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Understanding anxiety

By gapnsw.com.au
Anxiety is a negative emotional system designed to help an animal to avoid danger or threat. For dogs, anxiety becomes problematic when it interferes with their daily life and the dog’s environment doesn’t justify their reaction. Anxiety is complicated and can arise from genetics, early life experiences, the present environment or a combination of these things.

Anxiety can occur in response to a particular trigger or be more generalized where the dog exists in a persistent state of distress and restlessness.

Common anxiety triggers in dogs:

1.       Separation from a family member: This may be one person in particular (separation anxiety) or having a lack of human or canine company (isolation distress)
2.       Loud noises: Storms and fireworks can be distressing for many dogs. Anticipating such events can help owners take preventative measures (such as setting up a safe, noise protected area in the home) to alleviate their dog’s anxiety.
3.       Travelling by car: This can be caused by motion sickness or other negative emotional associations with being in the car (such as loud traffic or going somewhere unpleasant)
4.       Unfamiliar dogs or people: Dogs with limited exposure to other people or dogs can respond pessimistically to new social interactions. In such cases, it is usually best to expose dogs to new people (or dogs) gradually while offering plenty of treats and praise for desirable behaviour.

Strategies to help anxious dogs  

Dogs that experience significant (i.e. not proportionate to their environment) fear/anxiety in their adoptive home should be referred to a veterinary behaviourist for diagnosis and treatment. Some of these dogs may require behavioural medication and lifelong management to set them up for success in their home. These medications may vary in their dose and usage, but all function to improve a dog’s quality of life in their home. While sometimes stigmatised, behavioural medication is not a last resort designed to turn dogs into zombies. Rather, medication is an affordable treatment for the concerning medical condition, in this case, anxiety. For dogs that show signs of mild to moderate anxiety the following techniques may be beneficial alone or as part of a behavioural modification plan.
 
Decompression activities

Chewing, sniffing and licking help to lower a dog’s breathing rate, heart rate and ease facial tension which can assist in alleviate anxiety. Providing regular outlets (such as by giving a chewy treat, scattering treats in the yard or offering a licky mat) for these activities gives your dog the opportunity to calm themselves from their daily stresses.

Over the counter anxiety aids

Pheromone products (such as Adaptil collars or diffusers), nutraceuticals (such as the milk byproduct zylkene) and probiotics all have some scientific evidence to suggest these products can help to decrease behavioural signs of anxiety. Consult your veterinarian for advice on the the best product to suit your pooch.

Gradual and controlled exposure to triggers
 
This is also known as desensitization and is best performed under the supervision of a qualified dog trainer or behaviour specialist that relies on positive training methods. Desensitisation involves exposing the dog to the thing that would ordinarily cause anxiety at a lowered intensity that doesn’t cause that reaction. This, coupled with offering something of high value (like delicious treats) helps to switch a dog’s emotional association with their trigger from thing=bad to thing=good.

Management

Sometimes a dog’s anxiety can virtually become nonexistent by changing up their routine and environment to avoid them having to be exposed to their particular triggers. This strategy depends on how disruptive the dog’s anxiety is and whether their particular triggers are unavoidable. For instance, if a dog has an anxious reaction to walking on a particular street with noisy dogs barking at them, but is otherwise fine to walk on quiet streets, it may be easier to simply walk on the quieter route each day to save both you and your pup being stressed.