Anyone who has ever dealt with an anxious pup can tell you that the anxiety is contagious to humans! What I mean, is that having an anxious dog takes a lot of work! Just like humans, dogs are programmed to feel anxiety. In a primitive world, or for a person or a dog living in a non-domesticated society, this anxiety saves lives. Anxiety is present in the mind to help predict danger and therefore allow time for the mind to conjure a way out of that danger. In the house, that apparently means eating the furniture and general destructive behavior.
Some breeds of dog seemed to be more dispositioned to be anxious breeds. Some of the most famous memes on the internet tend to feature the “aftermath” of an anxiety attack that a dog experienced while left unattended. Though regardless of what your dogs breed is, or if he or she is just a magical mutt, anxiety can happen. Anxiety can be breed dispositioned or in some cases instilled by human error. I don’t always mean abuse in this case either, it can simply be something the owner doesn’t realize they are doing to trigger their dogs anxiety.
So many of our shelter dogs that are awaiting their forever homes are owner turn in cases. A big reason for owner turn in cases: ANXIETY. Doggie anxiety can take on many forms but of course for many dogs, it transcends into various outlets. These anxieties include but are not limited to: thunderstorms, vacuums, new visitors because well the are new, the fireplace, other dogs, the way the AC turns on in just a certain way, cats (Which I can’t blame them for at all!) and many many other “normal human” things. The worst anxiety of all, and by far the most commonly spoken about, the dreaded SEPARATION ANXIETY. Dun, dun dun.
Separation anxiety is particularly hard because it can range from mild to extreme. Moderate is some whining and pacing across the home when the owner leaves. Extreme would be tearing the doors down, eating the walls and let me just tell you, those ones will not stay in a crate without harming themselves. Now, don’t get me wrong. Some dogs are plain ole mischief makers and will chew a slipper because it pleases them. But these anxious dogs feel true stress.
I would like to talk about ways to cope with doggie anxiety if it is a problem that you face. If you are like me, and will always own a dog until the end of time, you may face these in the future and this is a good article to read. Perhaps you can help one of your friends who comes to dinner saying, “OH MY GAH you won’t believe what Fido did today!”.
Firstly, let’s talk about our subject, Pippin. Pippin was raised from 7 weeks old with us, in our home and has never felt neglect, abandonment or any life style pain. He is a Shiba Inu/American Eskimo dog and both breeds suffer from anxiety and separation anxiety. If you’ve been following us on Twitter or Instagram, you will see we have had a few thunderstorms lately and Pippin isn’t fond of them. He goes from docile to a shaking mess of a pup. It’s really quite sad and as a pet parent I often feel very helpless to help him understand that everything is okay.
Pippin hates; vacuums, brooms, anything Swiffer brand (especially dusters), being crated, looking at the crate, eating his food out of his dish, eating his bones alone, being alone in any way (even though he is never alone because he is with Lu), rakes or pretty much anything that is used to clean or that we have to touch. So really, Pippin is your classic overly anxious dog.
Now, that’s great. The dog hates the world. But, we love the dog. So, what do we do about it!?!
Step 1: Isolate the different types of anxieties. I separate anxieties into human created, dog imagined and separation anxieties.
- Human created anxieties are things such as a vacuum or broom. These are things we can control. That means we can prep our dog to be okay with them. We do this with three methods; thunder shirt, distraction technique and training! Personally, training is the best but it takes time so the other two are great alternatives. We will go into training for these next.
- Dog imagined anxieties are feelings of fear over nonsensical notions, even for dogs. These can manifest in a dog that cannot eat out of the food bowl if it gets empty at all. Or a dog that won’t walk a certain way in the house because the AC makes a sound that way. These are primitive fear anxieties. These anxieties can only be corrected with training and reassurance and we will talk about primitive fear anxiety training as well.
- Lastly, separation anxiety. Whew. I deem this one the absolute hardest because well, YOU ARE NOT THERE! HOW DO WE FIX THIS? This takes training the human and the dog. It also takes time and patience and I n some cases lifestyle changes. We will go through separation anxiety as well and steps that can be taken to help cope with this behavior.
Step 2: Take Action!
By this point you should have been able to pin point what category, or categories your pup falls into. Our poor little Pippin falls into all of these categories. So here we go! (Please remember this is a very consolidated guide and I recommend seeking a professional trainer if you are really struggling with your pet. If these methods aren’t working for you I would at least have your pet evaluated at a vet for any possible medical reasons. Sometimes there is a underlying medical reason for anxiety and we don’t want to ignore that either.)
