Can we help dogs with mental health problems?

When someone says their dog has anxiety, more often than not, people will assume separations anxiety. But did you know that dogs can suffer from mental illnesses, just like people do? From anxiety, to post-partum depression, to PTSD. Of course, there is a wide scale of severity when it comes to anxiety in dogs; some dog owners may find that they can comfort their dog when they are getting anxious, and others find that they have had to take their dog to a dog psychologist and even give them anti-anxiety medication. Aiding anxious dogs doesn’t have to be a daunting task, nor is it completely life altering. Understanding the root cause is absolutely key in aiding anxious dogs or dogs with different mental health problems.

What is the difference between Fear and Anxiety in dogs?

If you hope to help in aiding anxious dogs, you need to understand the difference between fear and anxiety. Fear is an instinctual feeling of apprehension as a result of a certain form of stimulus, whether that stimulus is real or perceived; people, situations, objects, or noises can be seen as an external threat to dogs, and as such, cause fear. As fear is an instinctual feeling, it will cause the nervous system to prepare for whatever danger lays ahead. Fear is a natural reaction; but it is what is causing the fear that can be unusual or inappropriate. Thankfully, however, gradual exposure to whatever is causing a dogs fear may help them become more rational or comfortable with whatever it is. Anxiety, however, is the build up to their fear; the pre-emptive worry that their fear will present itself soon. When someone is feeling anxious, their body will start reacting in ways that has a common association with fear. In dogs, these reactions may include urination or bowel movements, (self) destruction, excessive barking or whining, cowering, or hiding. What makes it difficult in aiding anxious dogs, however, is trying to figure out what is causing their anxiety. Are they worrying about you leaving them? Are they scared of other dogs or animals? It is easy to spot what makes a dog fearful, because there is an immediate action and reaction. But finding the root cause of anxiety in dogs requires a lot more observance, tracking or patterns, and theorizing.

What types of anxiety can dog’s experience?

Dogs can experience many forms of anxiety; aiding anxious dogs may require overcoming social anxiety, separations anxiety, general anxiety, PTSD related anxiety, or even panic attacks.

What does anxiety in dogs look like?

Common signs that a dog is anxious, or experiencing anxiety may include, trembling, tail tucked, cowering, hiding, rigidness, or attempts at escaping. In the event of a panic attack, a dog may try to escape, or be generally out of control in their motor movements (i.e.: running into things, randomly sprinting away, etc.). Furthermore, a dog may start panting, drooling excessively, whimpering, sporadic crying/whining, or excessive barking.

What is causing anxiety in my dog?

As we’ve stated already, finding out the root cause is essential to aiding anxious dogs. If your dog’s anxiety seems to be very sudden, it may be because they are actually physically ill or pain; infectious diseases (such as viral infections) or lead poisoning can cause unusual behaviours, fears, and anxieties in dogs. If this is the case, take your dog to a vet as soon as possible. Although your dog doesn’t have to be a rescue to experience anxiety, anxiety is most frequently seen in rescues or dogs that were previously in terrible conditions. Dogs can have PTSD from a traumatic experience, whether that be a previous living condition or owner, or something like almost getting hit by a car. If a dog isn’t given proper socialization as a puppy, it may result in social anxiety or environmental anxiety; they will typically be anxious and fearful out in public where there are other people, dogs, or elements that they are not comfortable with. Oftentimes, separation anxiety is the result of a history of abandonment, multiple owners and re-homing, neglect, abuse, or, in some cases, being given up because of their separation anxiety! General anxiety is an all-encompassing form of anxiety. Dogs that seem to just be anxious in all areas of their life can be described as having general anxiety, and this is the hardest to figure out the root cause, making aiding anxious dogs a lot more difficult. “Tracing your steps” or the lifeline of the dog, to try and pinpoint any event or situation that might have caused the anxiety to start is a good place to start from.

How can you diagnose your dog with anxiety?

