Dealing with dog anxiety and stress

Amy Starr, registered Veterinary nurse with a degree in animal behaviour, will in this article explain how you can understand and help your anxious or stressed dog. She will also provide you with guidance and advice on what to do if your dog is anxious or stressed.

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Amy Starr - registered Veterinary nurse with a degree in animal behaviour

One of the most challenging things about owning a dog is communication. Dogs can’t tell you when they are unhappy or anxious about something. But don’t fear! You can learn the signals to look out for. Canine behaviour can be very subtle, but if you arm yourself with the right knowledge, you’ll be able to become the best advocate for your dog.

How to deal with dog anxiety and stress

    Symptoms to look for in anxious dogs

    Anxiety in dogs can look very different depending on the individual and the situation they are in.

    We have all seen those photos of dogs sitting on the “exploded” couch when their owner comes home after a day at work. This kind of destructive behaviour is often the result of serious separation anxiety.

    However, there are some more subtle indicators of stress that you can look.

    • Lip licking

    • Whale eye (when they show you the whites of their eyes)

    • Excessive grooming, licking or chewing themselves

    • Avoiding contact, and angling their body away from something that is making them anxious

    • Becoming very still, or having short jerky movements

    • Unwanted toileting

    • Excessive panting

    • Inability to settle

    • Growling

    These behaviours can be the precursor for a more serious reaction. For example, if your dog is being greeted by another dog and you can see them lip licking, lowering their head, or becoming very still, that’s a sure sign that your dog is anxious. This is when you need to become your dogs advocate and remove them from the scenario before things escalate.

    Why is my dog anxious and what is a stress bucket?

    First things first, any good trainer or behaviourist will tell you to get a general check up with a vet first. If your dog has recently become more anxious and reactive, they may be feeling unwell. For example, my dog Luna is pretty bullet proof as a general rule. However, in her 5 years, she has only ever grumbled at another dog twice, and both times she had an ear infection. You know yourself, if you are feeling unwell, you might become more irritable, or anxious. It’s the same for your dog. Conditions such as arthritis, generalized itch, gastrointestinal upsets, or general cognitive decline can result in dogs becoming more anxious and reactive. It is therefore important to rule out health as a cause for your dog behaviour before looking into what then could be the underlying cause for dog anxiety. 

    There are numerous reasons why your dog might be anxious, so we need to do a bit of detective work.

    What did your dog get up to before the period of anxiety or reactivity?

    All dogs have a ‘stress bucket’, and when this bucket overflows is when we see those extreme behaviours; the barking, lunging and destruction. Everything your dog does pays into that bucket, good or bad, and some things pay into the bucket more than others.

    You might start your morning with a long walk where your dog see several other dogs, cyclists, and maybe the neighborhood cat. Once home again, your dog spend some time in the garden, where the kids next door are shouting and playing, the magpies are squawking. In the afternoon, you perhaps go an agility session. All those experiences pay into their bucket. The next day, when you take your dog out for their morning walk and they suddenly lose it when the same cyclist comes flying past, and you think to yourself “they have never done that before”, it stands a good chance that their bucket has overflowed.

    Don’t worry! There are plenty of ways you can help your dog empty their bucket, to prevent these outbursts and lower your dog’s anxiety. We will talk about these in more detail later.

    What appears to be causing the anxiety or reactivity?

    To begin with, we need to look at all the things that seems to be contributing to the stress bucket. A good way to do this is to keeping a diary where you write down the activities you do with your dog. Write down good walks and bad walks, what appears to cause a reactive episode, if there is anything that your dog shows signs of anxiety towards. Write down how they appear after they have been left alone for a long period. Have they chewed anything this time? Is there any unwanted toileting? This way, you can track things that might be contributing more than others. For example, if the day after a long hike your dog is more reactive on their normal walk, you might need to factor in a rest day. If you notice your dog showing those subtle signs of anxiety when introduced to a new dog, you might want to consider managing their dog-dog interactions.

    Another thing to consider tracking in your diary is your dog’s general health. They night have seasonal allergies and itching is a common contributor to the stress bucket. Have their faeces been normal around a period of anxiety? Could there be some gastrointestinal upset contributing to the bucket? Again, if you think your dog’s health might be contributing to that bucket, seek veterinary advice.

    With all behaviour struggles, observation is key! Your dog can’t tell you what is bothering them, so the more you observe them, the more information you’ll pick up. 

    Managing the ‘Stress Bucket’

    In order to manage the stress bucket, you need to learn about your own dog’s bucket. We have already talked about making a diary to figure out what pays into the bucket, but there are some other things we need to consider.

    How big is the bucket?

    Some dogs have a much bigger bucket than others. For example, my 35kg cross breed has a tiny bucket! One 20-minute walk can be enough to over flow his bucket depending on what we encounter. Whereas, my little Staffie loves the hustle and bustle and it takes a lot to over fill her bucket.

    How quickly does their bucket empty?

