In last week's blog we covered Separation Anxiety and we will in this blog delve further into anxiety on a broader level.
When we introduce a dog into our home, whether they be a puppy or an older rescue, it's natural that they're going to feel anxiety. For a puppy, this is likely to be the first time they've been away from their mother and siblings. They're suddenly in a world where everything is strange and brand new, without the coping skills an older dog has acquired. Equally, a rescue dog may be unused to living indoors in a human space and they may be dealing with emotional or physical trauma. For some dogs, an event that takes place years after they’ve joined your family might trigger a new anxiety disorder: a traumatic attack by another dog, for instance, or a first encounter with fireworks.
The most important thing is to recognise that your furry friend is an individual with specific experiences and a unique personality; both of which will be shaping how they react to the human world around them. As such, every pawrent needs to be armed with two key tools to help their dog tackle anxiety: patience and empathy. We need to be able to recognise signs of anxiety in our dogs by monitoring their body language (ears back, tucked tail and panting are just a few examples) and be their allies in helping them overcome their triggers.
Why Is My Dog Scared Of Everyday Things?
Sometimes it’s necessary to look at so-called 'normal' things from a dog's perspective to understand why they're scary. To a dog, a vacuum cleaner is terrifyingly loud, chasing them through the house and interfering in all their safe places. A toaster popping might sound like a gun shot, and the violent explosions of fireworks can be overwhelming when you don't understand what they are or where they’re coming from. As for a loud bell ringing to announce a strange intruder at the door: why wouldn't that be scary? A crowded event full of tall strangers trying to touch you without permission? That's not a relaxing experience for a dog. Putting ourselves in our dog’s paws and considering how the conventional sounds, sights and activities that we’re used to might appear to them is the first step in managing canine anxiety. From there, we can help our pups navigate the sources of their fear.
What If My Dog Is Afraid Of Something Completely Random?
Our dog's specific fear might seem irrational to us, but we don't necessarily know all their past experiences, especially if they're a rescue. Just as a human who had a riding accident might fear horses, a dog who was attacked by a black dog might now run from all black dogs. What's more, irrational fears are just as valid as rational ones - after all, we humans have plenty of irrational terrors that we want our loved ones to take seriously. Why is fear of a hairdryer any stranger than fear of a spider? Neither are likely to cause harm. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what your dog is afraid of; it matters that we help them cope with that fear.
Desensitising Your Dog To The Source Of Anxiety
The basic concept of desensitisation can be used with most anxiety triggers, as shown with separation anxiety in this blog [link to separation anxiety blog]. For example, if loud noises are causing your dog anxiety, you can teach them to associate these sounds with something positive instead, ‘desensitising’ them to the original trigger. Similarly, if your furry friend is scared of other dogs, you can gradually increase their social circle with safe, distanced, slow introductions on neutral ground and plenty of positive reinforcement. In all cases, this desensitisation process takes time and should be gradual: don’t expect instant results!
Let’s use a dog who is terrified of the sound of the doorbell as an example. Firstly, you need to record the sound of your doorbell on your phone, ready to play at different volumes. Now, make sure your dog is in a space where they can leave if they want to: you don’t want him or her to feel trapped in the room with their trigger. Play the doorbell sound at the lowest volume and gradually turn up the sound until you see your dog notice the noise: an ear twitch, or a cocking of the head, for instance. Before these progress to a fear response (and this is crucial: you don’t want your dog to feel anxiety), stop turning up the volume and let the doorbell sound play at that level for a few minutes. You can even treat your dog during this time, so they build a positive association with the sound. Play your phone at this low level for 5-10 minutes, 3 or 4 times a day. Once your dog stops responding, turn the volume up very slightly until they notice the sound again.
Keep playing and turning up the fake doorbell in this way daily, over several weeks, until you’re playing it at full volume with no reaction (or possibly even a positive reaction, if your dog’s been enjoying treats during your sessions!) Be sure to keep your actual doorbell turned off during this training period, or an unexpected visitor could inadvertently set your work back.
Bring In Professional Help
If your dog is struggling to cope and their anxiety isn’t improving, don’t be afraid to consult a professional behaviourist. Dog behaviourists aren’t just for so-called ‘bad’ dogs! In fact, here at THE PACK we don’t believe there are such things as ‘bad dogs’; just dogs who haven’t been given the tools to succeed in our human-focussed world. Even just a single session with a qualified canine behaviour expert can set you up with a step-by-step plan to help your dog overcome their anxiety. Just make sure you choose somebody who uses positive reinforcement or rewards-based methods and avoid anybody who uses outdated terminology like ‘pack leader’, ‘dominance’ or ‘punishment’. These kinds of theories and methods have been proven to be ill-founded and ineffective, and will only worsen your dog’s anxiety. The Animal Behaviour and Training Council (ABTC) sets and oversees standards of professional competence and animal welfare during behaviour therapy, and does not endorse fear-based methods, so look for an ABTC-registered training instructor or behaviourist. Finally, if your behaviourist’s training tools include choke chains, shouting or hitting, make like a greyhound and run as fast as you can!
For some dogs, even professional behaviour therapy won’t fully alleviate their anxiety. If this is the case, don’t be afraid to talk with your vet about medication. There are safe, effective anxiety meds available that can be used alongside responsible training to help your dog feel calm and happy. There’s also a chance that your dog might be experiencing underlying pain or discomfort that’s making their anxiety worse, something your vet can help you investigate further.
Finally, never punish your dog for their anxieties. When your dog chews your shoes, gnaws the furniture, barks and howls, or does a poo on your carpet, they’re not doing it to annoy you: they’re asking for your help. If you punish them, you will become another source of fear rather than being a source of comfort. Your dog is relying on you, their pawrent, to help them navigate this strange and scary human world, whether that be coping with fireworks, the malevolent vacuum cleaner or the neighbour’s scary Shih Tzu. Let’s take their fears seriously and who knows? Maybe they’ll chase away those terrifying spiders for us!
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