IS MY DOG ANXIOUS OR JUST EXCITED?
All dogs experience anxiety or stress regularly. It can be hard for owners to identify when their dog is anxious because the signs can be subtle. Additionally, there are good kinds of stress, called eustress, which motivates our dogs to to find shelter, food, social contact, avoid pain, and learn new things. This is normal adaptive stress that presents circumstantially and abates once the stressor is removed or within a reasonable period of acclimation.
Many dogs also suffer from chronic nervous system activation. They accumulate stressors quickly and take longer to dissipate anxiety than other dogs. They have a hard time relaxing, following cues, or maintaining calm behavior in social situations. These dogs often startle easily, awaken frequently, are sensitive to changes in their environment, and may appear on edge for hours or even days after a new experience. Even friendly dogs can be anxious. It’s uncomfortable to be so excited that you can’t calm down.
SUBTLE SIGNS MY DOG IS ANXIOUS
When your dog acts squirrely or goofy in unfamiliar environments or jumps excessively in social situations this is an indication of anxiety. Fidgeting is often misidentified as ‘friendliness’ or ‘exuberance’ and can be dismissed as enjoyment or love of people. In fact, your dog may be so over-stimulated that they physically and mentally have no control over their actions and that isn’t fun for you or your dog. Fidgeting often escalates to leash tugging or mounting guests and this is an indication that your dog is experiencing extreme stress. Your dog may also ‘Freeze’ and shut down, becoming unresponsive to cues or physical prompting.
FREQUENT AND UNUSUAL SOCIAL SIGNALS
Lip licking, yawning, shaking off, paw lifting, displacement sniffing, and looking away are all common social signals used by dogs to communicate anxiety or uncertainty. A dog who is expressing frequent signals is under an elevated degree of social stress. Failure to recognize these signals causes your dog to escalate to more obvious signals such as mounting, leash tugging, barking or lunging on leash.
If you dog is not ‘food motivated’ they may be over indulged, feeling ill, or under stress. Assess your dog’s body score and ensure you can feel your dog’s ribs with light fingertip pressure and that they have an observable waist line. Adjust their meal and treat ration accordingly, ensure that they are healthy, and trying using higher value treats. Food is a valuable asset for helping your dog form positive associations.
Give your dog a choice. Let them opt in or out of training session or social encounter. Giving your dog the tools and the space to avoid conflict reduces stress and builds trust and confidence.
WHY MY DOG IS ANXIOUS
When a stressful event occurs, the body responds by releasing adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol. Each of these neurotransmitters have a slightly different function from suppressing appetite and digestion to diverting blood flow from nonvital organs. Blood supply to the the frontal cortex of the brain is reduced and sent to the heart and lungs in anticipation of sustained physical exertion. This produces a dog that is ready to act purely on instinct and not out of conscious decision making.
NATURE VS NURTURE
Dogs may be genetically predisposed to accumulating stressors quickly and holding onto tension for longer than more confident dogs. Their parents may have been anxious themselves or distrustful of their environment and passed this tendency along to their offspring. High energy and working breed dogs without adequate opportunity to exercise and solve problems may be express excess energy as worry or inability to settle.
Some dogs have had negative experiences that flooded them with fear or worry about things beyond their control or understanding. Lack of experience also creates apprehension about what’s to come. Ultimately your dog may feel like the world is a dangerous place due to poor experience, lack of familiarity, or having inadequate coping skills for dealing with anything exciting or arousing.
WHAT DO I DO WHEN MY DOG IS ANXIOUS?
Regardless of the cause anxiety is typically address using a protocol called Desensitization and Counter Conditioning. A potential trigger (such as being left alone) is introduced in small measures (you put your jacket on then take it off again) and paired with something the dog enjoys (such as high value treats).
But first, manage your environment. Reduce the amount of triggers your dog is exposed to on a regular basis. Give them a place where they feel safe and can relax. Keep others out of their safe space. Time to decompress between stressful encounters is vital to prevent stress stacking.
If necessary, use Over the Counter supplements or Prescription Interventions. No one wants to medicate your dog needlessly. For some dogs, however, pharmaceuticals are absolutely the right course of action. The intent is to wean your dog as they are reasonably able as their training program progresses. In lieu of Rx meds, try ‘Composure’ calming chews or CBD treats/oil.
DESENSITIZATION AND COUNTER CONDITIONING
Desensitization is the process of introducing triggers at a low intensity that does not produce a fear response in your dog. Counter-Conditioning takes a trigger with a previous poor association and using anything your dog finds pleasurable to reframe that association as positive. By keeping the stimulus at a tolerable level and pairing it with sufficiently rewarding things, over time your dog will learn to tolerate greater levels of stimulus comfortably.
There is no magic fix for anxiety. Most dogs do benefit from some sort of modality in addition to their training protocol. Supplements such as calming chews, thundershirts, T-Touch, and other modalities can work synergistically with Desensitization and Counter Conditioning protocols.
By better understanding the motivation for your dog’s behavior you’ll be better able to anticipate and avoid undesirable behavior. If you have any questions about your dog or training program please call or text us at 913.712.8742. Join us remotely for our Weekly Q&A and Nail Trim sessions hosted on Zoom and streamed live through Facebook. On a tight budget? Check out our FREE courses available online.