by: Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA
Anxiety is one of those words that we hear often, but do we know what it is and are we able to spot it when we see it? The causes can be as varied as the behaviors we see when dogs exhibit outward signs of the anxiety. The ways of addressing it also fluctuate between the medical, environment, social, and behavioral areas depending on the manifestation of the anxiety and its cause. Owners may blame themselves for dogs being anxious, but that is highly likely not the case. The causes of anxiety are as numerous as the ways in which it manifests. I know from personal experience that when I have realized over the years that my dog was experiencing anxiety, my first thought has always been that I wish I knew it sooner. This has been a common sentiment amongst my friends and clients over the years. It breaks our hearts to realize our loved ones have been stressed and anxious and we were oblivious. By the time we observe anxious behavior, they have probably been feeling that way for a while but it was imperceptible to us. Next, my thoughts have been about identifying why they are feeling it and how to address it.
Anxiety can be severely detrimental to dogs physically, emotionally, and behaviorally. It can afflict dogs in specific situations, while in severe cases it can permeate every aspect of their lives, significantly affecting relationships, behavior, and enjoyment of life. In either situation, this leaves them with inhibited ability to learn and inhibited ability to make good choices. It is difficult to focus when stressed about what “might” happen, and consumed with concern about the environment around them. You can likely relate if you as a human have experienced severe anxiety at some point in your life, as many of us have. The anxiety impedes your capabilities. Unfortunately, owners may not realize their dog is experiencing anxiety, much less how to prevent or address it, so learning more about this common affliction is vital.
With anxiety, there can be considerable costs involved: cost to health, quality of life, diminished relationships both with humans and other dogs, and behaviorally. Severe, persistent anxiety can actually shorten dogs’ lifespans (Dreschel 2010). This makes it imperative to recognize anxiety when it first begins to appear so it can be addressed expeditiously before it worsens. It usually does not just go away on its own.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a fearfulness of what may come. It is a response to stress, which can be from external sources or something internal to the dog. It is different from fear which is a direct response to something that has just happened. Anxiety is a foreboding of what “may” happen and can appear contextually or it can be a constant state of existence. Since this is a reaction to what “may” happen and not what “is” happening, this can leave a dog in a persistent state of stress.
Why do Dogs Become Anxious?
Anxiety can appear at any time in a dog’s life, starting from shortly after birth to suddenly in later life. There are numerous reasons –medical, social, and environmental – that can contribute to anxious behavior in dogs. Owners tend to blame themselves for their dog’s behavior issues, but that is not accurate. Some of these are within our control and others are not. Just as a parent cannot control how their child feels, we cannot control how our dogs feel. Sometimes, we cannot control how WE feel despite our best efforts, so owners should not blame themselves for their dog’s anxiety.
Let’s first talk about bad experiences. Even these are not always within our control. Bad experiences can cause a dog to experience anxiety in similar circumstances or stimuli which remind the dog of the original frightening event. Years ago, one of my dogs was visiting an oceanfront park with us. We heard a cannon abruptly fire from a pirate ship (yes, a real pirate ship) that was sailing along the coast when we lived in FL. We had no idea that there were occasionally pirate ships along the coast, which were rented out by groups for drunken party voyages. After that, she would not go to any parks along the coast. There were likely many stimuli, both visual and olfactory, that she was associating with the traumatic experience of the sound of cannon fire. While some dogs may have shaken off the negative experience, she could not do so. We had to do extensive desensitization training with her over months until she was comfortable at any of those parks again. That is anxiety.
Lack of socialization during the critical period (the first 12 weeks of life) gives nothing for the dog to reference with new situations, interactions, and sounds. Without past positive events to reference, those situations can seem scary for an unsocialized dog. This is especially true for breeds with noise sensitivities and a natural wariness of strangers or strange dogs. Not all dogs acclimate and accept these stimuli with repeated exposure as adults, as people often hope they will. If they lack socialization these stimuli may be anxiety inducing, particularly when they have undergone genetic selection over previous generations to shape how they respond to such stimuli, such as with alerting behavior, guarding, or showing other wariness. Early socialization is essential to helping dogs feel less anxious navigating the environment in which they live, as this frequently differs from the environment in which they were bred to reside and work.
Unmet needs can cause anxiety because a dog lacks control over resources to provide for his own needs. If he does not know a predictable schedule for when things he needs will come to him, or how to influence those outcomes, anxiety can take hold. Having needs that are not met can also lead to resource guarding behavior.
Unpredictability of home life can leave dogs unable to cope with their lack of control over necessary resources and environment. Dogs lack the ability to fulfill their own needs, so they need to feel trust that these needs will be met for them, which can be established by a regular routine. There is greater ability to cope with a lack of control when routine provides consistency and predictability from one day to the next.