- Human Created Anxiety Methods:
- The first thing we do is try and implement a training technique outside of their anxiety. We use the term “leave it” and train the dog to leave whatever they are interested alone. We do this by using treats. I hold the treat, I say leave it, the dog cannot touch the treat. When I say “OK” he gets a treat BUT not the treat I told him to leave. You can do this with treats, toys, socks, slippers, books or any item really. This is the basic building block of this method as it gives you a command.
- We then bring in something the dog has found as a trigger. Let’s say in this case we bring in a Swiffer Duster. (In our house, this yellow poof MUST die. We cannot rest until we have killed it!) We bring in the duster, use the command leave it. When the dog actually “leaves it” he should not be inching towards it, or for a full leave it, he should not even be looking at it and should be looking at me. When the dog makes this connection with me I will give a treat. BUT, I like to get my work done and praise the dog right? So let’s be real. I still need to dust. So sometimes I provide a distraction technique treat. Our favorite in this category is a Busy Bones. If you haven’t tried them we HIGHLY recommend them for the anxious dog but of course, only when they have earned them! We love our Busy Bones because they allow the dog an award for listening and then even better, some time to take to themselves and enjoy their bone while we finish our tasks. I call this conditioning the behavior. I have said to the dog, “Leave it.” and the dog has responded by leaving the item alone. I have said, “OK.” to the dog and the dog has been given a reward. The dog has now also been given time to decompress and learn a new behavior during the time I, the human, am using the human aided anxiety device. (Sometimes I think to myself that Pippin just doesn’t want a clean house!)
- I want to acknowledge to move slowly though these roles. Make sure the dog truly understands leave it. DO NOT repeat “Leave it. Leave it. Leave it” over and over again. Each time the dog pays mind to the treat or non-stressful item say “NO.” with a firm and stern voice. This will help ensure you are teaching the command and not a new song of our people to your dog. Make sure each step is fully understood. If you go about your task, dusting in this case, and the dog leaves his “distraction treat” and comes attacking your duster it’s time to reset. Be patient. Use your “Leave it.” command, and if the obsession is still there take another step back and go to working with leave it with a treat or a toy and work your way back up.
- In my time with anxious dogs I have learned one thing; sometimes we can make it easier on the dog. In Pippin’s case, sometimes all his training just cannot kick in for us. We end up going back and forth and back and forth. The poor guys is just increasing his anxiety each time that duster is picked back up. So, we invested in a Thundershirt. I cannot recommend this product enough! We don’t neglect any of the previous training techniques but, it does help Pippin calm down enough to hear my words and understand my commands. This can facilitate the dog to continue to learn the training you are teaching and again conditions the dog for what behavior you DO want!
- Dog Imagined Anxiety Methods:
- If your dog has dog imagined anxieties, we will have to tackle these in a more primal way. What does that mean? These dog imagined anxieties are stemming from the dogs brain telling it that they need to be fearful, timid or otherwise even aggressive towards this object or action because it could harm them. This is not normally something we trigger, so it is harder to control the action. In this example we will use Pippin’s fear of eating out of his bowl if he can see the bottom of it. Or, if it is in his bowl holder. Or pretty much eating out of a bowl at all. He will HAPPILY eat human food or he will even readily eat his kibble off the ground. Just hates the bowl.
- This is where the alpha complex has to come in for the human owner to be able to make a difference. For instance, Pippin hates to eat out of his food bowl. So, we recognized this as something that was an anxious trait. We started to feed him a few handfuls out of his food bowl (which gets our scent on the food too) and then would hand him his bowl of food. We would stand with him and watch him eat his food. He had about 10-15 minutes to do this before we had to take the food up and away until dinner time. After we did this for probably 6-8 feedings we started giving Pippin his dish without us starting off with a few handfuls. We waited, and he ate. This established that we, his human family, are the alphas and we say it is okay to eat. Sounds harsh but in dog land, it is about giving the pup confidence and showing them that you are their leader there is nothing to fear.
- This can be replicated with many different dog imagined scenarios. If your dog is afraid of something that is primal, then you can edit this method that allows you to be in control of the situation. I.E. if the AC cutting on is going to make your dog nervous but the dog on a leash and have a partner. Have one person cut on the AC and at that time give the command to sit by the sound. Then continue working (similar to distraction treats but more working through the sound) and then praise the dog for doing the work while under the stressful influence. Turn of the AC. Repeat. Eventually the dog will learn that this sound doesn’t have to interrupt his daily pattern. You are his leader, you say that it is safe. They will trust you.
