repetitive and occurs repeatedly until it becomes harmful for a dog. This can be things such as licking until sores appear, spinning until the dog is sick and collapses or chewing on their feet.
This type of anxiety is always caused by stress or anxiety that manifests into a compulsive behavior.
How to Combat Compulsive Anxiety
Generally, compulsive anxiety is combated through the use of medication that helps reduce the stress your pup is experiencing. Effort is also made in pinpointing the trigger and, if possible, training the dog or conditioning it so he doesn’t react to the stress or anxiety.
Often, compulsive anxiety is linked to other forms of anxiety and that anxiety needs to be addressed to help alleviate the symptoms of compulsive anxiety.
The final type of anxiety that we are going to look at is fear anxiety. This is an anxiety that can trigger fear aggression if the dog becomes too overstimulated by the trigger. It also manifests in a variety of ways including:
- Noise Anxiety: Dog has a fear of loud noises such as fireworks, sirens and so on.
- Travel Anxiety: Your pup experiences anxiety for any type of travel.
- Phobias: Fears around certain things such as men with beards or bicycles.
- Confinement Anxiety: When a dog develops a fear of being confined to a room or to a crate.
Fear anxieties often manifest during fear periods in social development and are often caused by lack of socialization or a trauma during one of those key periods. Owners should be aware that even a small trauma can have a lasting effect on a dog and leave him with fear anxiety throughout his life. For instance, one dog I owned had a golden retriever snap at her during a fear period in her development. Fast forward six months and the same dog would have a fight or flight response every time she spotted a golden retriever. The dog wasn’t dog aggressive and played happily with all other dogs and breeds, but instead, she had a fear anxiety with golden retrievers.
So, an exchange that seemed very simple because enough to imprint a fear response onto the dog that had to be corrected later on.
How to Combat Fear Anxiety
Combating fear anxiety is easier if owners go through the process of preventing those fears from developing through proper socialization. In addition, dog owners should never reinforce scared behavior with praise and coddling. This only reinforces that the dog was right to be afraid in the first place.
However, even with the best intentions, things can happen, such as the golden retriever incident, that is out of our hands. If your dog has a fear anxiety, try to pinpoint what causes the fear. If it is possible, train and expose your pup to the stimuli that is causing the anxiety. This should be done gradually so it doesn’t further deepen his fears.
For some fears, however, medication may be needed. Or you may need to purchase special equipment such as thundershirts to help your dog cope with an anxiety episode.
And those are the most common types of anxiety. They all have their own challenges and while they share many of the same symptoms, it is very important to understand the anxiety your pup is feeling in order to help your dog overcome it.
Regardless of the type of anxiety, if your pup is showing symptoms of anxiety, take him to his veterinarian to both identify the type of anxiety your dog is experiencing and to get help with treating it.
Treating Dog Anxiety
I’ve already gone through many ways that you can help your dog if he has dog anxiety, which was specific to the individual anxiety type. However, it is good to understand some general ways to help treat anxiety in your dog.
Number One: Relaxation
This is more to condition your dog to be calm instead of actually helping him with a trigger. In fact, you should never use relaxation when he is anxious as the positive reinforcement could make the anxiety worse.
Instead, when your dog is not being triggered by the stimulus, take the time to make him relaxed. Start by sitting on the floor with your dog in a very quiet room that is comfortable for him. You want to take the time petting and massaging your pup until he becomes very relaxed…almost falling asleep. When he is calm, continue to give him positive reinforcement for about 10 to 20 minutes. Praise, massage and even treats should be given while he is in this relaxed state.
As he becomes better at being relaxed, you can slowly introduce distractions such as noise or someone coming into the room. If he remains relaxed, praise and reward him. Through this, he learns that he is rewarded for calm behavior over anxious behavior.
Number Two: Training
Training is a great way to bond with your dog and it will help with anxiety. Often, dogs can become anxious when they are bored or lonely. Training 10 to 15 minutes a day, throughout your dog’s life will help him overcome some of that boredom.
His mind will be focused on you and he won’t be focused on his anxiety, which will help condition him away from being anxious.
Number Three: Exercise
Like training, exercise offers your dog an outlet for his boredom and for that excess energy. A well-exercised puppy is a happy puppy so it is an important step in treating anxiety. However, it is important to note that exercise alone will not treat anxiety completely.
Number Four: Counterconditioning and Desensitization
Which brings us to number four. Counterconditioning is linked to training and is a way to help prevent the behaviors that increase your dog’s anxiety. For instance, if a dog has leash anxiety, especially when greeting people on a leash, take the time to train him to different tasks on the leash.
This counterconditioning will give your dog something to think about besides his anxiety. So instead of him jumping around at the end of his leash in a flight response, he will be sitting or laying as people come up to him or pass by him.
Desensitization is slowly introducing the stimuli for his anxiety in small amounts. So, if a dog has travel anxiety, you can start by having him sit in the car. If he is showing any anxiety, don’t reward and, instead, backtrack once he calms down slightly. If he is calm, reward and then move to a short trip down the driveway and then further to a short drive down the block and so on.
You may have to work very slowly starting with the dog sitting beside the car or in the car with the door open before you can move to a full drive. Always reward calm behavior and never reward or punish anxious behavior.
Number Five: Medication
Finally, if training or conditioning is not working, there are many different medications out there for dog anxiety. Speak to your veterinarian about options for your pup and make sure that you find the right one for both of you.
I do want to stress that medication should not be the only thing you do since it doesn’t completely remove anxiety. Instead, it lessens the symptoms of anxiety so that you can use the other steps listed above to help your pup overcome his anxiety.
While anxiety can be debilitating for everyone in the family, it doesn’t have to be a terrible sentence for your dog. Through proper management of the condition, and using the treatments available, your pup can live a happy, anxiety-free life. All it takes is the proper knowledge and the patience to help him through it.