Updated: Apr 15, 2022
Anxiety and anxiousness are words that are thrown around a lot. Most of us have a pretty good idea of what it looks like in humans (fidgety, heart racing, nail biting, worrying thoughts) and we can extrapolate that to dogs. But when is anxiousness a disease state? When should you be seeking help for your pet for suspected anxiety?
It might be somewhat normal to express some worry in a new environment or an environment that previously has been associated with some unpleasantness - eg the vet clinic and hence I think many dogs that show anxiety in their vet clinic may be dismissed as experiencing a normal level of anxiety for the event. For some this is probably reasonable. On questioning they cope well everywhere else and show no behaviours of concern to their caregivers. Make sure to tell your vet if this is not the case.
For others, the vet clinic is just one of many scenarios they display anxiety and it is these dogs that I am talking about. When a dog displays a concerning behaviour think about the frequency, intensity and duration of it to see if it qualifies as pathological. Does it serve a purpose? Or is it beyond what the environmental conditions would reasonably expect?
It is good survivability to feel fear in the face of danger. In a home invasion I hope you get out your baseball bat and swing it (or hide successfully in a cupboard), rather than offer the intruder a cup of tea. I can hear some of you arguing this point right now - but you know what I mean - there is a time to feel threatened, but hopefully it comes a long rarely, and when it does you act appropriately in order to survive. But if every time the door bell rings you act as if your life is in peril then this is a sign that you are living in a state that is unreasonably fearful.
It is bad for your brain and your general health to be living like the sky is falling. Poor little Chicken Little.
So, what do pathologically anxious dogs look like?
they show excessive arousal in unfamiliar environments - sometimes this is interpreted as "excited" but really look (at the emotional state) and see what you are witnessing - is this excitement a form of worry? Is there lots of lip licking, yawning, shake offs, whining?
they may be "frantic friend makers" - dogs who need to make contact with human faces, groins and lick a lot - all ways to gain and give information - just like the overly talkative person who is covering up their anxiety by talking at a million miles a minute, and laughing at the wrong moments. I see these dogs as the constant apologisers - not comfortable in their own skins and needing to appease everyone they meet.
there are physiological signs of over arousal - piloerection (hackles), pupil dilation, stressed vocalisations, panting, dandruff, needing to pee or poop, not being able to eat.
they don't stop moving - they don't lie after a short while in a new environment but instead remain hyper vigilant and often they are poor sleepers in general. Did you know a normal hound sleeps for 16-18 hours out of 24.
they startle and appear skittish to relatively benign sounds, changes in their environment, eg spook at a bin or something out of place in the home. They glimpse something from the corner of the eye and cower or scamper.
they might use aggression to keep whatever they are worried about at a safe distance from themselves and they might become better at this over time - becoming more and more offensive looking. They could be labelled "dominant" incorrectly. This is why it is important to ask what they were like when they were young and what did they look like when they first experienced the trigger. Often you will uncover signs of early fearfulness.
they make poor judgements about the intentions of others - both dogs and people and can be worried about benign interactions such as collar hold, or misinterpret another dog and warn another dog off, despite the appropriateness of the other dog.
they could be overly worried about access to their resources, including human attention, and therefore be poor companions with other canines, always needing to be the one to be next to the human they are bonded to.
they could be showing compulsive repetitive behaviours which can take various forms depending on the breed - they could be tail chasing, fly snapping, pacing, light chasing or any combination of these behaviours. As these behaviours become somewhat soothing to the brain they become harder and harder to stop and less and less interruptible. Then they begin to interfere with normal activity.
What do we uncover in the histories?
There are often some commonalities for these animals:
they showed early red flags - eg timid, shy, and made poor progress in puppy class
they came from breeding situations where not a lot of care was taken to select parents and give puppies the highest levels of nurturing care eg mother was in rescue, from a depauperate environment where genes for survivability have been selected for. Remember when selecting a puppy it is advised to know both parents - this is not to seeing them on Facebook - this means spending time with them and their breeder and really getting a sense of the dogs' temperament.
they have had some punishment in their past - maybe punishment that a "normal" dog would be resilient to, but in the case of the anxious dog it has been a stressor too severe and has caused further sensitisation towards any trigger - so often there is punishment in the history of anxious dogs.
they don't cope well with change - be it in routine or smaller day to day things - anxious brains require predictability and control and whenever this cannot be achieved the animal's ability to cope falters.
they have a "bubble" and outside of that "bubble" they find it very difficult to maintain executive thought and function - they then enter a reactive state where they are just trying to survive as best they can - they might develop strange coping mechanisms.
they often have other health issues - including skin and gut conditions and chronic pain.
So how should we treat these animals to make a positive difference in their lives and that of their caregivers? Make no mistake it isn't easy living with a dog (or a person)Â who suffers mental health issues.
manage the signs - this may mean avoiding the triggers of the cause of anxieties whilst using short acting and intermittent use medications to alleviate the very horrible feelings associated with anxiousness. This is the humane thing to do. These animals are suffering. This might require some careful tailoring of medications that work to reduce arousal and anxiety and act rapidly.
modify the behaviour - this can be like watching paint dry if it's done correctly and hence why you never see TV shows with positive reinforcement trainers desensitising a dog to his/her trigger. It should look boring because the aim is to keep the dog below his/her threshold for reactivity - using distance and intensity of the trigger - whilst creating a new positive/neutral association around the trigger. This is why you will always be paired with a recommended trainer as you will need someone to guide this process and stop you from flooding your dog.
change the brain long term - this is the role of the serotonin medications that are taken on a daily and ongoing basis. The aim of these medications are to enhance connectivity between the reactive (primitive) brain and the prefrontal cortex so that the animal becomes less impulsive, more clear thinking and his/her brain is protected from becoming more and more reactive. These medications require the caregiver to have faith in the long term goal and to stick with medications for sometimes a few years.
So how successful are we at changing the anxious state? Well it depends. It can depend on many things - how severe the dog's current state is, how long the dog has coped with his/her current state, what else is going on in the dog's health picture and how able are the caregivers to change their lives and adjust their expectations for their dog. We do not give these dogs new brains and there are many things we are still learning about the emotional issues dogs face, just as mental health research for humans changes constantly too. But we can make a difference.
And dogs and people do show improvements with the right ethical, humane and scientific care plan.
What I do know, after seeing hundreds and hundreds of dogs who have behaviour issues, is that the caregivers who love them have an incredible bond to these sometimes broken animals and are willing to help them and support them with extraordinary sacrifices. I take my hat off to all my wonderful clients and I say thank you for all the work you do and all the love you give.