EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT ANXIETY IN REACTIVE DOGS
If you have a dog who barks and lunges at strangers, at unfamiliar dogs, at other animals, at vehicles or even at inanimate objects, it can be really tough to know what is going on.
In the last post, we looked at 10 reasons behind reactive behaviour. We saw that there were two clusters that were more common than others.
One was a fear-based cluster and the other was an impulse-based cluster.
It is really important to know the reasons behind the dog’s behaviour. Without understanding the causes, any training that we do may not be efficient or even appropriate. Just as all headaches can’t be resolved by aspirin, not all reactive behaviour can be solved by the same programmes.
We need to understand those 10 reasons, particularly in how they relate to each other.
The internet is filled with information about fear-based reactive behaviour. Unfortunately, this information is unhelpful if the dog is anxious rather than fearful. Of course, there can be links between anxiety and fearfulness, but the better our understanding of the dog in front of us, the more precise our plans will be to support them.
What is anxiety?
Many people confuse anxiety with fear. Sometimes this doesn’t matter much, but they are different and they may need different approaches, particularly if we’re thinking about supplements or specific medications.
Anxiety is an anticipatory emotion arising without any source of danger. When dogs are anxious, they perhaps have an expectation that something painful, dangerous or threatening will happen.
Fear is a very useful emotion that helps us respond to dangerous or threatening situations. Anticipating when we might be in danger or under threat in the future is also really useful and helps us avoid those situations.
American neuroscientist Joseph Ledoux has studied anxiety and fear for many, many years. He says that anxiety happens without any threat or danger being present. In other words, nothing specific needs to happen to make us feel anxious.
Unlike fear, where something frightening happens that makes us feel threatened or endangered, anxiety happens without that. This can be tough when we look at our dogs’ behaviour. We might have a dog who panics when we arrive at the vet. We might actually say this is a mixture of fear and anxiety. Nothing has yet happened other than arriving at the vet. However, the dog’s attempts to escape tell us that they expect to experience events that make them feel afraid.
Anxiety is not triggered by any specific thing in the environment. In the example with the vet, the dog’s behaviour is triggered by arriving at the vet. This is a learned association between the vet surgery and unpleasant events like restraint or pain that made the dog feel afraid in the past.
There can be many learned aspects to anxiety.
Occasionally there may be signals that bad stuff might happen, but in that case, the response would be one of fearfulness, not anxiety. Thus, the panic we may see from a dog who has arrived at the vet is arguably a fear response as much as it is anxiety.
With anxiety, there is no reason for the dog to feel threatened or unsafe.
Anxiety often has no on-switch or off-switch. Thus, it can make it very difficult to treat anxiety in traditional ways like counterconditioning, which changes the dog’s emotional response to something that makes them feel fearful.
How do you change a response to something that makes you feel fear when there is nothing to respond to?
Unlike fear which happens specifically when something happens, anxiety can rear its ugly head at any time. We can’t easily separate anxiety out from fear. Anxiety is perhaps the slightly older twin, always first, always on the lookout.
What does anxiety look like in dogs?
First, there is unlikely to be any specific event that causes the dog to respond. We should always remember that odour is much more powerful for dogs and an odour may well cause the dog to feel fear without us being aware of that. There should not be any specific noises, objects, individuals or even actions that cause the dog to feel fear.
Many of the signs of anxiety that we would see in our dogs also relate to fearfulness. Each dog is individual as their body language depends on their body shape, age and health. An older dog may naturally have a more curved spine, for example, which will need to be taken into account. For dogs with pendulous ears, it may be hard to see that they have pulled them back.
Humans also alter canine body shape surgically by cropping ears and docking tails which can make it much harder to see uncertainty.
This image shows one dog who is fearful in a new environment. A few minutes later and his spine uncurled, his tail was less tucked and his ears were not pinned back.
Fearful dogs may also turn their head or shoulder away from any source of danger where anxious dogs will scan for threat.
You may also see hesitant behaviour such as slowing, freezing, standing, sitting or even lying down. Here, we have a slowing down and an intentional paw raise. Paw raises like this can be good signs of the uncertainty that comes with anxiety because they are quite literally a movement of hesitation: do I go forward or do I go backwards?
