Three Main Types of Dog Anxiety & How to Cope
Fear Based Anxiety
Like any other intelligent animal, humans included, dogs will value self preservation above all else. The fear of anything harmful can easily lead to anxious behavior. Thankfully, fear based anxiety is often easy to diagnose because fear itself is easy to detect. Treating it, however, can be a different story altogether.
Fear related anxiety isn’t just limited to something straightforward, like physical abuse. ‘Fear-related anxiety can be caused by loud noises, strange people or animals, visual stimuli like hats or umbrellas, new or strange environments, specific situations like the vet’s office or car rides, or surfaces like grass or wood floors’ (AKC).
Imagine you are walking down the rows of an animal shelter, and stop to view a small dog, crouched, tail tucked tightly and shaking in the corner of his crate/kennel, trying his best to look as small as possible.
This is an ideal example of the worst kind of fear based anxiety; the example animal is trying to flee his imagined aggressor. Sadly, dogs in these circumstances are prone to lash out, attacking a human in defense, if there is nowhere else for them to go and no other way to ‘escape’.
Common Symptoms of Fear Based Anxiety:
Indirect eye contact
Treating Fear Anxiety
In order to treat fear based anxiety, it’s important to first identify what the dog is afraid of or tormented by, and remove that if possible. Your veterinarian can help identify the cause and offer recommendations. Then, depending on the type of anxiety, strong socialization and/or counterconditioning training, preferably from an experienced handler, are usually recommended treatments. Your veterinarian might also prescribe medication.
Counterconditioning: Counterconditioning involves pairing the thing that the dog dislikes, what causes his anxiety, with something he enjoys more. This has a ‘desensitizing’ effect; your dog will come to enjoy the one thing he once feared because it means he will be rewarded with the other thing he loves.
- Yawning when not tired is a big sign of anxiety or discomfort, sadly often misunderstood or overlooked.
This is one of the most common anxiety related behavioral disorders pet owners deal with, frequently coming home to shredded fabric and other household damage. In extreme cases, dogs have even been known to injure themselves while owners are away, so intense is their anxiety.
The first step to treating separation anxiety is recognizing it for what it is, which sadly- many owners don’t. For a dog not used to lengthy times alone while owners are at work (for example), or long hours absent somewhere else, loneliness can be very troubling. Consider this from a dog’s point of view:
Urinating, defecating in house
Excessive barking, howling
Chewing, digging, destruction
Coprophagia (eating feces)
‘Where did my owner go? Why did he leave me alone? Will my owner ever come back to me? How will I survive on my own?’
No, your dog probably isn’t consciously thinking these exact things, but the feeling of nervousness is essentially the same. In order to avoid separation anxiety, it’s important to work up to lengthy absences, rather than immediately leave for long periods.
Punishment is the worst thing you can do to a dog suffering from separation anxiety, only serving to enforce those nervous feelings whenever you leave.
Age Related Anxiety
Affecting older dogs, age related anxiety can be an unfortunate side effect of cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS). Dogs with CDS suffer from a decline in memory, learning, perception, and awareness, close to that of Alzheimer's disease in humans.
Again, owners dealing with age related anxiety in their pets should discuss treatment with their veterinarians. It’s also important to create a friendly environment with a familiar routine, limiting any disturbing sounds or loud noises as much as possible.
Aggression: The Worst Symptom
Aggression is the absolute worst, and most dangerous, symptom of dog anxiety by far. Depending on the situation, this aggression can be targeted directly at the aggressor, or indirectly. Direct aggression takes place when a dog reacts aggressively toward other animals or people. Indirect aggression can be just as harmful, usually occurring when a human handler comes between an aggressive dog and the target of that dog’s aggression, whether it be another dog or human.
Though there are several, fear is the most common cause of aggression- especially in anxiety related situations. Understand a fearful dog’s first instinct is to try and escape, or flee (flight) the area/cause. If it can’t flee, and is left with no other perceived options, the ‘fight’ response takes over.
- Never force an interaction with an overly fearful dog!
Fearful aggressive dogs can react unpredictably, and in this way are often more dangerous than dominant aggressive dogs. With a dominant aggressive dog, you know what the animal’s intentions are from clear body language signals.
Once again, it’s important to talk to a veterinarian about treatment options, if at least to rule out medical cause of aggression. You might also want to ask your veterinarian to refer an accredited animal behaviorist in your area.
Fear based/ anxiety driven aggression can be difficult to treat, often requiring ongoing socialization and counter-conditioning (see definition above) training from an experienced, educated handler.
Herbal products, like calming oils, are also popular treatments for anxiety related conditions. Not only is it a popular treatment for pain, hemp oils are used to treat seizure, stress, and anxiety related conditions in pets.
Conclusion: Identify the Behavior
The first step in changing, or treating, these anxious behaviors is understanding them. Before anything can be changed, you have to understand why it is happening in the first place. What is causing your dog’s anxiety in the first place, and what can you do to create a less anxious environment?