While socialization and environmental factors play significant roles in the development of fearful and anxious behavior, so do genetics. Studies have linked particular genes to a predisposition toward anxious and fearful behavior across numerous breeds, with particular anxious behaviors being more prominent in certain breeds versus others (University of Helsinki 2020). Anxious behavior is observed more frequently in particular breeds and bloodlines (Salonen 2020). Some breeds required high levels of hyper-awareness, alertness, and sensitivity to sights and sounds in order to perform the jobs they originally performed before modern times. This can translate into anxious behavior in modern times when they are in high stimuli modern environments with contrasting expectations than those in which they were originally intended to live and work. We observe this even in different bloodline within a breed. I have three dogs of the same breed – Nederlandse Kooikerhondjes - -and one has far more pronounced alertness to changes in the environment around the home property, which translated into a propensity for alert barking and territorial behavior before the anxiety was addressed. Even still, it can be a challenge at times. Another common example is with border collies. Some are very friendly with people and relaxed in public situations, whereas others are prone to sudden environmental contrast. If the environment is calm and quiet and someone suddenly appears from behind a dumpster or other barrier, that might be met with reactive displays or lunging, growling, and barking, even if heavily socialized as a puppy. Not all border collies behave that way, but genetics can play a strong role in this type of behavior. There are countless examples with other breeds and groups where genetics affects anxious behavior in the modern living environments.
Maternal stress is less commonly known to puppy parents but can be a significant but hidden source of stress and anxiety that is outside of their control. A mother who suffered stressful circumstances during the pregnancy may experience very high cortisol levels that permeate the placenta (“Maternal Stress” 2019). She is, in effect, passing along information to the puppies to prepare them for the level of alertness and stress responses needed to face the world in which she was living at that moment (Hekman 2021). These are dogs who show severe signs of anxiety – and sometimes aggression -- even as puppies, but there may not be any obvious clear context or triggering stimulus. Their mother has prepared puppies physiologically to exist in a world that is a scary place. Sourcing puppies from a quality breeder or foster home who raises the gestating mother of good temperament inside a low-stress environment is ideal to avoiding stress to the unborn puppies (“Maternal Stress” 2019).
Pain can cause a sudden onset of anxiety in dogs, usually later in life. There has been research linking noise sensitivities to pain issues. Researchers believe that dogs may tense their muscles at the sound of a startling or loud noise, causing pain with an already painful condition. This can lead to future avoidance of situations where the noises occurred, as the dog wishes to avoid more pain (University of Lincoln 2018). Sometimes the symptoms of pain (see further below) are more apparent in the evening. I refer clients to their veterinarian any time they mention a sudden appearance of noise sensitivities, or if the dog’s intensity of reaction to sudden noises has changed.
Other chronic health issues can also cause anxiety. Life is more difficult to maneuver when you do not feel well, whether that be from ear infections, food or seasonal allergies, mouth pain, or something more chronic. With illness, daily events can take more energy than usual and cause discomfort when someone is ill. Some health issues can cause changes to the body’s chemistry, thus triggering anxiety (“Cushing’s” 2008). Visiting your veterinarian to try to identify any potential health issues is essential. Even with testing and physical examination, health issues may not always be readily apparent which is why behavior consultants often avoid the phrase that owners should visit their vet to “rule out” medical issues. Despite the best veterinarians and the best test, more may become apparent over time. Dogs cannot speak to us and tell their health care providers or owners how they are feeling. In cases where there are health issues and pain, all the training in the world is not going to make the problem go if the dog is not well. Training is only one component and a less important one in these cases. Starting with a healthy dog is essential and of the utmost importance to any behavior modification plan.
How do dogs display anxiety?
The signs of anxiety can be difficult even for seasoned owners to decipher at times. Looked at individually, the signs can often be attributed to causes other than anxiety, so looking at the signs as a whole and the entire dog is imperative. This list is not exhaustive, but it lists some of the more common signs.
· Scanning the environment
· Licking nose and/or lips
· Barking, Whining, Howling
· Destruction, Chewing
· Excessive licking (their own body parts, people, blankets, or other surfaces)
· Chewing paws
· Tail tucked between legs
· Ears pinned back to the neck
· Dilated, very round eyes
· Over reactions to small stimuli, whether the reaction is to flee or, conversely, to confront with barking or growling
· Unexplained Diarrhea
· Changes in appetite
· Aggression -- such as lunging, snapping, growling, or biting -- can also happen alongside the signs above
If your dog is displaying any of these signs it is important to talk with your veterinarian to make sure there are not medical issues that need to be addressed. Additionally, reach out to a qualified dog behavior consultant (go to IAABC or CCPDT websites) or a board-certified animal behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB through the Animal Behavior Society website). They can help you to identify what is going on, create a plan to help your dog, and refer you to other professional resources, if needed. Don’t try to navigate this alone. Unfortunately, well-meaning owners often spend significant time trying to address anxiety on their owner through what they read online or hear from friends, and during the time the behaviors and emotions (and sometimes medical conditions) are continuing to worsen. If your dog is experiencing persistent anxiety, please reach out to someone qualified right away.
