How to Help Your Anxious or Reactive Dog
How to Help Your Anxious or Reactive Dog
Uncontrollable barking at any people or other animals spotted while out for a walk, nearly pulling out of the leash while lunging at someone walking past, seeming like they may break through a window or door while trying to escape the house to get at an innocuous visitor or passerby…these all look like the behaviors of an out-of-control aggressive dog. However, it is more likely that these are the behaviors of a dog with severe anxiety. Dogs with anxiety do not want to hurt anyone; they just want to protect themselves from perceived threats - and nearly every stimulus in their environment feels like a threat. Unfortunately, these dogs are often misunderstood and mishandled, making their anxiety even greater. Worse, they are often mislabeled as aggressive and given up, which means it is unlikely that they will ever get the help that could change their lives.
While it isn’t an easy road, healing – or at least managing – a dog’s anxiety is possible. With proper consistent training and a few lifestyle adjustments, these dogs can be calmer and less reactive, making life with and for them a lot less stressful.
Why Does My Dog Feel Anxious?
Anxiety in dogs can occur for several reasons. One may simply be genetics. Your dog may have inherited an anxious predisposition and it is just the way her brain is wired. Other dogs may have developed anxiety as a result of early life experiences, such as inappropriate or lack ofs ocialization, insufficient training, a scary experience, or, sadly, abuse(akc.org). Your dog’s anxiety may also be a result of chronic pain or illness. It is most likely that a combination of genetics and environment worked together to create your dog’s anxiety.
What Are Anxious Reactive Behaviors?
There are some behavioral cues that your dog is anxious that may be present even when your dog is calm. These include excessive yawning, keeping the tail tucked, lip licking, drooling, panting, over-grooming, and scratching (petmd.com). If your dog does these things regularly, she may be anxious, meaning that she is always on guard against threats, whether they are real or not. As her anxiety escalates or when your dog is in a situation in which she feels threatened, she will show aggressive behaviors, such as stiffening her body, keeping her tail raised, growling, widening her eyes, and showing her teeth (akc.org). Once her arousal instincts take over, she will bark and lunge at whatever is making her nervous. She will seem out of control and, in a way, she is, as she will be operating under powerful instincts for self-preservation.
What Can I Do to Help My Anxious Reactive Dog?
As with any issue, the first step in helping your anxious dog is to visit your veterinarian. Your veterinarian can determine whether or not your dog’s anxiety is due to illness or injury. If it is determined that there is no underlying illness or injury causing the anxiety, then your veterinarian is the best person to discuss with you options for treating your dog’s anxiety with medications or supplements.
In addition, some other things you can do to help your dog include avoiding stressful situations, helping your dog to get plenty of exercise, hiring a specialized trainer or behaviorist, and creating a safe space for your dog (petmd.com). First, together with your veterinarian, identify those situations that cause your dog stress and try to avoid them. For example, if your dog is stressed out by other dogs, then you should avoid going to places where you know there will be other dogs, such as the dog park or dog friendly hiking trails. When you take your dog for walks, try to go at times when you know there won’t be many other dogs out. Second, be sure to get your dog plenty of exercise in order to reduce anxiety levels. Exercise is a great natural way to help your dog feel calm and tired out. Take long walks, play fetch and catch, or do whatever your dog’s favorite physical activity is as much as possible every day to keep your dog’s anxiety at bay. Third, consider working with a trainer or animal behaviorist who specializes in working with anxious dogs. It will take time and consistency, but anxious animals can learn how to not react to their anxiety with aggressive behaviors through gentle exposure and appropriate training. Finally, consider setting aside a space in your home to be your dog’s safe go-to space and teach her that it is comforting to go there whenever she feels anxious. If there is a thunderstorm or fireworks, you are having guests, getting a delivery, or having work done in your home, your dog can go to her safe space to feel calm and comfortable until the stressor passes. This should be a cozy space from which your dog cannot leave on her own and where there is nothing that can accidentally hurt her. A crate in a quiet room is a good option. Consider using a white noise machine to drown out loud sounds that may frighten your dog and remember to check on her to make sure she doesn’t need you.
If you live with an anxious reactive dog, you don’t have to simply keep her at home all the time or surrender her to a shelter. With patience, effort, and help from your veterinarian, you can help your animal companion to feel more comfortable and be less reactive. This will greatly improve both her life and yours.