Dog Anxiety: Preventing & Treating the 3 Types

By: Dr. Carol Jean Tillman

Dog anxiety can almost always be traced back to the first two years of life, a traumatizing event or both.

And while anxiety prevention ideally begins when a puppy is born, there are several effective techniques to improve or eliminate it in older dogs for each of the three main types:

Before addressing each type of dog anxiety, it’s important to understand how a puppy develops...

Dog Anxiety & Puppy Development

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  • The study of animal behavior in general, specifically that of companion animals interacting with humans, is fascinating and well documented. Man's association with dogs dates back 30,000 years, compared to 9,000 years for man and cat.

    Anxiety in dogs has also been well studied and can be traced to the 5 phases of their behavioral development...

    1. Neonatal - first and second weeks of life.
    2. Transitional - during third week of life.
    3. Socialization - extends from 4 to 10 weeks, and during the period between 4 to 8 weeks old it is crucial that primary social relationships are formed. Lack of socialization is the major reason why dogs become fearful of people, other dogs, other animals, or the environment.
    4. Juvenile - 10 weeks of age until sexual maturity.
    5. Adolescence and Adulthood - once puberty and sexual maturity have occurred, the dog can be considered an adult. Adolescence is between 6 months and 2 years of age.
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    Once a dog is considered an adult, there is still ongoing development of its behavior. Since all dogs continue to learn about their environment in adulthood, new behavioral patterns will be added to their existing repertoires that can either help or hinder existing anxiety issues.

    According to Webster's Dictionary, anxiety is an abnormal and overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear often marked by physiological signs (such as panting, tension, increased pulse and salivation) and behavior changes, such as restlessness and destructiveness.

    Dog anxiety can result in different behavior problems, many of which will disrupt the companion animal bond with humans.

    Let’s dive in to the three types and how to address them...

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    Dog Separation Anxiety

    Dog Separation Anxiety Causes & Breeds Commonly Effected

    Dogs are highly social animals.

    In the wild, canines live in family groups or packs. When dogs live with people, they become part of our family unit. Being left alone is unnatural and can result in distress or what is commonly known as 'dog separation anxiety'.

    Not surprisingly, dogs that have been relinquished to pounds or shelters have the highest rate of separation anxiety.

    There can also be breed (genetic) factors that may predispose your dog to behavior problems. Valerie O'Farrell’s Manual of Canine Behaviour points out a survey in which a large group of American veterinarians and obedience judges were asked to rate 56 breeds on 13 personality traits.

    dog anxiety

    Breeds considered to be prone to high reactivity included:

    • Cocker spaniels
    • Pekingese
    • Poodles
    • Shetland sheepdogs
    • Yorkshire terriers

    Those considered to be prone to aggression included:

    • Alsatians
    • Rottweilers

    Those considered to be prone to both included:

    • Chihuahuas
    • Scottish Cairn terriers
    • West Highland white terriers

    Breeds low in both reactivity and aggression included Labradors and Golden Retrievers.

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    Dog Separation Anxiety Symptoms

    A dog with separation anxiety typically exhibits one or more of the following...

    • Excessive barking or howling when left alone
    • Inappropriate defecation or urination when left alone
    • Destructive chewing or scratching of windows, walls, doors, digging up of carpet and flooring in front of closed doorways when left alone
    • Self mutilation behavior which can result in the formation of lick granulomas (a thick, firm oval-shaped plaque that results from excessive licking of the lower leg)
    • Aggression exhibited toward the owners when they leave the house
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    Dog Separation Anxiety Prevention & Treatment

    Adopting a puppy at the right age that has had the proper socialization and handling is the best way to ensure that your dog will not develop separation anxiety.

    Other ways to prevent dog separation anxiety is to start young, when you first adopt your puppy. Your new puppy should be left alone for short periods of time from the very beginning.