    Imagine the bucket has a little hole in the bottom. Some dog’s buckets will have a much bigger hole and empty faster than others. Again, using my two dogs as an example, the big boy will take days to recover from an overflow. We tend to do enrichment at home and limit walks for him after a period of reactivity to lower his anxiety. Whereas, with the Staffie, a snooze in the car on the way home from a busy day is enough to empty her bucket.

    Once you’re armed with all the info, we can start to plan how to manage your dog’s bucket. We have touched on this briefly already, but we can try to manage what pays into the bucket. Now, let’s be clear, there is no way you can manage absolutely everything that goes in that bucket. However, you can try to minimize the things you can control. If you know that on one particular walk there is a dog in a yard that always barks and upsets your dog, then take a different route. If you know your dog is anxious around cars, try walking them early in the morning when there is minimal traffic. 

    Next, we want to build a positive association with novelty, to help grow your dog’s bucket. For any sort of distraction, be that a car, birds chirping, a door shutting, anything that catches your dog’s eye, mark it with a que word like “yes” or “nice”, and calmly reward with food. You can also use meal times or treats as a great way of building confidence around novelty. Grab your recycling! Boxes and washed-out bottles, and scatter your dog’s food or treats in them. This is a great way to get your dog used to noises and textures that are otherwise novel to them. Depending on your dog’s level, you may want to start small and gradually introduce more items.

    Finally, we want to help empty the bucket by spending time in calmness. There are three main ways you can promote calmness.

    1. Active rest – This is when your dog is on a bed or in their crate just having a lie down, or even better, a snooze. This is vital to help your dog empty their bucket.

    2. Passive calming activities –This is any activity that your dog can calmly engage in. It may be scatter feeding some treats in the garden, enjoying a lickimat or a long-lasting chew, or figuring out a puzzle feeder.

    3. Implement a calmness protocol – This works by rewarding your dog for making choices associated with calmness. For example, if your dog takes themselves for a lie down, calmly reward them with some of their food.

    Managing your dogs bucket can help with a variety of behaviour struggles, particularly those related to anxiety.

    Separation anxiety

    We have all seen images of dogs that have eaten their way through doors, destroyed couches and chewed up their owners’ prized trainers. So unsurprisingly, separation related behaviours are one of the most common reasons for relinquishment of dogs. However, there are some common misconceptions when it comes to separation anxiety. Separation anxiety isn’t limited to when you leave the house. Your dog might have separation anxiety when you are in another room, or if they cannot get to you.

    It is commonly thought that if you spoil your dog (which I am guilty of!), that it causes them to have separation anxiety. BUT, dog moms of the world rejoice, evidence suggests that this is just not true. So, your pup can continue their pampered life style.

    Separation anxiety is often mistaken for ‘boredom’. We often hear, “I take my dog for three walks a day and give them a chew when I leave, but they still destroy the house when I’m gone”. Does that sound like boredom? A study by Palestrini et al (2010), found that most dogs with separation related behaviours, started showing signs within the first ten minutes of their owner leaving.

    Again, observation is key! The best way to identify this, is to record your dog when they are alone. There are many pet cameras on the market now, but it doesn’t have to be fancy you can just use your phone. Other signs of separation anxiety might include anxious behaviour around your departure, excessive greeting when you return, and generally having a Velcro dog. These behaviours are also indicators of a full bucket.

    How can we tackle separation related behaviours?

    First, we want to take care of that stress bucket. Luckily, you’re already armed with the information on how to manage and empty your dog’s bucket.

    We also need to build your dog’s independence. You may have commonly heard the advice to just leave the room for increased periods of time. However, we cannot use this blanket rule because for some dogs you can’t even leave the room without that fear response. There are some smaller building blocks that we can work with; time, distance, and visual barrier. We need to reward the dog for making the choice to be independent. For example, if your Velcro dog takes a step away from you, mark with your que word and toss a piece of food away from you for their reward. This works on the ‘distance’ building block. Gradually you’ll ask for more. If your dog takes themselves for a sniff behind a visual barrier like the sofa, that’s great! If they take themselves in their crate, brilliant! Reward, reward, reward. You want to build on ‘distance’ and ‘visual barrier’ before you start asking for more ‘time’.

    Next, we want to work on your dog’s optimism. Studies suggest that dogs that demonstrate separation related behaviour’s tend to have higher levels of pessimism, with or without the owner’s presence. You can build confidence by building a positive association with novelty and ambiguity as we have talked about previously.

    These three concepts; the stress bucket, independence, and optimism, will set you on the right path for tackling separation anxiety!

    Amy Starr Registered Veterinary nurse with a degree in animal behaviour.

    Who?

    Amy is a registered Veterinary nurse, with a degree in animal behaviour. She's been crazy about dogs for as long as she can remember!

    Fun fact

    I have two dogs, Luna and Nova. They are total chalk and cheese, and inspired me to continue learning about canine behaviour. I completed the AbsoluteDogs Pro Dog Trainer course.

    Why?

    Amy became interested in dog behaviour when she got her own two dogs and it initially to help me have a better understanding when it came to training them. Now, it has helped her to help other owners and their dogs build their relationship!

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