Stress and Anxiety in Dogs
Like humans, dogs have anxiety and fear. Fear is an inherent emotion of nervousness resulting from what is either a real, or perceived, external threat. The fear response of the autonomic nervous system is what is known as the fight or flight effect. Fear as a response to threat is a normal behavior. This reaction is essential for survival. However, sometimes this response is abnormal and inappropriate.
Phobia refers to excessive fear of a specific stimuli. This could be of loud noises, fireworks, shouting, thunder, etc. A traumatic event is thought to imprint on a dog, just like it does for humans. Thus, any event associated with this traumatic memory can trigger a fear response.
Anxiety, can be described as the expectancy of dangers (unknown or imagined) that produce in physiologic reactions associated with terror. Common visible behaviors that you may notice include shaking/ trembling, urination or passage of bowel movements), and barking or crying. Separation anxiety is the most common specific anxiety in dogs, often dogs with separation anxiety will be destructive around the house.
Signs of fear may include trembling, tucked tail (between legs), withdrawal, hiding, low energy/ lethargy, submission, and passive escape behaviors. Signs of panic may include high energy active escape behavior; this escape behavior associated with panic can cause accidental injury.
Dogs with anxiety may pace, excessively clean themselves; be destructive (chewing up furniture and your belongings); they may bark or cry non-stop; poop and/or pee in the house, crate, etc. Dogs with anxiety may be prone to vomiting, may eat their own excrement, and demonstrate aggression towards people, dogs, or animals.
As a loving and concerned owner, you want to help your dog in any way possible. Fortunately, there are numerous options for helping your dog through its anxiety and fear.
- Be calm and reassuring. If you demonstrate stress or fear your dog will sense it.
- Try to redirect the negative behavior onto something more positive for example, a game, a toy, food… etc. Redirecting your dog’s focus will help him to get over his fear.
- Conditional and positive reinforcement. Conditioning needs to be done in safe place, re-exposing your dog to the trigger while reassuring that everything is going to be alright, and using treats can help to alleviate the irrational panic response and can create positive associations. Definitely speak with a vet before doing this; you want to help not harm.
- Talk to your vet about natural remedies. Foods high in tryptophan (such as pumpkin) can lower your dog’s stress. There are also products like Bach Rescue Remedy for dogs- Rescue remedy uses a combination of 5 Bach Flower Remedies to help your dog cope with stressful situations e.g. visiting the vet or the groomer, thunderstorms/fireworks, being left home alone.
- Never yell or punish your dog for its anxious behavior. This will only make things worse!
- Talk to your vet about medication if the problem is not resolving or getting more extreme. Like humans, dogs are impacted by their experiences. There have been studies on post-traumatic stress in dogs. With many problem behaviors related to fear and anxiety, medication is necessary. Medication can help to reduce your dog’s fear or anxiety to manageable level that permits treatment to initiate.
Remember that dogs, like humans, are sensitive and intuitive animals. They need your love, care, support, and understanding to get through emotional hardships. With you, they can!