    Following are six effective ways to prevent or treat a dog with separation anxiety...

    dog anxiety medication
    1. Start as early as possible, still allowing for the normal behavioral development of the puppy with its mother, and not weaning earlier than 8 weeks of age.
    2. Provide a special toy or treat that is given only when your puppy is in his crate.
    3. Teaching obedience and discipline will cause your puppy to be more confident, secure and calm in any situation.
    4. Exercise and play with your dog before you leave him. This can help him to relax and be comfortable when left alone.
    5. While dog anxiety medication is available (i.e. clomipramine, prozac or nutritional supplements such as the amino acid called L-theanine - brand name Anxitane or Composure), holistic veterinarians prefer to use homeopathic remedies that are based on your puppy's personality and constitution. Homeopathic dog anxiety remedies include Western herbs like chamomile, lavendar, or St. John's Wort, Chinese herbs such as Shen Calmer from the Chi Institute and Bach flower essences such as Rescue Remedy. In combination with behavior modification, these remedies are a more natural method to help correct the problem.
    6. Try a technique called ‘timed departures’...

    Dr. Ian Dunbar, a veterinary behaviorist, has excellent information on behavior on his website www.siriuspup.com. One of the methods he suggests is called 'timed departures' whereby you vary the length of time that you are away from your dog.

    dog anxiety

    To apply this technique, vary your time away from 2 minutes to 10 minutes or longer. Always give a special treat that is stuffed into a Kong Chew Toy (so it will take him some time to chew or lick it to get it out) and which is only given when you are leaving him alone.

    A holistic veterinarian can help evaluate your breed of dog and suggest diagnosis and treatment options for your individual dog.

    To illustrate the unique causes of dog separation anxiety and the potential difficulty in diagnosing the specific problem, consider the case of Columbo...

    Columbo is a 12 year old yellow lab that lives with his owner as the only dog. His owner recently retired and now spends more time at home.

    After the owner’s retirement, Columbo developed a bad habit. He would tear up objects, chewing them to pieces every time the owner left the house. This is something that Columbo would never have done in the past.

    The owner was baffled. Shouldn’t Columbo be happier to have me home all of the time and be more calm as a result?

    After trying everything he could think of, the owner took Columbo to a veterinarian. After a long and thorough physical exam that made sure Columbo did not have any physical ailments such as vitamin deficiency or parasites, it was determined that he had developed separation anxiety based on emotional insecurity.

    Treatment was determined based on a detailed discussion with the owner as to what he did differently now (whenever he had to leave the house for an errand) compared to what he did before he retired (when he was going to work for 8 hours every day).

    After pouring through the daily details, the only difference the owner could come up with was that when he used to go to work, he would always take his hard hat and lunch pail with him. Since retirement, the hat and pail stayed in storage at home.

    So they gave it a shot.

    The owner's veterinarian instructed him to take his hard hat and lunch pail with him whenever he had to leave the house, whether for 10 minutes or 4 hours.

    The owner was more than skeptical with lunch pail and hard hat in-hand on his first trip out of the house later that day. Upon his return a couple of hours later, he slowly opened the door and peeked his head in…

    It worked! There was Columbo, excitedly greeting the owner with a wholly unaltered and intact home behind him.

    Columbo had no more incidents of separation anxiety after that.

    It is difficult to say for certain what was going on in Columbo’s mind… since his owner rarely left without his pail and hat during the day, Columbo may have felt that his owner wasn’t coming back. Regardless, Columbo’s cured.

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    Dog Noise Anxiety / Dog Noise Phobia

    Dog noise anxiety, also known as noise phobias, include fear of thunderstorms and other loud noises such as fireworks, gunshots, sirens, car alarms or vacuum cleaners.

    Causes of Dog Noise Anxiety

    There is no way to know for certain what causes a dog to become afraid of loud noises. But based on what we do know about dogs, we can speculate.

    There are probably multiple reasons for noise phobia, and the reasons vary from dog to dog. The most obvious reason is the loud noise itself. However, the cause of fear may not be limited to noise.

    For instance, changes in barometric pressure and humidity can affect your dog's senses and possibly even cause discomfort in the ears.

    Another possible reason for noise phobia is an association with a traumatic experience. You may not know what happened, but it is possible that something very stressful or frightening occurred in your dog's past during a thunderstorm, vacuuming or other noise-causing anxiety episode.

    Finally, genetic make-up may be a contributing or even be the sole cause of the fear.