Dogs who are fearful may flatten their ears back towards their body. Vigilance requires a different posture, and they may have pricked ears and open their eyes wide.
Remember with canine body language, it is not about a single muscle or about a single action. It is the picture that several signals paint together. It is also about context. Flattening ears back, for instance, can be an appeasement gesture that says the dog is not a threat, particularly when taken with other signals.
Vigilance and hypervigilance
When our dogs are anxious, they are on the lookout for threats or danger.
This is why one of the most common behaviours we see in anxiety is that of increased vigilance: the dog is watching out for threats and anticipating danger. Hypervigilance is very much a mental process.
Think about what your dog does when they see something unexpected in the environment. Perhaps you are on a walk and there is a plastic bag caught up in a hedge, or a piece of litter on the floor. What does your dog do?
You should also think about what the dog does at other times. Many anxious dogs scan the environment when they feel unsafe.
Some dogs struggle from the moment they enter a new environment. Because we don’t always give them the time they need to take everything in, they are on alert. Some hypervigilant dogs just need us to slow down. Veterinary behaviourist Dr Karen Overall says that anxiety is associated with incomplete or uncertain information. Slowing down and letting them investigate can give dogs this information
If you recognise your own dog as one who notices environmental change immediately, then your dog is mentally primed for vigilance. Dogs who do this may be afraid of novelty in the environment. Sometimes this is as a result of lack of early experience or because they have a fearful temperament. Genetics may play a large part in this alongside a lack of appropriate early familiarisation before they were four months old.
Other dogs who do this are interested and curious about novelty in the environment. They are the kind of dogs who notice everything and want to investigate. These dogs may score highly for impulsivity and responsiveness. Again, this may be partly genetic since many dogs need this kind of environmental awareness to work. It may also have been highly selected for. Responsiveness is a useful quality in a working dog. Think of detection dogs. It is useful for them to take an interest in things that stand out in the environment.
If you have a dog who is impulsive and investigative, you may find that you do not consider your dog to be especially anxious at all. Treating these dogs as if they are anxious will not help them resolve their reactive behaviour. Anxiety does not play a role in all reactive behaviour.
Some dogs are only anxious in particular contexts or situations. In a way, the environment itself is providing a clue that dangerous or threatening events may happen.
For instance, some dogs are immediately anxious and vigilant from the moment they go out of their front door on a walk.
Other dogs are anxious in the car.
Some dogs are anxious the moment they arrive at the vet.
Dogs who have been trained with invisible perimeter fences and shock collars may be vigilant when they are unsure where the boundaries lie or if they are unsure why the collar is shocking them. Being unclear about the rules of a situation can lead to anxiety.
In these situations, it is the situation itself that causes the dog to feel anxious, just as you might in the dentist or exam hall. Nothing has happened, but there is an expectation that something might.
These situations are often learned. In the past, something is likely to have happened to the dog in that specific context and the dog has quickly learned that bad things happen in this situation.
Some dogs are on edge practically all the time.
Others are very sensitive to subtle changes in the environment and anxiety comes easily to them.
They are hyper-responsive to things that change in the environment. You might expect to see them moving more and finding it difficult to settle. They seem restless and agitated.
Their anxiety goes beyond one or two situations. They may constantly scan the environment for change, appearing watchful and vigilant. Guardians often say their dogs find it difficult to focus, won’t take food and can’t pay attention.
Small things may cause a strong fear response. A slight noise, for instance, may cause a strong reaction. Their reactions may also take a long time to subside. Their responses are more intense than the average and they last for longer. They also happen more quickly.
It’s often easy to see generalised anxiety in a dog’s physical condition. Because they live in a state of chronic anxiety and easy fearfulness, their coat may not be in good condition. They may have digestive problems too.
Working with anxious dogs
Many anxious dogs live in a state of chronic stress. They are easily sensitised to fear-eliciting stimuli and recover slowly.
For some of these dogs, having a break from constant exposure to stressful situations can be more than enough. They just need time to desensitise. The body is not designed to live in a state of permanent sensitivity, and so after time, we should reset. A period of safety usually does this.
Many dog trainers reduce dogs’ exposure to stressful situations for a period, and then re-introduce the dog to those situations more gradually. It is difficult to know whether the relaxation we see is a result of having had a break or whether it is the result of training.
