A veterinarian deals with anxiety every day. Pets are often anxious coming into the office, but anxiety in dogs is common, occurs for many reasons and is expressed in many different ways.
Anxiety in dogs is expressed through panting, barking, pacing, hiding, trembling, tail-tucking, a whale eye (looking sideways so the whites of the eyes show), pinned ears, drooling, tense facial muscles, tense body position, growling, attempts to escape, destruction and biting.
Common reasons for anxiety are separation from their humans, storms/loud noises, car rides, other dogs, children and strangers. It can also be part of dementia (also called cognitive dysfunction) in an older dog. Occasionally dogs in pain exhibit the same symptoms.
Recognizing the symptoms of anxiety and identifying the circumstances associated with them is key. Some anxiety symptoms are obvious. Others can be more subtle. A dog uncomfortable during contact with a young child may only tense and show a whale eye to express discomfort. That dog may never do anything else or it may end up snapping or biting another time to show its discomfort and inability to escape.
If you see these symptoms, start a discussion with your veterinarian. The earlier you intervene, the better. Our first goal is to be sure there is no underlying physical problem causing worsening anxiety. Joint or back pain, dental pain, a urinary tract infection or gastrointestinal issues (even mild and occasional) may contribute to or cause anxiety. If physical issues are treated and the behavior persists, training or counter-conditioning is usually needed.
There are simple things you can do every day. Dogs with anxiety like predictability and routine. Keep the day as predictable as possible for them. Don’t put them in situations that trigger anxiety like small children, friends (strangers to them) over to visit, crowds, other dogs, etc. During storms, vet visits, walking past other dogs—you have to stay calm and go about your business. As a leader, you can calm your dog by remaining calm yourself. Telling them it’s OK or getting anxious about their reaction only reinforces the behavior.
There are many training techniques to help dogs think more positively about the situation that causes anxiety. The best plan varies with you, your dog, their food motivation and their level of anxiety. Individual training is invaluable and typically necessary for success. Occasionally, a Board-certified veterinary behaviorist is needed to take things a bit further than the trainer.
Other options for managing anxiety also exist. There are supplements that can help about half the time. There are calming pheromones in collars, sprays and diffusers to help relax anxious dogs. Some vets even use the pheromones in their exam rooms and kennels. There are shirts that hug your dog to make them calmer, not just for storms but in other situations causing anxiety. This year, a new probiotic came onto the market to reduce anxiety and it shows a lot of promise. Anxiety reduction from CBD is still to be determined (see previous article on CBD in the March 29 issue of The Town Courier). If all else fails, there are anxiety medications for both short-term and chronic anxiety.
Ultimately, there will be some trial and error with supplements, training techniques, your approach and possibly medications. Your expectations should be reasonable. Change takes time and your dog will always have anxiety. With the correct combination of tools for your dog, their anxiety will improve over months to years. The goal is to keep it managed safely and to improve everyone’s quality of life.