- Separation Anxiety Methods:
- This particular post could go on forever! But I will try and make this brief. There are two components to this method. The dog and the human component.
- Human Component: Are you a ritualistic person? Do you go to work at the same time everyday? Grab your keys, then your briefcase, don’t forget the water bottle and then the glasses? If so, you may be setting up anxiety. You are creating a pattern that the dog is looking for to know, for certain, that his or her world is about to be turned upside down in T-Minus 5 seconds. If that is the case, train yourself. Maybe go put the briefcase in the car. Then go get your water bottle, perhaps pick up a magazine you normally would’t pick up and then get your keys.
- Human Component: Do you give Fido all the smooches and loving before you leave for work or play because you just can’t imagine him or her sitting at home without you? What about those extra rubs and sweet hugs the moment you get home? This is creating excitement around exiting and entering the home for your dog. For the last five minutes before I leave I have no communication with my dogs. They have had their breakfast and water filled. If there is a special morning biscuit, they have had it while I am doing my morning chores. If we are crating, they have already been put in their crates five minutes prior to me leaving. I don’t say goodbye at this point. I get plenty of love and affection in while I am doing my make up or getting dressed. When I come home, I put my stuff down and normally use the restroom or grab something to drink. Then, I will love on them or let them out. When crated, I try and wait just a minute or two before releasing them so that I am not a trigger for this behavior. If the dog is showing anxiety to be let out, I ask them to sit before the crate door is opened. This should be done in 10 minute increments, then 30 minutes and then extend to normal hours. This is a training exercise and can be done daily. The more this is done, the faster this behavior will dissipate.
- Dog Component: Use a create to be safe while you train yourself. In my history with working with separation anxiety, this is normally a human component problem. Please see our crate training article before preceding here if your dog is not comfortable in his or her crate. Remember, this is Fido’s happy place. We need to achieve that first. This is not to “contain your dog” this is to keep your dog safe until he or she realizes that they are in fact safe while you are not there. If your dog is NOT safe in the crate, or destroys it and themselves I would add the Thundershirt for added calming. If the dog still cannot be safe, please consult your veterinarian for help with this behavior as we want your dog and your home to be safe. We don’t want more of our family dogs ending up in shelters. We want to help them be a successful part of our family.
- Dog Component: I personally have not seen a good walk or run stop this type of anxiety. I do believe that proper exercise and mental stimulation are important tools but I believe this is different. We would leave an item that we used for the dog to feel safe. (We do the same when we travel too. This will be tackled in another post dedicated just to traveling with Fido.) We do provide safe chew toys to preoccupy the anxious mind. But these are all temporary while the human trains the dog how to behave when they are exiting and entering the home.
- This particular post could go on forever! But I will try and make this brief. There are two components to this method. The dog and the human component.
Well, that is a synopsis on the types of anxieties and general methods to solve these problems. While working with an anxious dog the key factors are safety for yourself, your dog and others around you. Anxious dogs can exhibit aggressive behaviors and if you find yourself dealing with that type of behavior then we recommend you enlist the help of a professional. This is to ensure safety yet again.
An anxious dog is still a good dog. An anxious dog is not a problem dog. If your dog is exhibiting anxiety and decides to eat your couch, please don’t go home and scold them or “shove their nose in it”. I know each person has their methods, but this will just trigger more anxiety about your arrival home. Please realize that these things take time to change. We wouldn’t ask a human to just “get over it” and expect that change to happen by yelling, being impatient or creating more anxiety. We would coax them, hold their hand or otherwise make them feel loved and secure.
All that being said, we have another thunderstorm rolling in. Did I mention Pippin doesn’t like storms? We will be getting his Thundershirt out now, putting it on him and providing him with a chewy. Sometimes we fail at this and aren’t expecting a storm. In that case, we snuggle until it is over. There are times that is all we can do. It’s in those times that we just remember how much we love our dogs and show them that each and every day.
If you are struggling to beat doggie anxiety, please comment below. You can also leave us a message on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Here is to a future with Pippin that is anxiety free! We will keep working with him until he achieves this. All of these lessons came from multiple foster dogs, help from a professional trainer (really training us not the dogs) and of course our main angel Lu Dog. Who would believe that my perfect, angelic Lu girl used to be an anxious and destructive dog? We hope that these lessons lend you a hand in having a better life for you and your four legged family.
Need a Thundershirt? Want to get some Busy Bones of your own? See the links below:
Click here to get yourself a Thundershirt from the website. They have a whole lot more options online then in the store.