Management is a crucial part of living with anxious dogs. Managing their life so that things are predictable and safe is essential. Anxiety stems from uncertainty and expectation, so removing uncertainty can make a real difference for many dogs. A safe home is a big part of that. Making sure the dog spends the majority of their life feeling safe is vital. Their home should be a fortress against danger.
Medication may also be useful. Generalised anxiety will require different approaches than situational anxiety. Different medications will be more helpful. For example, a vet might use modern anti-anxiety medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) if the dog has generalised anxiety and use situational medications like benzodiazepines if the dog has situational anxiety. This is why it is important to help the vet understand when the dog shows signs of anxiety, and how often this occcurs as well as the contexts for this. There are many medications available and they work in different ways.
Many guardians are reluctant to start a course of medication. They may prefer supplements. There are many supplements available for dogs that you can read about here. Some have been tested, but many of the tests are relatively limited.
Living in a permanent or semi-permanent state of anxiety is a welfare issue. If anxiety is significantly interfering with a dog’s day-to-day life, then it is important to have a proper conversation with a vet who understands the use of behavioural medication and has experience in this. Choosing to spend a lot of money and waste a lot of time on ineffective supplements can cause the dog to suffer much longer than they should. For mild or occasional anxiety, supplements may be more than enough.
The key is to consider these questions:
- How intense is the anxiety on a scale of 1-10?
- How frequently is the dog anxious over a typical week?
- How long does it take them to recover from relatively minor experiences?
- How quickly do they become fearful if something unexpected happens?
- How much is their anxiety interfering with their life?
The answers to these questions will help you explain your dog’s behaviour to a vet. This in turn will help your vet decide what the best course of action will be.
Predictable patterns can also help anxious dogs. If walks are a problem, then moving from free work in the garden to short rucksack walks in familiar environments can help you work with the dog. Many anxious dogs benefit from predictable routines and regular practice. Structure and predictability are helpful supports for anxious dogs.
It’s important not to let these supports become a crutch for the dog. Very gradually exposing the dog to mildly unfamiliar or novel experiences will help open up their world.
In later posts, we will be looking specifically at the use of conditioned safety cues. Although this is theoretically complex, they can be surprisingly simple to implement in practical situations. Being able to have a signal that tells a dog that nothing will happen has helped stop the spread of anxiety through the dog’s life. Safety cues can also help them know that novel experiences and new situations are safe. Knowing that nothing will happen can be hugely advantageous to the anxious dog.
Gradual exposure is also useful, especially where the guardian is helping the dog regulate. Helping the dog learn to shift their attention and focus will be a key part of your work. Helping them reappraise the situation and make sense of the world through giving them time to process novel environments will also help.
What is unlikely to work
Counterconditioning is not an appropriate strategy for anxious dogs. Counterconditioning involves finding the triggers for an emotion and pairing them up with another trigger that causes an incompatible emotional response, like joy or relaxation.
Counterconditioning is unlikely to work because there are few triggers other than mental triggers. It can often be very difficult to over-ride anxiety unless you have worked progressively to teach the dog to shift their focus from what is worrying them onto something more positive.
For dogs who experience situational anxiety, if you are going to work to change their emotional response to that context, it is absolutely essential that they will never experience anything dangerous, threatening, painful or fear-eliciting in that situation in future. The reason for this is that the moment they re-encounter the dangerous, threatening, painful or fear-eliciting thing again, all your work is likely to be undone. This is a process known as behavioural renewal.
If you are going to try to change your dog’s mind about the fact that the dog park or the vet is nothing to be afraid of, then you have to make absolutely sure that nothing will ever happen to them in that situation in future.
You can see why this is tough.
You may spend months or even years gradually changing your dog’s emotional response to the vet, for example. Yet the next time the dog is jabbed with a needle or they’re restrained, they will remember just how much they are afraid of this situation. The time after that, you’ll find that the dog’s anxiety about the vet is as bad as it ever was.
As we move forward into the specific programmes for anxiety, you will find many things that help make things predictable, even events that are guaranteed at some point in the future to be unpleasant. These are much, much more effective than trying to change your dog’s mind about potential danger.
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