There Are No Bad Dogs Part 3: Anxiety
In the dog walking and pet sitting business we deal with all types of anxiety more than we deal with any other behavioral issue. People don't tend to call dog walkers and pet sitters when they need a dog trainer or a dog behaviorist but when their dog just can't be left alone for long periods of time we are the ones that get called in. Anxiety is near and dear to me as our dog Riley came to us with separation anxiety which I detailed in a previous post. Separation anxiety is just one type of anxiety but it is the most common when adopting or rescuing a dog and it is the one people call a dog walker or pet sitter for.
Dogs can also be anxious about meeting other dogs, strange people, and we've even seen a dog display anxiety about yard signs. The most common cause of anxiety in dogs is the same as other behavioral issues and has roots in a lack of socialization during the early stages of their life but can also come from being taken away from their mother too soon or negative experiences with certain objects. Part of operant conditioning is learning to avoid negative stimulus so if a dog or puppy comes to associate a situation as negative they will seek to avoid it and if they cannot avoid it then they may enter an anxious state.
Think about a dog's reaction to thunderstorms and how dogs that are anxious during storms will seek out tight spaces, pant, shake, and display other signs of anxiety. A good solution to this type of anxiety is a thundershirt. A t-shirt that tightly wraps around a dog and makes them feel comfortable. It comes from the research by Temple Grandin and the squeeze machine she originally designed for herself and then used in slaughterhouses to make the animals experience as calming as possible. Thundershirts can work for other types of anxiety as the pressure they provide causes the dog to release endorphins and enter a relaxed state.
A dog's fear of thunder has a perfectly logical biological explanation. Thunder means lightning and lightning for a wild dog can mean fire and death. Separation anxiety is also easy to understand from a biological point of view as dogs are pack animals and being left alone or abandoned can have quite a negative impact on their chance for survival.
When we dealt with Riley's separation anxiety we lacked a lot of the knowledge we later picked up but the methods we used would be the same although we would now employ aids like a thundershirt, calming tabs, ready remedy, and plenty of treats when he displayed the desired behavior. The first and most important thing to remember when dealing with an anxious dog is they are not doing anything out of malice. They are not bad dogs and should never be scolded no matter what they destroy or what other types of messes you come home to. When I first got Riley I had to leave him alone. He destroyed our blinds in his effort to escape and also defecated on the floor. Crating or confining a dog with separation anxiety is one of the worst things that can be done and will only make it worse. It is a process to desensitize them to your leaving but it is one well worth doing.
Riley is now a calm and well behaved dog. We just had to take the time and help him get over his anxiety and turn a negative experience into one that had no effect on him by desensitizing him to every step we took to get ready to leave. It is a long and time consuming process and one that has to be done by the person the dog is attached to. Riley would show no reaction or care o the fact that Lara was still at home. When I got ready to go he started pacing and whining and displaying signs of anxiety. As soon as I left he would rush the window and destroy anything that blocked his view of outside. Separation anxiety is common in rescue dogs but it is treatable and aids like a thundershirt, calming tabs, and ready remedy can help to make the process easier on both dog and human.
It is also important that your arrival home comes with as little fanfare as possible. Ignore your dog as much as possible until they calm down. They must learn that your return like your leaving is not an event but an occurrence that is going to happen during the course of the day. Once your dog is calm and not jumping or displaying over exuberehant signs of excitement then greet them with some gentle pets on the side and tell them they are good. The most important thing, as with any dog behavior, is to remember there are no bad dogs and scolding the dog will only make the process longer and create more anxiety as your return home will become a less than pleasant experience for your dog.