As we said previously, when aiding anxious dogs, you need to find what is causing the anxiety or fear. Take your dog to the vet, as they will want to eliminate any brain or thyroid disorder, infection, or poisoning that may be causing the anxiety. This can be done with a simple blood test, and if everything seems fine on that front, the diagnosis will continue. If the veterinarian decides that is an anxiety disorder, it is possible that a simple prescribed medication can alleviate the dog’s symptoms of anxiety. However, most veterinarians will make suggestions prior to prescription based on the behaviour of your dog and the anxiety trigger (if known). Suggestions may be consulting a professional dog trainer, a dog psychologist, natural home remedies, or various techniques for aiding anxious dogs to remain calm.

How to be effective in aiding anxious dogs to remain calm

In severe cases of anxiety, it may be necessary to hospitalize dogs until medications can start taking effect. Hopefully this is not necessary, but we ultimately want your dog to do no harm to themselves or others, and if that means handing them over to professionals for a certain amount of time, then do it. In cases of severe separations anxiety, it may be a good idea to set up day care or dog-sitting, while you are work. Aiding anxious dogs is much easier if they are still young, and the behaviour can be undone. Some dogs may be destructive to your home and property, or to themselves. When trying to change their behaviour, make sure that they are safe from harm. Sometimes, this may mean crating them. In other cases, this may mean putting them in a “safe room” that has minimal to no stressors.

How to train your dog to be less anxious

Behaviour modification is a challenging task; we suggest getting the help of a professional dog training for tips and techniques on how to do this specifically. However, there are some keys bits of information that are essential. Never, ever, ever, punish a dog for behaviour related to fear or anxiety. Imagine you’re walking down the street and someone scares you, you jump and ending up bumping into something that breaks. You wouldn’t want to get told off for that right? It’s not your fault something scared you! The same goes for dogs. Of course, if they injure another animal or human when they are scared… that’s a little different. Always avoid reassuring your dog when they are feeling anxious or in a panicked state. This may seem counterintuitive, but if you are aiding anxious dogs using a calming and soothing voice, saying things like “it’s okay” or “calm down”, the dog may interpret this as you rewarding them for the behaviour. Speak in a happy and energetic voice, instead. It is important to encourage calmness, but to not reinforce the reaction to anxiety. Furthermore, it is important to remember that not all dogs will react positively to being put in a crate. In some cases, the crate may be the cause of anxiety! Be mindful that some dogs may panic and injure themselves in a crate — watch for signs of anxious behaviour when crating them for the first couple of times.

How to desensitize your dog

You can desensitize your dog by repeating and controlling exposure to something that usually causes fear or anxiety in them. Recall episodes of Maury where someone would have a phobia of tinfoil, so they would make them face their fear and hold tinfoil. Something like that, but less public and embarrassing. In relation to separations anxiety, leave your dog alone for short periods of time until they are used to it; leave the dog in the house for one minute, then 2, then 3, and so on, along with not getting the dog super ecstatic when you come back inside. By doing this, it will teach them that this is a normal thing, for you to come back; something that isn’t necessarily something to be so happy about, because it happens every single time you leave. With repeated, consistent, and controlled efforts, you may be able to decreased the undesired behaviour.

What is counter-conditioning?

Counter-conditioning is training your dog to perform a positive behaviour in place of a negative one. For example, if your dog knows how to sit or shake a paw; when they are exhibiting signs of anxiety, fear, or stress, try to get them to sit and shake a paw. You can reward them for sitting and shaking a paw. This is a good way to distract them from their fear and anxiety and get them to react positively; a great way in aiding anxious dogs!

Aiding anxious dogs: Summary

Leaving a dog's anxiety alone over time will just get worse, making it hard to change behaviours. If you can catch the anxiety early, that is fantastic. Ultimately, of course, a great way to avoid anxiety in the future is to expose a puppy to a variety of environments and stimulus, preferably before the age of 14 weeks. When trying to diagnose, change behaviour, or manage anxious dogs, always come from a perspective of understanding and empathy. Try to stay calm and assure the dog that you love them unconditionally. It is a challenging task to train out anxieties, it may not always be possible; don’t give up on your dog, or get angry, they are trying their best despite their mental illness!