When I was in veterinary school I was lucky enough to spend a week with a veterinarian who specialized in behavioural issues in pets. Psychology has always fascinated me; I crave understanding why we do the things we do, what drives a behaviour, so naturally I couldn’t wait to see how we could help the animals we were due to see that week.
It was almost twenty years ago but I still remember it as if it were yesterday. The common thread that seemed to link them all was anxiety. A Staffordshire Bull Terrier that spent his entire day running in circles around a tree. A Labrador who licked and licked his front leg until he gave himself an infection. And a Jack Russell Terrier who destroyed the house every time his parents went to work.
When we think about anxiety, it can be easy to think, “how could pets possibly be anxious?”. Their lives are easy, right?
They’re fed. Cared for. They don’t have to go to work. We take them for walks. We love them.
But, we need to recognise that having a pet is, in essence, an artificial construct of our society. Dogs are used to living in packs. They look to the leader of the pack for direction, security and routine. Puppies expect to stay with their mothers, yet we separate them at eight weeks, sometimes as early as six weeks. Evolution has hard-wired them to expect life to unfold in a certain way, but our modern world is very different.
In most cases, anxiety tends to rear its head at around 12-36 months. So, how can you recognise if your dog is trying to tell you that they’re anxious? That they need some extra support from you or that something in their environment isn’t working for them?
How to Tell If Your Dog Is Anxious
Sometimes, dogs becomes anxious because they’re uncomfortable with their current situation. Anxiety is a response or a coping mechanism to a perceived or real threat to their environment. It could be in response to a one-time event, or it could be something that happens frequently, such as separation anxiety. Here are some cues to help your recognise if your dog may be anxious.
Body Language of an Anxious Dog
Here are some common signs that a dog shows when anxious:
- Your dog goes into another room away from you and defecates or urinates.
- Your dog suddenly starts rapid panting and his ears are back. (For erect-eared dog, ears are sideways.)
- His tail changes – for curly or straight-tailed dogs, their tail is down, or tail is between his legs and wagging, or his tail low and only the end is wagging.
Under normal circumstances, when a dog feels anxious in a situation, he usually just gets and leaves. However, if the dog is not able to do that for whatever reason, he might:
- Roll over his back in a submissive way.
- Retreat and start barking.
- Hide behind an object or a person.
- Turn his head away.
Sometimes, an anxious dog reacts to a situation in a completely unexpected way, that is out of context with what has just happened. Anxiety causes dogs to do this in order to suppress another urge. For example, imagine that your whole family is busy preparing to go out and your dog is unsure whether he is coming with you. Normally, a dog might react by running around the house and jumping up at you. An example of displacement behaviour would be if he yawns instead.
Another example? Your child takes the dog’s bone. Even though your dog wanted to bite the child, he instead bites his own foot hard. It’s an unexpected reaction but it is an indication of an underlying issue.
Other examples of displacement behaviors are:
- Your dog giving the “wet dog shake” even if he isn’t dirty or wet
- Your dog suddenly sniffing an object or the ground
- Your dog suddenly biting one of his body parts or paws
- Your dog suddenly scratching even though he’s not itchy
- Your dog licking even though there is no food
- Your dog yawning, even though he’s not tired.
Another Sign: Half-Moon Eye
Dog lovers young and old love to wrap their arms around dogs – especially impulsive children. If your dog makes a half-moon eye, it means that he wants to be left alone. It could be a sign that he’s feeling anxious and if he doesn’t have an opportunity to escape he may bite instead.
One Paw Raised
An often-missed sign is standing with one paw raised. When a dog does this, it means he’s worried and does not want to be bothered or petted. Some people may think it’s cute, but it may actually be a cue that the dog feels anxious and threatened.
Treating Your Pet’s Anxiety Issues
Many dog lovers, dog trainers, and even vets encourage us to avoid medications for treating pet anxiety issues. It is instead recommended to identify the underlying issue and modify our own behaviour to help our dogs or that our pets undergo behavior modification before turning to drugs to treat anxiety.
So what can you try to reduce your dog’s anxiety?
There are a number of natural solutions that may help.
Calming equipment, a calm environment, and desensitization activities. Examples of calming equipment are the use of something like a Thundershirt for dogs that are anxious when they hear thunder or fireworks; dog calming music; and also dog-appeasing pheromones (DAP) which are based on the hormones produced by mother dogs to calm their pups.
Dog-appeasing pheromones are available in sprays, collars and even electric diffusers. A study1 performed in 54 dogs in an animal shelter showed that after 7 days, rescue dogs who were exposed to these pheromones barked a lot less, and less loudly. Other fear and stress-related behaviours were also reduced.
Another natural solution is Valerian, a flower whose roots have been used for centuries to treat dog anxiety, insomnia and stress. I found it especially helpful for both dogs and cats when they needed to visit the clinic.
Finally, don’t forget about essential oils. Shelter dogs2 who were exposed to chamomile and lavender barked less and moved less anxiously than dogs who were not (similar to how these two scents create calming effects in humans.)
Have you had any success with non-pharmaceutical treatments for dog anxiety? Let us know in the comments below!