Fireworks and thunderstorms to crowded, loud parks and beaches are enough to make some dogs fearful and anxious. Being startled by a loud noise or feeling uneasy about a new experience is a normal reaction for a dog. But when a dog has an extreme reaction to noise or a situation, it may be a sign of a developing phobia, fear, or anxiety disorder. Anxiety could worsen and lead to behavioral problems that negatively impact family life with the pet if the condition is left untreated.
“There are different types of anxiety in dogs. The causes can range from a genetic disposition to being a learned behavior. For this reason, it’s best not to try solving the problem on your own. A veterinarian should examine the dog to rule out a medical condition and discuss treating dog anxiety with you. Depending on exam findings, the next step may be consulting with a board-certified behaviorist for diagnosis and treatment,” says Dr. Lois Palin, an associate veterinarian with Doylestown Veterinary Hospital & Holistic Pet Care.
A board-certified veterinary behaviorist has advice for treating dog anxiety.
Dr. Laurie Bergman is a board-certified veterinary behaviorist with Hickory Veterinary Hospital in Plymouth Meeting, PA. She completed her residency in Veterinary Behavior at the University of California, Davis, and received Board certification in 2003. She offers pet parents three essential tips for handling a dog showing signs of distress.
Tip #1: Do not punish your dog for a negative reaction.
“The first step for pet parents is understanding their pet’s body language and recognizing what an anxious dog can look like,” says Dr. Bergman.
Dr. Bergman explained the 4 F’s of possible reactions:
- Fight – Most aggression is grounded in anxiety. Signs can include barking and growling.
- Flight – A dog may run out an open door, jump a fence, or dig vigorously to escape. Sometimes, a flight reaction can be as simple as moving to the other side of a room and objecting to being touched.
- Freeze – Freezing is learned helplessness resulting in a dog being too scared to move.
- Fidget – Opposite of freezing is the inability to be still. A dog that paces or cannot relax (sit or lie down) is showing signs of low-level anxiety.
Punishment can cause your dog to become more fearful, therefore increasing the level of overall anxiety. Dr. Palin explains that often the punishment for getting into the garbage or chewing on furniture due to separation anxiety is a delayed punishment that the dog does not associate with the anxiety. Continued punishment can break the bond of trust with the pet parent, possibly leading to aggression and other signs of worsening anxiety.
Tip #2: Remove the dog from the situation that produces the stress or fearful reaction.
Repeatedly exposing your dog to the stress-inducing situation as a means of desensitization is not recommended. Ongoing exposure to the stimulus combined with a punishment for the negative reaction can result in a severe condition.
Fireworks, thunderstorms, or a car trip to the veterinary office are often unavoidable, temporary situations. Depending on the level of anxiety, one natural option includes outfitting the pet in a pressure wrap like a Thundershirt® or wrapping the pet snuggly in a blanket. In cases involving thunder or fireworks, Dr. Palin also suggests placing the pet in an interior room of the home with soft music or other ambient noise to help the pet feel more comfortable.
Tip #3: Seek veterinary help before treating dog anxiety.
“See your veterinarian first to sort out the situation before you try to manage your dog’s reactions with training or over-the-counter products. Often, by the time a pet parent is coming to their veterinarian for help with their dog’s anxiety, the behavioral problems have become serious. There’s not a magic pill that will make a dog’s anxiety instantly go away, but there are circumstances when medications can be helpful,” adds Dr. Palin.
Medication should not be the only tool in treating an anxiety disorder. Dr. Bergman develops a behavior modification plan for clients based on their pet’s diagnosis. Parents can help their anxious pets feel better with a custom plan and the right trainer. Only an experienced trainer who uses positive reinforcement techniques should work with the dog.
“Prescribing medications depends on the case,” says Dr. Bergman. “Puppies showing signs of anxiety can be treated differently than an adult dog might be treated. The causes of a puppy’s fear or anxiety can be managed very early. Medications may not always be necessary. However, some adult dogs do better during behavior modification with the use of medications. Medication can help the dog relax, which increases the dog’s ability to learn during the behavior modification process,” adds Dr. Bergman.
A veterinarian should be the first resource in diagnosing and treating a dog for an anxiety disorder. Never punish a pet for a negative reaction, and remove the pet from the anxiety-inducing situation. Severe reactions to a situation that are based on fear or distress are not easily “trained” out of a dog. Sedating a dog with an anxiety disorder without implementing a behavior modification plan only masks the symptoms; medications do not resolve the root cause of the stress and the unwanted, often destructive, behaviors.