Canine anxiety can be a big problem for dogs and owners. Seeing our dogs distressed causes worry for pet parents, and not knowing how to treat anxiety can lead to problems in everyday life and create additional stress. We want to help our dogs, so it’s ideal to recognise anxiety in a dog early, but even in advanced cases, anxiety can be improved.
What is Canine Anxiety?
Anxiety is a widespread behavioural problem in dogs that canine experts encounter daily. Owners of dogs prone to anxiety usually report difficulty taking the dog for a walk, inability or difficulty training, problems with behaviour at home (like destroying the furniture) or even displays of aggression.
In a study focusing on the impact of anxiety on the behaviour of dogs, a group of authors led by Anna Zamansky found that behavioural problems, of which anxiety is one of the most common, pose a threat to the well-being of dogs and their owners. Moreover, these kinds of issues contribute significantly to reasons for abandoning dogs and leaving them in shelters and then pose a barrier that prevents shelter dogs from being adopted.
So, how would we define anxiety? Canine Anxiety is a physiological, psychological and emotional state characterised by the anticipation of unknown or imagined future dangers associated with negative emotions. This results in changes in the body (physiological reactions), but it also has a negative impact on the dog's psychological state as well as its emotional state.
What Causes Anxiety in Dogs?
According to veterinarian Gary M. Landsberg from Merck Veterinary Manual, anxiety in dogs can have different causes. He divides the most common causes of this condition into three categories:
Fear. Fear in dogs can occur as a result of loud noises, new and unfamiliar surroundings and unfamiliar people, special situations that the dog perceives as unusual (for example, driving in a car), and unordinary visual stimuli on people such as hats or umbrellas.
Separation. One of the most common types of anxiety is separation anxiety, which affects about 14 per cent of dogs. Dogs suffering from this condition have difficulties finding comfort when left alone or when separated from their owners. It may be perpetuated if the dog has been repeatedly abandoned or rehomed, which often happens precisely because they have separation anxiety. A dog's separation anxiety may manifest through urinating or defecating around the house.
Aging. When aging is the cause of anxiety, it's related to the appearance of cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS). Dogs diagnosed with CDS struggle with memory loss and reduced perception, awareness and learning abilities. This condition is very similar to Alzheimer's disease in humans.
There is no single source of anxiety that will miraculously disappear overnight. Sometimes, there are several problems, and they often go back to puppyhood, when the dog's behaviour patterns are just being formed.
For example, if it is deprived of social and environmental exposure in the first weeks of life, there is a greater chance the dog will suffer from anxiety in adulthood. Another example is if the dog in a stressful situation could not move away from the stimulus that caused insecurity or fear, which made the dog feel trapped. If such a situation repeats itself (for example, during training sessions), it can result in accumulated fear and anxiety.
What Are the Signs of Dog's Anxiety?
Indicators of anxiety can be physical or can be indicated by changes in the dog's behaviour.
Physical signs of anxiety can refer to elimination, i.e. urination and bowel movements. Sympathetic autonomic nervous system activity in the case of an anxious dog may manifest as diarrhea as the fight-flight response prevents the proper functioning of the gut.
Changes in behaviour can be much more varied. Dogs may experience excessive fight, flight, fright or freeze responses to triggers. The most severe symptom of anxiety in dogs is aggression towards people or other dogs and animals.
Pet owners often notice signs ofisation in their pets (barking, crying) and destructive behaviour that can damage anxiety through excessive vocal furniture.
Signs such as trembling, tail-tucking, hiding, reduced activity and passive escape behaviours may also appear, while severe signs that may already indicate panic are panting, pacing, active escape behaviour and, at times, out-of-context, potentially injurious motor activity.
Some of these signs may appear as a result of occasional anxiety-causing events. However, if they repeat regularly, they can lead to a much more severe problem that will be more difficult to improve.
Why is Anxiety in Dogs so Prevalent?
Anxiety in dogs occurs so often because many complicated and simpler vectors contribute to the issue; these can begin even before birth. However, more recently, dog owners are becoming aware of how their relationship with their dog can be used as a protective factor - authoritative relationships (which is vastly different to an authoritarian - do what I say - approach) creates safe boundaries and provides emotional warmth, that helps dogs to with their emotional and psychological growth.
Maternal Health and Stress
The physical and emotional health of the mother during pregnancy is a factor known to have a significant impact on the unborn puppies. Again, this can be either a protective factor if the pregnancy was uncomplicated and stress-free or a contributing factor where the mother's health was compromised.
Pregnancy in dogs is a demanding time for dog owners, too, who need to responsibly approach the necessities of a healthy diet, necessary medications (vaccines), regular visits to the vet, and sufficient exercise for the pregnant dog. If the bitch is neglected during pregnancy, there is an increased risk that the puppies will have health problems during their lives.
Although anxiety can affect any dog breed, some breeds seem more prone to it. So it is important for owners to understand if the breeds they are interested in are more predisposed to having issues with canine anxiety. Researching breeders and their dogs is always a good start that allows owners to take protective measures that reduce the likelihood of the anxiety manifesting.