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    Dog Noise Anxiety Symptoms

    If your dog's personality changes drastically during particular loud noises, a noise phobia is probably the problem.

    At one end of the spectrum, noise-phobic behavior includes shaking, hiding, cowering, urinating uncontrollably or refusing to leave your side. For dogs at the other end of the spectrum, destructive or self-mutilating behavior may be exhibited.

    Worth noting is a dog's ability to sense changes in the weather. If your dog is thunderstorm-phobic, he may start his noise-phobic behavior well in advance of an approaching storm because he knows its coming.

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    Dog Noise Anxiety Prevention & Treatment

    All of the above dog noise anxiety signs and symptoms can go unnoticed at first, and you may be unknowingly encouraging the behavior.

    Because dog noise anxiety is likely to become worse over time, it is important to take action when you first notice the signs. Do not wait to address the phobia until it is very severe… this will make it much more difficult to reverse.

    dog anxiety

    Thundershirt for
    Dog Anxiety

    Just as stress is a health risk for humans, the same applies for dogs. Noise phobia can become a very serious problem that will adversely affect your dog's health and quality of life.

    There are several things you can do to prevent or minimize your dog's noise-phobic behaviors:

    • Never encourage the behavior by unnecessarily subjecting your dog to their fear. For instance, keep a vacuum-phobic dog away from rooms (or out of your home) where you are vacuuming.
    • While your dog's feared noise is happening, remain relaxed and upbeat or at least act as you normally do. If you panic or rush to your dog's aid, you are only "condoning" their fear.

    However, there are several natural ways you can indirectly comfort your dog during thunderstorms or other sources of fear and anxiety...

    dog anxiety medication
    • Consider trying the Thundershirt as some dog owners say it comforts their dog during anxiety spells. According to the manufacturer, it "creates a gentle, constant pressure that has a dramatic calming effect" and can be "used on its own for less serious issues or in combination with a behavior modification program."
    dog separation anxiety

    While the above techniques in conjunction with basic training methods will work with dogs that have a minor fear of certain noises, dogs with severe noise phobia will need the help of a professional dog trainer.

    If the problem is severe enough, your vet may prescribe anti-anxiety medication. While this should be a last resort, it is sometimes necessary to prevent a dog from hurting itself or others.

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    Dog Social Anxiety

    Causes of Dog Social Anxiety

    Dog social anxiety tends to affect dogs that have not undergone proper socialization as puppies. In general, if puppies receive no human contact or contact with other dogs during the critical period of around 6 to 12 weeks old, they will be fearful in social situations.

    As you might expect, this condition is quite common amongst dogs from puppy mills.

    Due to a lack of "social skills", when these dogs are around other dogs or people they usually feel uncomfortable and cornered and, therefore, will become timid or aggressive. Thus, depending on your dog’s disposition, aggressive or timid behavior will be the main symptoms of social anxiety.

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    Dog Social Anxiety Treatment

    The best way to overcome social anxiety is by desensitization. This involves slowly and gradually exposing the dog to the stimulus or events that trigger her dog anxiety.

    For example, to desensitize your dog from feeling anxious around other dogs or people, slowly introduce other canine or human company to your dog, starting with only one other dog or person, and only for a short time. Let your dog get used to the presence of that "other being", and gradually increase the length and the degree of interaction.

    In the case of human company, the dog should be allowed to approach the person on her own time and initiative, rather than having the person approach the dog.

    Remember… don't rush! Do not introduce more dogs or people until your dog is totally at ease and comfortable with the one you have introduced first. Reward good behavior, such as when your dog does not bark or exhibit aggressive behavior in the presence of another dog or person.

    Both conventional and holistic veterinarians treat social dog anxiety with desensitization techniques. The holistic approach differs in that it recommended a decrease in the frequency of vaccinations or at least a delay of giving any vaccines until the patient is behaving more normally. The rabies vaccination may especially exacerbate an aggressive personality.

    The holistic approach also leans towards more natural treatment such as acupuncture and herbs for calming the 'shen' or spirit. As with separation and noise anxiety, Bach Flower Essences from Rescue Remedy are also helpful for social dog anxiety.

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