Anxiety, while uncomfortable, is a natural emotion both humans and dogs experience. However, some dogs experience abnormal levels of anxiety. Your pup may be suffering from anxiety if you notice their fearful behavior is beginning to interfere with your daily lives, or if their quality of life is diminishing because of it.
Anxiety has a variety of origins but often evolves from an anticipation of potential dangers, either real or imagined. Dogs suffering from anxiety commonly tuck in their tails, avoid eye contact, and frequently attempt to hide.
Dogs may exhibit one or more of these signs when anxious:
• Spontaneous elimination
• Destructive behavior
• Decreased activity
• Repetitive behaviors
• Displacement behaviors (usual behaviors displayed in the wrong context; shaking fur when not wet, etc.)
There are numerous reasons why dogs may experience anxiety, ranging from a frightening past to illness.
• Dogs are especially susceptible to developing anxiety when they are only weeks to months old
• Pups who have limited environmental and social exposure at a young age have a likelier chance of developing anxiety, such as dogs who are raised in puppy mills
• Aging, illness, and/or medical conditions may create anxiety or reinforce existing anxiety
• Dogs who have undergone a frightening and horrible experience may have residual fear, which is expressed as anxiety
• Phobias or triggers that induce panic from past situations where the dog was put in a powerless situation, such as being locked up, may produce anxiety
• Dogs who struggle with separation anxiety frequently have a history of abandonment, neglect, and/or may have been through several owners and homes
Aggression is the leading problem veterinary behaviorists face, with separation anxiety and phobias falling in second. Dominance aggression is routinely diagnosed however. Although, while each situation and dog is unique, it has been determined that the majority of cases related to aggressive behaviors are rooted from an element of fear.
Aggression is a natural behavior dogs display when defending their resources, acquiring food, establishing their position in the pack, and when using self-defense. Similarly, dogs may portray submissive signs such as averting glances or exposing their stomachs when exposed to a threat. However, when these indicators are not acknowledged, dogs may feel forced into aggressive behaviors. Humans may not always pick up on the subtle submissive signs a dog will display when they feel threatened. Eventually, a dog may resort directly to aggressive behaviors after having learned that their submissive signals do not raise a response.
Fearful dogs may become aggressive when humans attempt to punish them as a means to show their dominance; meanwhile, more confident dogs may attempt to show their higher dominance when a human tries to teach him or her a lesson through punishment.
When consequences are not consistent, this ignites even more fear in the already anxious animal. Fearful dogs may also be more likely to bear fearful puppies. If these puppies do not receive adequate care and socialization, they are more likely at risk for developing behavioral issues.
Consider finding professional behavior help if you think your dog may struggle with fear-based aggression.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
If you are concerned your dog may suffer from anxiety, you should first consult with your veterinarian and determine what is the best course of action to manage your dog’s anxiety. You may also begin by trying to identify what triggers their anxiety in their environment. Punishing your pup for exhibiting anxious behaviors will only add to their anxiety, and your goal is to build their confidence. A few tips that may lessen your dog’s anxiety include:
• Become familiar with how your dog indicates he or she is anxious
• Many dogs may retreat to dark, small rooms–try to keep them away from these isolated areas and encourage them to stay in well-lit rooms
• Create safe spaces for your pup: these spaces should never be used for punishment, and only used when your dog is feeling anxious (comfortable blankets or dog beds in corners, etc.)
• Exercise: exercise increases serotonin production and releases excess tensive energy
• Distraction: if your pup is up for it, attempt teaching your dog new tricks or practicing tricks he or she already knows and reward him or her for their good work
• Massage: deep touch pressure massages can simulate the feeling of receiving a hug
Anxiety and aggression are both natural behaviors and emotions in dogs. However, some dogs experience disproportionately high levels of anxiety and aggression, which often stems from feelings of uncomfortable and excessive fear. Reconstructing your pup’s confidence will take time and patience.
Learn the signs, identify the triggers, and provide your pup with a loving and encouraging environment. It is always recommended to consult with your veterinarian to rule out any other health issues.