When does dog anxiety become a serious problem?
One of my colleagues here at SheKnows recently shared a story with me. One of her dogs totally freaks out over loud noises. The poor pup shakes and hides in the bathroom. And my dog barks at thunder sometimes. It's kind of funny, but it got me thinking. Should my friend be worried about her dog's anxiety?
Symptoms of anxiety
The symptoms of dog anxiety range from mild to severe. The good news for my pal is that her pup's symptoms currently fall into the mild category.
Mild anxiety signs in dogs:
- Tucked tail
- Withdrawal from family or favorite activities
- Reduced activity
- Passive avoidance behavior (freezing very still, hiding, ears back, crouching as if ready to jump)
More serious anxiety signs in dogs:
- Active avoidance behavior (fleeing)
- Increased (often out of context) motor activity that may be potentially injurious
- Biting or licking themselves (hard enough to cause lesions)
- Biting, chewing or general mess-making (i.e., going through the trash, destroying toys or shoes)
- Sympathetic autonomic nervous system activity (i.e., urination or diarrhea)
The important thing to realize about dog anxiety is that it can get worse if you don't deal with it the right way. And just because it's not on this list doesn't mean it's not a result of anxiety. Just like people, every dog is different.
What to do if your dog has anxiety
Really, you should take all of your dog's anxieties seriously, but if its symptoms include anything listed above under the more serious signs or if the stressor is a frequent one, you need to seek help immediately.
According to Robin Foster, PhD, who's a certified applied animal behaviorist, "Anxiety is a common and serious issue in dogs and can be the underlying cause of other behavior problems such as aggression and inappropriate elimination." She also says that "acute anxiety is very distressing for the dog and person, and if it escalates to panic, dogs may injure themselves or damage property. Chronic anxiety can lead to physical ailments such as gastrointestinal disorders." So if there's any reason to worry about your dog's or anyone else's safety, you need help.
Take your dog to the vet
This is especially true if you've had the pooch for a while and the anxiety is new. In older dogs, anxiety actually could be a sign of a physiological issue. Your vet may want to look for things such as brain or thyroid disease. Foster tells us it may be necessary to medicate dogs, at least temporarily, but cautions that "treatment with anxiolytic drugs is most effective when used in conjunction with behavior modification."
Find a dog behaviorist
Make sure he or she is a board-certified dog behaviorist. Vets treat your dog's body; they don't have the same education as behaviorists. And also note that a trainer and a behaviorist aren't the same thing. Contrary to popular belief, your dog's "bad behavior" isn't punishment or lashing out in response to you doing something it doesn't like. A trainer can certainly help you teach your dog useful things like sitting and holding out its paws for a trim, but if your fur-baby is growling and biting in response to your attempts to trim those talons, that's an anxious response… fear biting. And that's the realm of a behaviorist.
What you shouldn't do is try to deal with it on your own, especially if aggression is a factor. The wrong response could make the issue worse, not better. Just as with humans, anxiety is a complex problem and could have a multitude of sources. Foster notes, "Whether the dog's anxiety is mild or severe, desensitization and counter-conditioning are behavior modification techniques that help reduce or eliminate anxiety, and they are most effective when supervised by a pet behaviorist."