The following are breeds that are often more inclined to have problems with this condition: Australian Shepherd, Border Collie, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Toy Poodle, and the Cocker Spaniel.
The influence of the environment is an unquestionable part of the life of every living being. Interestingly, two beings in the same 'environment' can have vastly different experiences. The experiences they share would be termed 'shared environmental experiences, and those that differ are 'non-share experiences'.
It can be highly confusing for owners when they have two dogs of similar age; one develops anxiety issues, and the other seems far more robust. Yet when we understand that these dogs, even in the same home, can have vastly different experiences, we can understand that we need to take an individualised approach to emotional well-being that brings out the best in each of our pets.
Exposure to long-term stressors is a risk factor. However, even short-term stressors can result in symptoms of fear or anxiety in dogs - this may depend on the intensity of the triggers and the dog's history. For example, the loud noise of fireworks, dog parks, or visits to a noisy and crowded city centre for a dog that usually lives in a calmer environment might be too overwhelming, especially if they still need to develop the skills to process these events calmly. In such situations, the dog may show discomfort, which can manifest through short-term anxiety. Once the triggers are gone, the dog's behaviour should also normalise.
Although dogs may only require a short duration to normalise after exposure to short-term stressors, exposure to long-term stressful environmental situations can have much longer consequences on the dog's health. The resulting negative behaviour can be much more severe.
Lack of Emotional Regulation Skills
Emotional regulation skills refer to the individuals' influence on their emotional expression, duration and intensity. Emotional regulation can be automatic or controlled, conscious or unconscious. When a dog has problems regulating its emotional state, it has a hard time controlling impulses, which can result in behavioural problems, including the appearance of anxiety.
Stress from Hidden Pain
Sometimes, owners first become aware of the hidden physical pain their pet is experiencing only when unwanted behavioural issues appear, anxiety being one of them. Yet, pain is one of the most overlooked driving factors behind many behaviour problems. Dogs are often known as being stoic, deliberately hiding their pain as a strategy to protect their life—something they've inherited from their wild ancestors.
What Can We Do to Help an Anxious Dog?
The first and best step towards treating dog anxiety is to talk to your vet. They will eliminate potential medical issues that can lead to this condition (for example, the sources as mentioned above of hidden pain) by conducting blood tests or similar simple procedures. If they find that there is indeed a health problem causing the anxiety, they will suggest appropriate therapy or further examinations. Talking to their vet can help owners identify other triggers that may lead to anxiety and help their dog cope with them more successfully.
Desensitization and Counterconditioning
These approaches are most effective when anxiety is treated at an early stage. The goal is to reduce the reaction to stimuli that cause anxiety in the dog.
Desensitization is repeated, controlled exposure to a stimulus to reduce the anxiety response over time. The dog's exposure to the source of anxiety is extremely small (low in intensity) to achieve and control positive behaviour more easily.
Counterconditioning is a type of training that directs the dog towards positive behaviour instead of anxious reactions. The goal is to change the dog's response to stimuli towards more desirable behaviour—such as focusing on the owner when the stimulus is present.
Building Fitness in a Safe Environment
Regular exercise is crucial for a dog's physical and mental well-being; exercise, when conducted safely and without triggers, can aid in building better neural pathways within the brain. Dogs shouldn't have to tolerate being cooped up and inactive for hours; they need regular exercise to stay healthy. This need is especially emphasised in hunting and working breeds whose genetic heritage doesn't allow them to spend the day sitting and sleeping. A dog whose body is sufficiently exposed to movement and whose mind is adequately stimulated is less inclined to pick up destructive behaviour or develop any form of anxiety. In other words, positive exercise is a protective factor.
Teaching Our Dogs How to Relax
Similar to meditative practices in humans, dogs can also benefit from relaxation; even canine athletes need sufficient rest. One way to help relax a dog is by playing soothing music, and classical music has proven to be dogs' favourite choice. What's more, many pet playlists on YouTube are specifically created to help dogs calm, and they're available whenever your dog feels any degree of anxiety or fear.
While some dogs may prefer music to help calm them, others respond more deeply to physical touch. You can try deep breathing and somatic relaxation sessions with your dog to help him calm down.
If your dog reacts well to touch and seems much more relaxed afterwards, a session with a professional canine therapist may further reduce the anxious reaction to stimuli. This can be especially helpful when working on separation anxiety because it works deeply on an emotional level and helps dogs develop a secure and healthy attachment.
If your dog develops a chronic anxiety disorder, your veterinarian may suggest medications or natural therapy. They can be used in the short term and give good results, while in some cases, long-term use of medications may be necessary to help anxious dogs in the long run.
Finally, always remember that dogs like us sometimes want to shut themselves off from everything. Therefore, provide them with a safe place at home, away from any source of noise or people that might trigger anxiety, so they can rest well and unwind properly.