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A Comprehensive Look at Canine Anxiety

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.