September 2, 2014
Anxiety is one of the most difficult issues to deal with when it comes to our dogs. They can’t tell us what they’re feeling, what would help, or how they’re coping with what they’re going through. Watching their suffering can be distressing too, and it can make us feel helpless.
Incidentally, Surf’s anxiety is exactly what drew me to him. He was a sweet, 9-month-old lab mix who had been at the animal sanctuary since he was a puppy. Before that, he had been in a hoarder’s yard in a cage with his littermates, very close to death. All his littermates had been adopted, and he was the one pup returned and adopted again…
Why was he overlooked? Well, he didn’t “show” well. He appeared aloof when people approached his run and his anxiety made him seem crazy. He spun in circles, ran back and forth along the fence, chewed on the doghouses and the chain-link, and sucked on his side. However, volunteers who had taken him on sleepovers described Surf as a perfect and relaxed dog. While interning at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, I was tasked with choosing a “project dog” to work with one-on-one and to take a group training class with. I chose Surf. We worked together for 4 weeks, and I felt that he was a really awesome dog that just needed to find a home to finally be his best self.
Five months later, Surfy was still available and I was finally able to adopt him. For a long time he seemed to be experiencing mild anxiety but over the last three years, his symptoms escalated. When Surf was stressed, he “flank sucks,” spins around, and bites his tail, sometimes to the point of bleeding. The first time I came home to bloody walls from a wounded, wagging tail, I was devastated. I didn’t know how to help him.
The Thundershirt helped for a long time, natural calming remedies worked to a point, and some training helped a bit. I was able to redirect him when I was home, but of course most of this insanity happened in my absence. With support from colleagues, friends, family, and my partner, I came to terms with Surf for who he is. His anxiety wasn’t my fault, and I had done what I could to help him through it.
The reality is that dogs, like humans and other mammals, can suffer from emotional issues. Similarly, the cause is likely a combination of nature and nurture. Yes, Surf probably didn’t get much socialization during the first few months of his life, when it’s most critical, but there is no way to know if it would have helped. His anxiety is likely hardwired. His experiences may have exacerbated it, but they probably didn’t cause it. We found an amazing vet, who prescribed medication to help take the edge off for poor Surfy. There is a lot of stigma around this treatment, but it has helped immensely. I still use training, calming remedies, and the Thundershirt. They have more of an impact now because he’s able to focus.
When a dog is overly stressed, its body produces a flood of cortisol and other stress hormones. Depending on the dog and the situation, it can take up to 72 hours for them to subside. During that time, the dog is more apt to react than if he were starting from a calm place. In Surf’s case, medication keeps him a little calmer without compromising his sweet, loving personality, and he’s able to better cope with his triggers. However, every dog is different. Anxious behavior can range from mild whining to full-blown panic, even breaking through windows to escape.
If your dog might be suffering from anxiety, contact your vet, a behaviorist, and/or a reputable positive-reinforcement trainer. And remember, you’re not alone and there’s a lot of support out there!
What experiences or stories do you have with your own pet?
What questions are you left with on this topic?
Lynda manages our dog walking team at Rover-Time. Her career focus is on dog training and behavior and her approach is based on science, positive reinforcement, and humane methods to improve relationships between humans and their pets. She’s also an assistant trainer at Animal Sense in the evenings and co-parents her own cat and two dogs, Surf and Ryan, with her other half Mary.