Accepting and Helping Dogs with Anxiety
It’s almost 2016, and our society has made great strides when it comes to educating people about mental illness. No longer should people have to be ashamed about depression, anxiety, or personality disorders. We realize now that mental illness should be looked at the same as physical. It’s beyond a person’s control, and they shouldn’t be judged for it. We have come a long way and it’s something society should be proud of. But working in animal rescue, we notice that these strides do not always protect our furry friends.
We mention that a dog has anxiety, and suddenly that dog is broken, used-up goods, undesirable, maybe even bad. People judge them. Dogs are supposed to be happy all the time, right? They’re getting fed and they have people that love them, so they shouldn’t be unhappy. Why can’t they just get over it? The past is the past. Once they’re shown enough love, they should be fine. There’s a ton of other dogs out their that would feel lucky to have their life.
Can you imagine thinking this way about a person who has anxiety? No, and it’s time we start applying these new understandings to animals as well.
Dogs can suffer from many different causes of anxiety. Unlike humans, there is almost always a source and therefore a simple solution for their nervous behavior.
The most common is probably fear of strangers. Was that dog treated badly by a stranger? Or were they just never socialized? Doesn’t matter, the result is a scared dog, cowering in the corner, flinching at sudden movements or maybe they lash out, show their teeth… act tougher than they are.
Another common one is separation anxiety. The dog can’t stand when their person leaves. That person who has become their world. “What if that my person never comes back? Why did they leave me?” Just like everything else, separation anxiety has different levels of severity. Some dogs cry or bark nonstop and others go as far as hurting themselves.
Other common causes of anxiety in dogs: confinement, traveling, loud noises, vet/groomer visits, sudden movements, other dogs, thunderstorms, men, women, people in uniforms, certain objects- heck we’ve seen dogs be scared of toasters!
Photo Courtesy of canine behavioral trainer, Shannon Duffy of Your Good Dog
Most likely these anxieties occur for 3 reasons: the dog has had a bad experience in the past, the dog has never been exposed to what’s causing the anxiety, and/or their present or former owners let small fears grow into big fears.
So what do you do? Stick them on doggie Prozac and hope they get better? No, though sometimes medication helps and is necessary, it often times makes your dog very sedate and never deals with the underlying issues. Our behavioral trainers say that they’ve never met an anxious dog that couldn’t be helped through a consistent exercise routine combined with slow/steady exposure to what is causing their fearfulness.
It doesn’t take a special human to deal with canine anxieties, but not everyone has the lifestyle/personality to handle them. Someone needs to be patient and committed, as well as make the time to do what needs done and understand how to help their pet. Not everyone is meant to adopt a dog that has anxieties, but one shouldn’t give up on a dog at the first sign of hardship. Every dog can work through their anxiety with the help of their owner. What we often see happen is a dog has “issues” and they are surrendered/returned to the shelter, so that they can become someone else’s “problem.” That dog’s anxiety just got a whole lot worse! Would you stop being friends with someone who has anxiety? Divorce your spouse for freaking out over something you see as stupid? We hope not. We hope you’d try to understand that person’s feelings, and recognize that they need their friends and family to be supportive as they learn to live with their anxiety.
Why can’t we do this with dogs? They offer us their whole heart, loving us unconditionally… and we can’t help them past their worry, show them that life is good and there’s nothing to fear, because they have us to take care of them?
When you initially notice you pet’s nervous behavior, the first thing you should do is let your vet know, and make sure that there is nothing that is causing your pet pain. If you vet recommends medication to help their anxiety, don’t be afraid to refuse for now. Contact a behavioral trainer (we have three listed below that we highly recommend) and tell them what’s going on. Contrary to what a lot of people think: love doesn’t fix anxiety and only giving affection without training makes anxieties worse. Do a session with a trainer you trust, listen to what they are saying- your dog will never feel balanced without your dedication.
You will probably have to adjust your routine, but you have to evolve in order to make a change. Most often, a dog just needs more structure. They feel unbalanced because their life seems unsteady. Though dealing with canine anxiety does take commitment, it’s not as hard to help your pet as you might think. Dogs with anxiety do so much better when they have a routine. Additionally, professional trainers can show you easy ways to expose your pet to what they fear. And you know what… your bond with your dog will be better than ever!
Don’t ever give up on your dog because we can assure you that they would never give up on you. Dogs improve our lives tenfold, and when it’s time that we have to help them… we step up! We don’t surrender! 🙂
As far as the small percentage of shelter dogs who suffer from anxiety. Just know this- They are not broken, even though people have failed them in the past. They are very capable of change, and with the right balance of love, patience, exercise, and training/exposure, they will live anxiety-free lives. Right now, all they’re waiting for is someone to help them… someone like you! In return, they’ll give you unconditional love and that’s better than anything in the world!
Canine behavioral trainers that work with us (alphabetical order):