‘A’ is for anxiety

sad dog

Our canine companions have the average intelligence of a 2 ½ year old child…..Can they suffer anxiety? What causes it? What would that look like? And what can be done?

Firstly, let’s take a closer look at the ‘A’ word….. . Anxiety means ‘the anticipation of future danger or misfortune’. Sometimes this can be a perfectly normal reaction to a dangerous situation but sometimes it can be abnormal, irrational and damaging to the individual’s wellbeing.

Quiz question: Is anxiety real or imaginary? At some point in our history the brain underwent a divorce where the parts of the brain that drive behavior and emotions became isolated from the sensory, motor and higher processing areas. This divorce gave birth to two separate areas of study: neurology and psychology. This led to mental health being viewed as less scientific and more mystical and imaginary. The fact is that behavior problems are caused by real anatomical or chemical abnormalities in a brain. Behavioral problems are every bit as real a disease as epilepsy, diabetes or arthritis. Anxiety is a disease that responds very well to treatment programmes developed from current scientific research.

Can dogs get anxiety? Absolutely! Dogs are mammals with complex brains, some of the circuitry is very similar to ours, particularly the parts that respond to stress. They can suffer anxiety as well as a multitude of other behavioural diseases.

What causes anxiety? There are three main drivers for all behaviours: genetics, environment and experience. Genetic factors are frequently heritable, passed from generation to generation. Environmental factors are not only where the individual finds themselves (or context) but also their internal environment (other health problems). Experience and what they have learnt from it is carefully collected and stored in our dogs memory. But there are other influences too … like epigenetic factors – external influences that alter the production of certain brain chemicals or alter the functioning of brain circuitry.

What does anxiety look like in a dog? Dogs show many physical signs of anxiety including:
• Panting
• Trembling/shaking
• Diarrhoea
• Vomiting
• Breathing rapidly
• Increased heart rate
• Muscle tension and headaches
• Difficulty sleeping or settling
• Yawning when they are not tired
• Licking their lips in the absence of a meal or drink.
• Blinky eyes
• Moving as though in slow motion
• Excessive barking
• Aggressive-type behaviours
• Compulsive type behaviours – such as pacing, spinning, tail chasing or licking
• Attention seeking type behaviours – such as licking people and high pitched vocalisations.
• Difficulty concentrating on training exercises.
• Fidgeting or frantic behaviours.

Use the BARK acronym for identifying signs of anxiety:

Barking excessively
Aggressive behaviours
Repetitive behaviours
Keyed up

Share this acronym with friends and help identify behavior problems early.

What is best practice for treating anxiety?
Think of a school near you, a little boy is having trouble focusing in class and is consequently disruptive to other students. Which of the following is likely to be met with the greatest success for the boy:
a. The training approach: get the boy to stay behind at lunch and after school to learn more.
b. The punishment approach: put the boy in time out.
c. The behavior modification approach: recognise that the behavior is driven by anxiety, seek help from professionals that use strategies to ease worry, calm and build focus.

That’s right, the answer is ‘c’. Anxiety does not respond to training and worsens with punishment. The anxious dog doesn’t need to learn more tricks or manners. It is emotional arousal that needs to be addressed. Best practice is behavior modification which identifies what is driving the individual’s emotional arousal and targets the triggers helping the individual to feel safer and be calmer. Calm brains work better!

Be realistic about outcomes, it may take time for your dog to feel better. Be proactive, Kalmpets can help to manage your dog’s anxiety and reduce its effects on their life and wellbeing.

Dr Kate

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