For those of you that have jumped straight into part two of the series on ‘Anxiety in Dogs’, this is ‘Part Two: How do we treat anxiety in dogs?’.
A few months ago, my Mum came to me looking for some information for her friend whose furbaby was experiencing severe anxiety. Mental health, specifically anxiety, is an issue that is especially important to me. After going through the bad times of anxiety myself, it isn’t something that I would wish on anyone, let alone an animal that doesn’t understand what is going on. So began my research!
What started as a short blog piece, I have had to split into a two part piece.
Part One: ‘What is anxiety in dogs?’
Part Two: ‘How do we treat anxiety in dogs?’
Anxiety is a mental health issue that is widely known and treated in humans. What many people don’t realise, is that many dogs also have anxiety. Whilst anxiety in dogs is not the same as in humans, anxiety still causes emotional and physical symptoms just the same.
Treating dogs with anxiety is much the same as treating humans with anxiety (in theory). What makes it difficult is that you as the pet parent are the only one that understands what is going on. It is not going to be easy, but those beautiful eyes and furry cuddles will make it all worth it in the end.
How do we treat anxiety in dogs?
If you feel that your dog is displaying any of the behaviours described in Part 1: What is anxiety in dogs?, I would suggest that your first port of call is to your local vet. For the same reasons that your GP would want to rule out anything else for you, your vet will want to rule out anything else that might be causing the behaviour for your dog.
However, if your vet does diagnose your dog with anxiety, they may:
Neither of these are short term solutions, both need time. It is essential to get to the root cause of the anxiety to properly help your dog and to teach them new ways to cope with their fear and stress. It is important for us as dog parents not to take the easy way out. Calming equipment and medication will only suppress the anxiety.
The best way to look at it is – it took time for your dog to get to this point, so it is going to take time to bring them back from it. If the anxiety is just ignored, it will only get worse – don’t forget, anxiety puts strain on your dog both emotionally and physically, which could lead to strain on you.
Behavioural modification techniques:
It is important not to punish your dog for their anxious behaviour - it is a distress response, they are not just being naughty. Punishment will make the problem worse by increasing the dogs stress and uncertainty whilst in such a state. Encourage them to be calm. Calmly stroke and reassure them, whilst ensuring that you also stay calm. I do understand this is be easier said than done. But don’t get discouraged, you can do it – they are relying on you!
“The signs involved in an oncoming anxiety attack are subtle; learn to recognise the physical signs… and head the behaviour off before it has a chance to take over”. (Nelson)
My research identified behaviour modification techniques, a calming environment, and calming equipment that you can look at using. As with us, every pet is different, so you can make a plan for your furbaby and alter it as you go. Shibashake notes that they found the desensitisation and counter-conditioning behaviour modification techniques done together, and in conjunction with a calming environment, produced the best results. WebMD also noted an additional behaviour modification technique for mild and moderate to severe separation anxiety. However, all four behaviour modification techniques are based on a similar concept – to reduce/remove the emotional reaction to the problem stimulus.
Aim: To desensitise your dog to the problem stimulus.
Method: The repetition of controlled exposure of your dog to the problem stimulus.
Start with a version of the problem stimulus that is weak enough for your dog to stay calm.
Get your dog to focus on you. Do simple obedience exercises such as sit and stay to distract them from the stimulus, and reward them with special treats that they do not usually get.
Treats with a strong smell will increase the distraction by additionally engaging their sense of smell.
When you feel that your dog is comfortable with the level of problem stimulus, slightly increase it.
Make each session short and fun so that your dog does not see it as a punishment.
Aim: To reduce your dog’s anxious reaction to the problem stimulus.
Method: Train your dog to perform a positive behaviour in response to the problem stimulus.
Practice simple obedience exercises, using rewards such as treats.
When your dog is exposed to the problem stimulus, practice these simple obedience exercises – replacing the negative behaviour with positive behaviour.
Counter-conditioning for mild separation anxiety
Aim: To reduce your dog’s reaction to your absence.
Method: To develop an association of being left alone with something positive.
Each time you leave the house, give your dog something that they love (generally food) that will take 20-30 minutes to finish. When my boy was a pup, I would fill his KONG (toy) up with peanut butter, put it in the freezer, and give to him before I went to work the next morning. At the time we lived in far north Queensland, so he especially loved it frozen.
If your dog is not food focused, figure out what they really like, and work it into something that you can give them when you leave. For instance, if your dog is obsessed with playing fetch, you could purchase an automated fetch machine. I don’t have any recommendations as I have never used one, but I did see that Dr Harry did a segment on Better Homes and Gardens last year on automated pet toys.
Make sure that you take these ‘special’ toys away when you get home.
Desensitisation for moderate to severe separation anxiety
Aim: To reduce your dog’s reaction to your absence.
Method: To reduce your dog’s anxiety to being left alone.
It is important to understand that, for dogs with moderate to severe separation anxiety, desensitisation can be much more complex. I highly recommend that you reach out to a professional behaviourist so that you do not make the problem worse.
Dogs are amazing at pre-empting what you are going to do. For instance, if you put your runners on, they start going crazy thinking that they are about to go for a walk. They are the same with pre-empting you leaving them. The aim of this step is to reduce the anxiety of these departure cues.