Preventing and Addressing Anxiety
Owners can (sometimes) help prevent anxiety from developing or address existing anxiety by knowing their dogs well. Know what your dog enjoys, what makes him feel comfortable, and what causes stress. If you know of something that stresses him, respect those boundaries. If you know your dog’s feelings, fears, habits, and behavior well, then you will notice when there is a persistent change in mood and behavior. Do not force your dog into uncomfortable situations, but instead acclimate him very slowly over time at your dog’s pace, or choose to avoid those situations all together. If you are unsure of what your dog truly enjoys, a good place to start is by looking at what your dog was originally bred to do. Then, imagine what your dog might do if he was on a large farm (or wherever his breed originally lived) with free opportunity to do whatever he pleases. Explore ways to provide opportunities to do some form of those behaviors which are not as easily possible living in a pet home (e.g. stalk and chase, lots of sniffing and exploring, digging, running, following specific scents, scavenging, chewing, licking, herding, retrieving, etc).
One of the simplest things you can do is to establish strict daily routines, which can provide predictability to their daily life happenings. They have little influence over what happens in their day, so knowing when things will happen – and that they will happen at all – can be reduce stress. Routine is a great way to cope with lack of control. It can help them to weather small changes and stressors in their daily lives, as well as better handle large ones like the addition of new family members or a move to a new home.
Provide regular enrichment that is freely accessible to give your dog more control over their day, more choice of activities. Enrichment can help meet their need for mental stimulation and to perform species-specific behaviors.
Ensure your dog has appropriate exercise for their breed, health, and age. Always have a safe, quiet places where your dog can retreat
Maintain regular vet check-ups besides the annual appointments, discussing any changes that you see in your pet. Your dog likely will not show symptoms of pain or illness until the issue is severe, so be alert and keep in close touch with your veterinarian.
Provide as many opportunities as possible for your dog to have more control of resources, and teach specific communication so your dog can request a particular resource at that moment (picking up a leash to ask for a walk, bringing over a ball and sitting for play, sitting at the refrigerator to request fresh fruits or vegetables, etc).
Teach a relaxation protocol (e.g. Leslie McDevitt and Dr. Karen Overall's techniques) to help assist your dog in being able to relax during particularly stressful times of day
Ensure social needs are met by providing regular social opportunities as desired by the dog with other dogs, people, or companions they enjoy. Some dogs may have greater needs for these social opportunities than others. This is individual to each dog. Some dogs do not want or need dog friends or additional human friends, while others crave the experience of making new connections.
Never force your dog into a situation where he is stressed. Instead, use slow, low-intensity exposure (desensitization and counter-conditioning). If the anxiety is severe and your dog cannot relax even with low-intensity exposure, speak with your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist (American College of Veterinary Behaviorists) to evaluate whether behavior medications may be helpful, and to evaluate for any contributing pain or health issues.
Preventing anxiety in our dogs is not entirely within our control, but we can take steps to help prevent opportunities where it may develop. We can learn to identify it when it first begins to display in our dog’s behavior, and we can know what steps to take to address it as expeditiously as possible. Life is too short to feel stressed and anxious. Our dogs deserve to live their best lives carefree and confident.
“Cushing’s Disease Can Be A Real Nightmare”. Texas A&M Today. 15 Sep 2008. https://today.tamu.edu/2008/09/15/cushings-disease-can-be-a-real-nightmare/
Dreschel, Nancy A. “The effects of fear and anxiety on health and lifespan in pet dogs”. Applied Animal Behaviour Science Vol 125, Issues 3–4. 2010. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2010.04.003
Hekman, Jessica. “How a Mother’s Stress Can Influence Unborn Puppies”. Whole Dog Journal. 23 Sep 2021. https://www.whole-dog-journal.com/puppies/puppy-health/how-a-mothers-stress-can-influence-unborn-puppies/
“Maternal Stress and Puppy Development”. United States Department of Agriculture. 2019. https://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_welfare/downloads/dangerous-animals/ACAids_Canine-MaternalStress_AC-19-005_6.19.pdf
Salonen, M., Sulkama, S., Mikkola, S. et al. “Prevalence, comorbidity, and breed differences in canine anxiety in 13,700 Finnish pet dogs”. Sci Rep 10, 2962. 2020. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-59837-z
University of Helsinki. “Fearful Great Danes provide insights into genetic causes of fear”. Science Daily. 29 May 2020. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/05/200529150627.htm
University of Lincoln. “Dogs with noise sensitivity should be routinely assessed for pain by vets”. Science Daily. 20 Mar 2018. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/03/180320100719.htm