Do your usual routine out of order, do certain departure cues without actually leaving, and do these cues randomly throughout the day. This can include packing your lunch, handbag or briefcase; putting on your coat or shoes; getting dressed for the day; and eating and cleaning up – all out of your regular routine.
If your dog does not get anxious prior to your departure, you can skip this step.
However, if your dog does, it is important to note that this step can take a while. Like I said earlier, it took time for your dog to get to this point, so it is going to take time to bring them back from it.
To start with you can practice ‘separations’ while you are still around, just out of sight. For instance, you can make them sit in one room while you go into another, you can make them sit on one side of a door while you are on the other side, or put them outside while you go inside.
Some important points for this stage are:
To work your way up to areas that your dog will link to your actual departure, such as your front or garage door.
To start with short absences that won’t provoke and anxious response, such as 1-2 seconds.
To stay calm when you are both leaving them and when you come back. It is important to keep them calm.
Once you have worked your way up to, and conquered, the use of a departure door and absences of a few minutes, you can start actual absences. As with the previous step, start your absence time at a length that does not provoke an anxious response.
A calming environment
Aim: To create a calming and predictable environment that your dog can rely on.
Create a routine, a fixed set of rules, and a consistent way of enforcing them.
Ensure that your dog gets plenty of exercise on a daily basis. This amount will depend on the type of dog, their age, and their general health.
Ensure that your dog gets enough mental stimulation. You can do obedience training, agility training, or purchase toys that are designed to mentally stimulate your dog.
YOU need to stay calm. Animals can pick up on human emotion, and some will also mimic it (but usually much worse).
A relaxing massage. This doesn’t need to be a professional massage. Think about how relaxing it is to have someone brush your hair – so get yourself a brush, or use one of your old hair brushes, and brush their fur.
Thundershirt: A coat that exerts constant pressure on your dog’s body. It is argued that this pressure has a calming effect on your dog’s nervous system. As with everything, this will work on some dogs, but not on others.
Storm Defender Vest: In addition to the anxiety triggered by the noise in storms, many dogs are also triggered by the increase in static produced by a storm. The storm defender vest is a coat that helps to reduce the amount of static that your dog feels in the lead up to, and during a storm.
Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP): A synthetic chemical that was developed based on a hormone produced by nursing mother dogs to help both her and her puppies feel calm and secure, and to establish a positive bond between them. There are many ways in which you can use these, such as through a calming collar, a calming spray, or a calming wall plug-in.
Essential oils: The diffusing of therapeutic grade essential oils, such as lavender (a favourite for myself), cedarwood, chamomile, vetiver, myrrh, and frankincense. Just make sure that you use a therapeutic grade essential oil.
A safety friend, toy or space: Some dogs can have a friend, a toy, or a space that they can go to to feel safe. This can be like when children have their ‘special’ toy. My nieces had a little blanket each that they would sleep with and take everywhere with them when they were babies.
Calming music: There are dog calming CD’s on the market, with 396Hz being the best frequency for calming dogs. A quick Google search shows options from Youtube, Amazon, and many more.
“According to researcher Joshua Leeds, “Classical [music] slowed them down. It just relaxed them in a way that the other music seemed to irritate them”.” (Shibashake)
Crate training: Crate training can be helpful as a safe place for your dog to go when they are feeling nervous or anxious. As with many things, crate training is not for all dogs. If crate training doesn’t work with your dog, try confining them to a specific room such as a laundry or garage.
DO NOT medicate your dog with human drugs. A dog’s physiology is different to humans, so ALWAYS consult with your vet.
Behaviour modification techniques won’t be effective with extremely anxious dogs as dogs in this state can’t learn due to the imbalance in neurotransmitters and their cortisol levels. Extremely anxious dogs will need to wait until their medication kicks in prior to starting behaviour modification. In this case, they may need special care until their medication kicks in. Just as with human anxiety medication, this can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Special care could be in the form of hospitalisation, constant observation in the form of a pet sitter, or a place to keep them distracted such as doggy day-care.
Carey, G 21 November (no year), ‘What causes anxiety in dogs’, viewed 24 April 2018 https://www.petcarerx.com/article/what-causes-anxiety-in-dogs/701
Easter F, 8 September 2016, ‘Do dog pheromones work’, viewed 26 April 2018 http://www.dogtrainingnation.com/dog-behavior-2/do-dog-pheromone-collars-work/
Nelson, K, ‘Extreme fear and anxiety in dogs’, viewed 8 April 2018 https://www.petmd.com/dog/conditions/behavioral/c_dg_fears_phobia_anxiety?page=show
Rosenthal, C 15 April 2012, ‘Calming dogs with anxiety disorders’, viewed 24 April 2018 https://www.mysanantonio.com/news/article/Helping-dogs-with-anxiety-disorder-3478318.php
Shibashake, ‘Dog anxiety problems – How to deal with an anxious dog’, viewed 8 April 2018 https://shibashake.com/dog/dog-anxiety-problems
WebMD Veterinary Reference from ASPCA Virtual Pet Behaviourist, viewed 23 April 2018 https://pets.webmd.com/dogs/separation-anxiety-dogs#1